This review appears in the April issue of PC Advisor, on sale now.
A completely new interface, a totally new file format – but will Office 12.0 have any new features? How about much better charts and graphics, time management, building blocks you can re-use in different documents, visualisation tools to colour-code data in Excel, better searches, bigger spreadsheets (up to a million rows and 16,000 columns), easier pivot tables, new ways to email and publish your calendar online – and the Excel clipboard finally works like every other Windows application.
The new ribbon interface puts commands on a series of large toolbars, divided into logical 'chunks' and galleries of styles and options that give you a live preview in your document, as well as buttons to launch more detailed dialog boxes.
You see only one ribbon at a time; the tabs at the top switch you between multiple ribbons that group together tasks for creating mailings in Word or formulae in Excel. When you select tables, graphics or various other objects, you get a context-sensitive tab with the relevant commands for working with it.
Off the menu
There are just two menus left. The File menu is where you'd expect it. It includes an option for stripping out metadata from files you're sharing with others. The View menu is in the bottom-right corner with the zoom control and sometimes seems like a bit of a glory hole, with features such as PowerPoint's master slides that didn't find a better home.
Outlook gets the ribbon only for email, contact and the appointment window, not the main Inbox window. FrontPage (renamed SharePoint Designer), Publisher and InfoPath don't get it at all.
There's also a transparent palette that appears whenever you select text (it's rather amusingly called the Mini Bar). Instead of over-priced alcohol this contains common formatting commands such as Bold and bullet points (the contents may change in Beta 2.0). Ignore it and it fades gracefully out of the way.
The interface is a major change and does take time to get used to. But it's mostly arranged logically, and it finally makes sense of all the features that have been shoehorned into Word, PowerPoint and Excel over the years. And it's a revelation in Access, simplifying the process of creating and using a database.
There are far more new features than we can mention here. One of the best is a graphics engine for charts and diagrams in Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Pick a style from the gallery (the selection is impressive) or choose your own settings; as well as 3D styles you can turn on shadows, reflections, glows and soft edges.
Colour themes work across the same applications. You get multiple tints of recently used colours, as well as a standard set of bright hues. The comprehensive offering makes it very easy to avoid clashes without having everything the same green.
Instead of the same old WordArt that you edit in a dialog box, text effects are live and you get the same design options as for other graphics.
Word 12.0 has new templates that are genuinely useful for page layouts, and it shows you extra templates online from the File dialog. You can also use document parts to get the same address block, drop cap or text-box style in different documents. Excel makes working with tables of data simpler and a new Page Layout view shows exactly what prints on each page, but still lets you edit your spreadsheet. AutoComplete lets you type in formulae rather than picking them from a dialog box that covers all the cells you need to refer to.
PowerPoint makes the most of the new graphics engine and the interface makes things more logical. You can also save custom slide layouts to use next time instead of resizing elements the same way every time. And if you're a fan of the OneNote note-taking software, it's packed with fresh features, from multiple notebooks to automatic character recognition. And there's a version that runs on Windows Mobile smartphones.
Office 12.0 isn't the definitive name for the next version and the brushed grey look isn't the final design. The Office team is still choosing between two potential styles for Beta 2.0. The system requirements here are what you need to run Beta 1.0. Again, that might change for the final release. They don't mention Windows Vista even though the beta code runs perfectly well on Vista Beta 1.0. This is because there's not much point testing two betas together. No date has been set for releasing Beta 2.0, let alone shipping the finished software; all we know so far are spring 2006 and the second half of the year respectively. You won't need Vista to run Office 12.0, but the plan is to release them at the same time.
Keep on track with Outlook 12.0
Do you get too much email? Is it impossible to keep track of the messages you need to deal with? Outlook 12.0 is here to help with some handy new time-management tools.
They're subtle, mind: you don't get a different view or a host of new folders to organise yourself with. Instead, coloured flags are used to tag messages and items with a particular category. It's useful and completely customisable. Click to set a quick reminder (you can make the default today, tomorrow or next week), or right-click to pick a more precise reminder and set an exact category.
Flagged items show up in the task list on the new To-Do bar, which has a one-month calendar for navigating and for just checking dates. It also shows your next few meetings and any invitations, ready for you to click and accept. The To-Do bar means you can stay in your Inbox while keeping on top of everything.
You can also track down messages with a filtered search; as with Windows Desktop Search (and it uses the same index), as you start typing a search word, you see only messages or contacts that match. It works far more quickly than the current search.
Office 12.0's file formats: what you need to know
All the Office 12.0 applications get new file formats. In fact, most of them get two, one for files with macros in and one without (DOCX and DOCXM, XLSX and XLSXM and so on). Instead of the binary formats of previous versions, these are XML files zipped up to save space. Expect them to be something like half the size of previous versions, especially if you use a lot of charts and images. What's more, the XML files are plain text and each element (like individual slides in PowerPoint) gets a separate file in the ZIP. If a file gets corrupted you're likely to lose fewer data than with a single file that has everything in, and you can read the XML text in any text editor. Unlike OpenOffice's Open Document Format, Office XML preserves all the formatting in your document.
You need to move files to the new formats to use all the features in Office 12.0. To keep things portable, if there's a feature that won't work in a file you're saving in .doc format, Word won't let you use it. As well as opening files and saving individually there will be a bulk converter, and a free extension to open, edit and save Office XML files in Office 2000, 2002 and 2003.