It has been almost four years since the last revision of Microsoft Office for the Mac, and Macintosh users can be forgiven for getting a little impatient. We heard all the buzz about the radical interface makeover for Office 2007 for Windows, and we wondered what user-interface goodies might be waiting for us.

While we waited, alternatives presented themselves. Apple's Pages, part of the company's iWork '08 suite that arrived last autumn, challenges the standard conception of word processing by blending in a generous helping of page layout. And open-source suites such as NeoOffice have duplicated and gone beyond what Microsoft Office has to offer.

After all that, what would the granddaddy of office suites have in store?

Microsoft Word 2008 review

Microsoft Excel 2008 review

Microsoft PowerPoint 2008 review

Microsoft Entourage 2008 review

Well, it's safe to say that no one will really be startled by the way Office 2008 has turned out. The weight of history is too great to allow any really radical changes. There are established expectations of what users should be able to do with the programs, legacy documents that need to be able to opened and a world of Windows Office users whom Mac users need to exchange files with.

As a result, instead of drastically rethinking its Office suite, Microsoft has focused - mostly successfully - on making what's already there more accessible and easier to use. If there were features in Word, Excel or PowerPoint that you never knew about or just couldn't figure out how to use, chances are Office 2008 will either help you find them or help you use them.


New suitewide features
Office 2008 for Mac comes in three different flavours. The standard product (£349.95; upgrade price £219.95) includes Word 2008, Excel 2008, PowerPoint 2008 and Entourage 2008. The Special Media Edition (£449.95; upgrade price £299.95) adds the Expression Media digital asset management system, which works with a Microsoft Exchange server. And the Home and Student Edition costs £99.95, with no upgrade pricing available.

Microsoft's stated goals for Office for Mac 2008 are similar to those announced for Windows Office 2007: To make it easier for users to access the wealth of features these programs offer. This goal is addressed through additions to the interface that don't get in the way when you don't use them but easily open up new and obscure features. The changes to the interface aren't nearly as drastic as those introduced in Office 2007, and the new features aren't earth-shaking, but they are welcome.

The new Office applications are universal, which means they run natively on Intel Macs. Reviewers who tested Office on Intel-based Macs (see individual reviews) have reported that Office runs faster on those machines than Office 2004 does, and that's probably true, since Office no longer needs the Rosetta translation layer that enables applications built for PowerPC Macs to run on Intel machines.

However, on my G5 iMac, I found that the Office 2008 doesn't run as fast as the previous version. For example, Word often lags behind my typing speed. And as I type this, my OS X Activity Monitor shows that Word 2008 is using between 20% and 50% of my CPU; when I work on this same document using Word 2004, CPU usage never rose above 15%. As a result, Office users who are still using older PowerPC Macs should probably think twice about upgrading. (It is worth mentioning, though, that in three weeks of constant use, Office 2008 didn't crash or freeze once.)

Office 2008 uses the Open XML file formats Microsoft introduced with Office 2007. You can still save in the older formats, and you can open and work on old-format files in Compatibility Mode. Over the weeks that I used Office, my sense was that Compatibility Mode ran a little slower than native mode, and I wound up converting older files to Open XML and then saving them back in the older formats for sharing.


Two new major features
Office 2008 offers two prominent features common to all three of the content-creation applications (Word, Excel and PowerPoint) that make it easier to find the many features the programs offer and easier to use them once found: the Elements Gallery and the Object Palette.

The Elements Gallery is an unobtrusive set of tabs that appears above the document window and below the other tool bars in all three applications. These tabs offer quick access to new features and to features that were previously scattered among different menus. These tabs include those for Charts, SmartArt Graphics and WordArt (an assortment of typographic special effects).

Besides the common tabs, of course, each program also has its own set of tabs. In Word, for example, there are also tabs for document elements and quick tables, while in Excel you get sheets, and PowerPoint has slide themes, slide layouts and transitions.

The second suitewide feature is a new integrated floating palette. This multipurpose palette incorporates the previous Formatting Palette and Toolbox, and adds a new Object Palette and a program-specific tool. You switch from palette to palette within the same, uh, palette by clicking tabs across the top, reminiscent of the Inspector palette in iWork and other recent Mac programs.

The Object Palette gives quick access to shapes, clip art, symbols (such as fractions and math and currency symbols) and your iPhoto library. Having a button to get right to your photos is a nice idea, but on my machine, loading the library left me looking at the spinning beach ball for so long that I was reaching for the Force Quit keys by the time it finally came up. Maybe it's faster on an Intel Mac, but for me it would take less time just to open iPhoto and export the image I wanted.

Each program's Formatting Palette now features a section for document themes. Themes consist of predefined colour combinations (similar to the longstanding slide colour schemes in PowerPoint) and fonts that are supposed to work well together. The Apex theme, for example, combines Lucida Sans and Book Antiqua with a set of greyed-out blues and browns, while Flow combines Calibri and Constantia (two of Microsoft's new Office fonts) with blues and greens.

Choose a Theme, and the theme colours and associated tints are added to the standard colours in all the colour palettes, while the fonts are put at the top of the Font list and incorporated into the document's predefined styles. Themes are a quick way to get a nice-looking if not dazzling document (and dazzling is often best left to the pros).

Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac: Specs

  • A Mac computer with an Intel, PowerPC G5, or PowerPC G4 (500 MHz or faster) processor
  • Mac OS X version 10.4.9 or later
  • 512MB of RAM or more
  • 1.5GB of available hard disk space
  • HFS+ hard disk format (also known as Mac OS Extended or HFS Plus)
  • DVD drive or connection to a local area network (if installing over a network)
  • 1024x768 or higher resolution-monitor
  • Entourage and certain features require internet access (fees may apply). For Office 2008 for Mac and Office 2008 for Mac Special Media Editions: Connectivity to Microsoft Exchange Server 2000 or later is required for certain advanced functionality in Entourage 2008
  • A Mac computer with an Intel, PowerPC G5, or PowerPC G4 (500 MHz or faster) processor
  • Mac OS X version 10.4.9 or later
  • 512MB of RAM or more
  • 1.5GB of available hard disk space
  • HFS+ hard disk format (also known as Mac OS Extended or HFS Plus)
  • DVD drive or connection to a local area network (if installing over a network)
  • 1024x768 or higher resolution-monitor
  • Entourage and certain features require internet access (fees may apply). For Office 2008 for Mac and Office 2008 for Mac Special Media Editions: Connectivity to Microsoft Exchange Server 2000 or later is required for certain advanced functionality in Entourage 2008

OUR VERDICT

From some angles, the overall question of whether you should upgrade to Office 2008 is a no-brainer. Office 2008 is as close as you can get to a universal app, and all of the changes I explored are improvements or at least potentially worthwhile additions - why not get it? Well, maybe you've never needed compatibility with Office and have found alternative programs you like better, or you're perfectly happy with one of the open-source alternatives (or you just hate Microsoft). Certainly, if you've been able to get by all this time without Office, there's little reason to buy the 2008 version. But if you do use Office, plan on getting Office 2008. I'd recommend waiting until you get an Intel Mac if you haven't yet, because of the performance hit you'll take compared with Office 2004 on a PowerPC Mac. But aside from that caveat, you'll find that Office 2008 helps you get your work done more quickly and easily than before. You're also likely to start using features that were always there but were too much trouble to bother with, such as using alternating coloured rows in your tables or graphical presentations of ideas on your slides.

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