Not Just Another Day at the Office

Review: Office 2007 Beta 2 shows big potential if users can overcome learning curve

eWeek Labs evaluation of Microsofts Office 2007 beta 2 unearthed compelling features and tools and reminded us why enterprises continue to rely on the productivity suite.

During tests of the second beta of Office 2007, which became available on May 23, we were impressed with the suites collaboration features. In fact, we believe they will be the impetus for dedicated Windows shops to upgrade when Office 2007 ships later in 2006. (The suite will be available to consumers in early 2007.) The suitewide attention to collaboration will enable users and enterprises as a whole to work with information in new and more creative ways.

The collaborative capabilities in Office 2007 range from small improvements, such as making it easy to share an Outlook calendar with others, to providing document workflow hosted on Office SharePoint Server 2007. Peer-to-peer collaboration gets greater emphasis with the inclusion of the Groove 2007 client in the Office Enterprise version, as well as an improvement in OneNote that allows users to directly share notebooks with others. (See related story, Page 40.)

There are some potential user stumbling blocks, though.

Office 2007 introduces a new interface, including a ribbon comprising a combination of tool bars that changes depending on the task a user is working on, as well as the Office button, which replaces the old File menu. It may be difficult for users to get used to the new elements, but we found the interface intuitive and eventually grew comfortable working with it.

Microsoft also introduces in Office 2007 a new XML-based file format—Open XML—for Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Instead of seeing files with the extensions .doc, .xls and .ppt, respectively, users will see .docx, .xlsx and .pptx. This could be confusing and disruptive if a document in the new format is sent to a user with an older version of Office.

These new file formats will be the defaults for Office 2007, but users will still be able to save in Office 1997 to Office 2003 formats. IT managers will need to decide how to handle the new file formats—for example, defaulting to the traditional .doc file format instead of using the Open XML .docx format.

While were happy to see that Microsoft is finally allowing users to save files as PDFs, wed like to see Office 2007 support OASIS ODF (OpenDocument Format) as well.

Microsoft will release several versions of Office 2007, including Office Enterprise and Office Professional Plus, both of which are available to volume-licensing customers only; Office Small Business Edition (which costs $449, or $279 to upgrade); Office Standard (priced at $399, or $239 to upgrade); Office Professional ($499, or $329 to upgrade); and Office Basic (which will be sold only through OEMs). eWeek Labs tested Microsoft Office Professional Plus 2007 Beta 2.

Office 2007 requires a system with Microsoft Windows XP SP (Service Pack) 2 or Microsoft Windows Server 2003 or higher, a 500MHz processor or higher, at least 256MB of RAM, and a DVD drive. Users should be aware that 2GB of disk space is required for installation and that a 1GHz processor and 512MB or more of RAM are required to run Microsoft Outlook 2007 with Business Contact Manager (available with Office Small Business Edition and Office Professional).

During tests, we installed Office 2007 Professional Plus (comprising Access, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, Word, Communicator, InfoPath and Publisher) on a Windows XP SP2-based Dell Latitude D620 laptop with an Intel Core Duo dual-core processor. We also installed the suite on a Micron desktop with Pentium 4 proc-essors and an Nvidia GeForce FX5920 Ultra video card running Windows Vista Beta 2. It took about 10 minutes to install the suite on each of the systems.

The Office 2007 experience will vary depending on your operating system. Office on Windows XP SP2 has a blue default theme; on Vista, Office automatically defaults to Vistas Obsidian, or black, theme. We found that Beta 2 of Office 2007 took greater advantage of Vistas Aero Glass capabilities—particularly in the new ribbon—than earlier betas of the suite.

Word

One of the first things users will notice when they use Word 2007 is the replacement of Times New Roman as the default font with a font called Calibri. The interface is completely new, for that matter, but we found it much easier to access commonly used tools than with previous versions of Office.

In tests, we were able to create documents and then save them in a variety of file formats, including as PDF (finally!) and XPS (XML Paper Specification) documents.

Microsoft officials have said that the new Word XML format will offer a dramatic reduction in file size as well as an improvement in recovery for damaged files. We didnt see an obvious reduction in our file sizes during tests of Beta 2; Microsoft said this will be resolved before Office 2007 is released.

A couple of new features in Word are especially useful: The Document Inspector helps users ensure that all comments and personal information have been removed from Word documents. Word 2007 also now enables users to create blog posts within the Office suite and then post them directly onto an online blog. Users must register or have a blog hosted on MSN Spaces, Blogger, SharePoint or Community Server.

Excel

As with word, excels look and feel also changes with the move to the ribbon. The conditional formatting option, for example, allowed us to use a combination of formatting options for business intelligence purposes. This tool also allowed us to see trends in data more easily.

Using Excel 2007s new charting engine, we were able to build everything from a column chart to an area chart. The area chart really stood out from those weve made in the past with Excel 2000 and 2003.

We also appreciated the fact that Excel supports worksheets as big as 1 million rows by 16,000 columns, allowing users to analyze very large amounts of information.

PowerPoint

Powerpoint 2007 adds the ability to define and save custom slide layouts, so users dont have to cut and paste layouts onto new slides.

When PowerPoint is used in combination with Office SharePoint Server, users can initiate, manage and track review and approval processes from within PowerPoint 2007.

In previous reviews, we have said that we would like to see PowerPoint allow users to export presentations as PDF documents or as Macromedia Flash files. Half of our wish came true: Like the other apps in the suite, Power-Point 2007 can export to PDF; however, it still does not support Macromedia Flash.

Outlook

Outlook 2007 includes many new features that users are likely to appreciate. Navigation also is generally smoother, and many collaborative tasks are easier to accomplish.

While Microsoft has given an extreme makeover to the other core elements of the Office suite, the company has struck a middle ground with Outlook: Some of the user interface elements of Outlook 2003 remain, but new features have been nicely integrated and the Office ribbon has been added to areas in which users create content.

The summary UIs for e-mail, calendar and tasks are very similar to those in Outlook 2003, with only two major changes: a softer Windows XP design and the addition of the expandable To-Do Bar on the right edge of the main screen.

The Outlook Today summary view of e-mail, calendar and tasks hasnt gone away, but the To-Do Bar presents a configurable notification element for the days tasks and events. The bar can be expanded and collapsed in e-mail, contact, journal and task views.

We liked this new look, but it has some negative aspects. For example, the ribbon on the e-mail composition window exposes some less commonly used delivery options, such as setting a delivery time, but requires a couple more clicks to do so.

There are a number of new features within the Outlook calendar system that make it much easier to collaborate with others, including the ability to share calendars both internally and externally—regardless of the back-end server. We particularly liked the feature that allowed us to e-mail other users a copy of our calendar in iCal format to share availability data.

Senior Writer Anne Chen can be reached at anne_chen@ziffdavis.com. Technical Analyst Michael Caton contributed to this review.

Evaluation Shortlist

Microsoft Office 2003 and earlier The file formats exclusive to Microsofts market-leading Office suite are a de facto standard, giving Office a definite edge; versions of Office currently in use will be Office 2007s biggest competitors (www.microsoft.com)

OpenOffice.orgs OpenOffice.org 2.0 The wholly open-source sibling of Suns StarOffice typically offers tighter integration with Linux distributions (www.openoffice.org)

KDE Projects KOffice 1.5.1 For users of Linux and other KDE-supported platforms, KOffice 1.5.1 offers broad functionality and excellent desktop integration (www.koffice.org)