Story Highlights• Microsoft Office Standard 2007 costs $399; $239 to upgrade
• Improved integration throughout the applications
• Offers complex features you can't yet find elsewhere
• Drastic design changes demand a steep learning curve
By Elsa Wenzel
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(CNET.com) -- The ambitious, ground-up rebuild of Microsoft Office Standard 2007 presents drastically different interfaces and new file formats.
The new Office looks so unlike its predecessors, it's likely to spark intense love-hate responses from users. This upgrade isn't for everyone: If you're patient, eager to try the latest tools, and willing to relearn most of what you already know about Office, then you may relish the challenge of Office 2007.
Word, Excel, and PowerPoint 2007 can produce more-polished documents and presentations, and Outlook's new scheduling abilities make it a handier communications hub.
Professionals who want to impress clients and co-workers with attractive reports, charts, and slide shows will find this a worthy upgrade. First-time Office users may have an easier time than veteran users getting their bearings.
However, if you only use a small fraction of what Office offers or you felt that getting the hang of Office 2003 (Read review) was painful enough, then you might want to leave Office 2007 on the shelf or try it free for two months first.
We imagine that power users who have mastered the nooks and crannies of the older versions will curse the steep learning curve. But take heed: The new era of Office affects even those who don't upgrade, and a conversion tool is needed to let older Office versions open Office 2007's default, Open XML files.
Office 2007 does offer complex features that you can't yet find elsewhere.
However, it also falls short in key areas. Integration among the applications isn't as thorough as we'd hoped, and there's no one-click way to collaborate with others on an edit without buying Microsoft's Groove online collaboration tool or working within a server setting.
The advent of Office 2007 comes as a growing number of competing tools are simpler, cost less (if they aren't free), and handle the same core features. Oddly, despite its bevy of Windows Live and Office Live services, Microsoft chose not to build a bridge to the Web for all Office users.
We reviewed Microsoft Office Standard 2007, which costs a substantial $399, or $239 to upgrade. This suite includes Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and Outlook in addition to Office Tools that manage language settings and pictures and include a diagnostics tool for use in the event of a crash.
Households that don't need desktop e-mail should opt for Office Home & Student at $149 (no upgrade option), a new suite roughly equivalent to Office Student and Teacher 2003 but with OneNote instead of Outlook.
The Basic package, with Word, Excel, and Outlook, only comes pre-installed on computers sold by manufacturers that have Microsoft software licensing agreements.
At $449 ($279 upgrade), Microsoft Office Small Business 2007 costs $50 less than the Professional edition that includes the Access database program. Only the Enterprise and the $679 ($539 upgrade) Ultimate editions include the new Groove tool.
And oddly both the Enterprise and Professional Plus editions lack the Business Contact Manager component of Outlook, which corporate users might want for their marketing efforts.
However, settle into your chair if you're curious about the fine print. We spent 40 minutes just skimming the 10,379-word End User License Agreement and stopped before we could understand it all.
Here are some of the highlights: You're allowed to install Office 2007 software on two computers; you must agree to download updates whenever Microsoft decides you need them; and Microsoft may verify your license key at any time to make sure that you're not using pirated software. We wished that Microsoft better explained the Internet-based services Office 2007 can connect to.
When we chose to Customize the installation on another PC, the process was more involved. It's too bad that while this process lets you handpick which items to install, it doesn't explain what you'll miss if you reject, say, Office Tools.
And while Microsoft displays your available hard drive space as well as how much of that is needed by your selected set of applications, there's no indication of the size of each individual application and you're left to your subtraction skills here. In the end, we installed everything available.
From that point on, loading the Office suite onto our hard drive took 15 minutes flat. Office Standard 2007 is smaller than its predecessors, at about 3GB.
Unlike the Windows Vista (Read review) operating system, the new Office does not demand the newest hardware.
Office 2007 is supposed to work the same whether running on Windows XP, Windows Server 2003, or Windows Vista. At a minimum, you'll need to have Windows Server 2003 with Service Pack 1 or Windows XP SP2 on a 500MHz processor with 256MB of RAM (512MB or more for Outlook with Business Contact Manager, which comes in the Small Business, Professional, and Ultimate editions).
However, of course, this rules out those still using older versions of Windows.
Although the terms of the EULA were less than transparent, we were pleased that Microsoft offered the least intrusive installation settings by default. For example, Privacy Options leaves it up to users to hook up to online Help automatically, as well as to download a file that continually tracks system problems.
No Office 2007 shortcuts appeared on our desktop or in our system tray, either. The Office Shortcut Bar -- a feature that disappeared in the 2003 version -- is back, located within the Office Tools menu.
Once you open each Office 2007 application, you'll see a radically different, blue interface that's brighter than in the past. Word, Excel, and PowerPoint arrange features within a tabbed Ribbon toolbar that largely replaces the gray drop-down menus and dialog boxes from a quarter-century of Office software.
The Office logo menu, docked in the upper left corner, bundles many commands from the old File and Edit menus. Outlook lacks the logo button and adopts the Ribbon only within its message composition and scheduling windows.
There's a core set of always-on tabs, as well as contextual tabs that hide until the software detects that you need them. For instance, the Picture Tools Format tab only shows up when you click on an image. We were stumped at first about how to format images, tables, and charts until we got used to clicking on them first.
The Office 2007 programs, which share a new graphics engine, strongly emphasize ways to decorate documents. Pull-down Style Galleries let you preview how new fonts, color themes, chart styles, images and such appear before you apply the change.
This is great for selecting from menus of fonts or page templates. At the same time, however, the "intelligent" shape-shifting may bewilder those who don't realize that they must click a style to apply a formatting change. In most cases, the preformatted styles only present colors within the same range already used by your document.
And sometimes the pull-down galleries jut into the document and obscure the charts or images you're trying to change, and you can't turn them off.
Nor do the dynamic previews apply to all style elements. For example, from the Page Layout tab of Word, PowerPoint, and Excel, you can preview Themes of colors and templates by mousing over them. But the Page Borders option takes you to an unhelpful, old-school pop-up box without dynamic previews.
On the one hand, newbies to Office software, particularly young, visual learners, may find the 2007 interface easier to master than Office 2003. Icons label most of the commands, and many expand into pull-down menus. There are inconsistencies, though, such as buttons that open older dialog boxes. And many items have moved to places that we don't find intuitive.
For instance, the dictionary and thesaurus in Word are under the Review tab, not References near the footnote and bibliography buttons. And the Insert Rows command in Excel 2007 is located beneath the Home tab, not the Insert tab. Likewise, PowerPoint's New Slide button is under Home instead of Insert. Notice a pattern? Although the Home tab houses many frequently used features, it's not the first place we look for them.
After more than a year of alternating between Office 2003 and test versions of Office 2007, we still found it hard to break old habits. Microsoft advertises the Ribbon's ability to help you "browse, pick, and click." If you're upgrading, though, you could get stuck in the "browse" stage longer than you'd like, slowing your work.
Rather than piling on more features -- Word 2003 alone had some 1,500 commands -- Microsoft attempted to better show off functions that already existed. To some extent, the Ribbon meets this goal, as it's easier to find Conditional Formatting in Excel, among other sophisticated tools. And the View tab in Word and Excel better provides options for viewing two or three open documents at once.
You can customize Word, Excel, and PowerPoint to some extent, such as by adding buttons to the small, Quick Access Toolbar, but not as much as with their predecessors.
Luckily, keyboard shortcuts remain the same; just press ALT at any time to see tiny "badges" that label the quick keys for the Ribbon's commands. We like that you can hide the Ribbon by double-clicking on any tab. Plus, Microsoft has killed Clippy, the annoying animated pop-up assistant that would interrupt your work in Office 2003. A subtle new quick formatting toolbar in Word 2007 fades in and out near your cursor.
Overall, our favorite interface tweak is the slider bar in the lower right corner that lets you zoom in and out with ease.
Many of the changes to Office 2007 feel skin deep. By that, we mean that there's a strong emphasis on making documents, spreadsheets, and presentations easier on the eyes.
You can adjust the brightness of images, for instance, and add 3D effects such as drop shadows and glows to pictures and charts. And many of the features that might appear new are simply easier to stumble upon in the new interface. The useful Document Inspector provides old and new ways to clean up hidden metadata in files. But don't expect too many new features.
Word 2007 offers some basic tools that you'd otherwise look to in desktop publishing programs such as Microsoft Publisher or Adobe InDesign. A host of new templates as well as preformatted styles and SmartArt diagrams let you dress up reports, flyers, and so on with images and charts.
However, you can't precisely control the placement of design elements on the page as you can with professional publishing software. And for wordsmiths who just work with plain old text, there's little need to upgrade. There's a new method of comparing document drafts side by side, but you still can't post a password-protected file to the Web without having Groove or server tools.
At the same time, academic researchers should appreciate the Review tab's handy pull-down menus of footnotes, citations, and tables of content. And Word's new blogging abilities might be handy, but even its cleaned-up HTML is far more cluttered than we'd like.
We find that the Ribbon layout in Excel improves its usefulness for working with complex spreadsheets. For instance, scientists and other researchers can access all the formulas in handy pull-down menus. You can make deeper data sorts and work with as many as a million rows.
It's easier to find the Conditional Formatting for drawing heat maps or adding icons in order to display data patterns. Plus, along with the other glossier graphics throughout Office, Excel charts get a facelift.
You'll probably want to upgrade to PowerPoint 2007 if you frequently depend upon professional-looking slide shows to help close a deal. The new template themes are more attractive and less flat-looking than those of the past, although there's little new in the way of managing multimedia content.
Among the four applications in Office Standard, Outlook 2007 provides the most practical improvements. To start, it lets you drag tasks and e-mail messages to the calendar, a long-awaited feature that makes scheduling more simple. The new To-Do Bar's task and calendar overview and the ability to flag an e-mail for follow up at a specific time are terrific for time management.
Outlook's built-in RSS reader is useful if you manage lots of news feeds, but we were disappointed that it matches up only with RSS feeds in Internet Explorer 7 and not other browsers. We also wish there were a simpler way of organizing e-mail messages than in nested folders and Search Folders. Tagging messages by subject might be nice, as Gmail allows.
The new Instant Search -- which lets you troll through e-mail messages, calendar entries, to-do items, and contacts -- improves upon Outlook 2003's clutzy lookups. Plus, Outlook's new protection against junk mail and phishing scams disables suspicious links.
But Outlook 2007 uses Word 2007's HTML standards rather than those of Internet Explorer 7, which could make some of your newsletters look lopsided when compared with their appearance in Outlook 2003.
When sending e-mail attachments from Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, the Outlook composition window opens with all of its formatting options. Integration has improved throughout the applications, but it's not fully there yet.
For instance, we like that you can tinker with a chart's appearance within Word and PowerPoint while managing the connected data in Excel at the same time. You can click through a preview of a PowerPoint slide show attached to an Outlook e-mail message. But why can't you get a quick, split-pane view of two applications at once at any other time?
We're disappointed at the current lack of integration with Web-based services. If you don't want to buy Groove to collaborate with other Groove users, and you're not using Office on a shared office server, then you'll have to turn to a third-party service, such as Zoho Writer, Google Docs & Spreadsheets, and ThinkFree to upload and collaborate on documents without having to e-mail them around.
We had hoped to see such capabilities added, perhaps in the form of tie-ins to Microsoft's Windows Live or Office Live.
Every application saves work in the new, Office Open XML formats (see our guide and video). Look for an X in the new document extension: DOCX replaces DOC, XLSX replaces XLS, and so forth. The 2007 documents, presentations, and spreadsheets squeeze more data into fewer kilobytes than their predecessors did. If a file becomes corrupted, you should be able to recover its contents better than in the past because the files store text, images, macros, and other elements separately.
Note that when you open older Office files with the 2007 applications, you'll work in the Compatibility Mode with fewer features until you convert files to the new format. And as with the release of Office 1997, you can't open a file with the new extension right away when using earlier versions of the programs.
What if you have the new software but need to share work with people who have not upgraded? The 2007 applications let you save backward-compatible files, but not by default. Those who are running Word 2003 or 2000 and need to open a Word 2007 DOCX file have to download a one-time Compatibility Pack.
Service and support
Boxed editions of Microsoft Office 2007 include a decent, 174-page Getting Started guide. During the first 90 days, you can contact tech support by toll-free phone number for free between 5:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. Pacific on weekdays, and 6:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. on weekends.
Help at any time with any security-related or virus problems also costs nothing.
Beyond that, paid telephone and e-mail support costs a painfully high $49 per incident. It could take up to a business day to receive an e-mail response. You'll pay an outrageous $245 per incident ($490 after hours) for telephone help with "advanced" issues, most of which apply to businesses. Luckily, Microsoft's online help is excellent, although we're displeased that Microsoft and other software makers are increasingly promoting do-it-yourself assistance.
That said, we especially like the Command Reference Guides for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, which walk you through where commands have moved since Office 2003.
You can also pose questions to the large community of Microsoft Office users via free support forums and chats. And the included Microsoft Office Diagnostics installation is designed to detect and repair problems if something goes haywire.
Should you upgrade to Microsoft Office 2007?
It depends on how you work. If you're style-conscious and want to play with new document templates, then Office 2007 should please you. Outlook outshines its predecessors if you need to lean on it daily to manage meetings and tasks.
At the same time, if you already use few of the features of Office 2003 or earlier and are getting along well, then there's little need to spend hundreds of dollars on the new software.
The radical new interface of Office 2007 applications is here to stay, and it's likely to spawn some copycats. For a software package with so many layers of features, it makes sense to cluster functions within icons and tabs rather than a hodgepodge of menu boxes.
At the same time, we think that some users will find the dynamic tabs and galleries more distracting than useful. We anticipate that some makers of rival Office software will capitalize on Office 2007's steep learning curve and try to attract users with the relative simplicity of applications with pull-down menu interfaces that look and feel more like Office 2003 and earlier.
Because Microsoft has opened some of the Office 2007 source code to developers, prepare to see all sorts of add-ins, such as additional interface tabs, from third party developers.
At this point, however, Microsoft hasn't created a gallery on its Web site to help you find such extras. Office 2007 doesn't approach the simplicity of upstart, Web-based alternatives, but it better serves up myriad features, and it's much less bloated than in the past.
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