At its Professional Developers Conference last year, Microsoft gave the world its first look at Windows 7 in the form of a pre-beta release that struck me as practically ready for prime time-a good sign for a Windows release tasked with restoring user confidence following the little-loved Windows Vista.
At this year's show, the company has arranged a beta debut for its other flagship product, Office, which has its own unenviable task: getting organizations and individuals excited about undertaking a major upgrade of a platform whose previous versions have been handling users' productivity chores just fine for going on 10 years now.
Like that Windows 7 pre-beta I evaluated last year, the beta release of Office 2010 has performed with striking stability and polish in my tests. Even many of the help pages, which I always expect to be missing from development releases, have appeared right where I've needed them as I've trawled through the product.
As for the question of how to stoke user interest in a product upgrade that lacks a flaky elder sibling, the Office team has gone beyond its typical "more handsome, more handy" playbook to expand the reach of Office beyond the PC to include the Web and mobile devices in a manner more meaningful than in previous iterations of the suite.
Even if broadened Web access options and more SharePoint-orchestrated collaboration choices aren't the driver for upgrading to 2010, I imagine that most Office users will find items out of those handsome and handy categories to like in the new release.
Setting aside enhancements in the areas of cut and paste, picture and video editing, data visualization, and Web-based access to Excel and PowerPoint that I discussed in my review of the Office 2010 Technical Preview release, I took note in the Office 2010 Beta of new ways to slice and dice data in Excel, a raft of application-building enhancements in Access, and new uses for the side pane in Word.
Microsoft is making the beta release of Office 2010 available for download through MSDN.
I conducted my tests of the suite on a single-core desktop machine with 1GB of RAM and running the 32-bit version of Windows 7. I also tested on a virtual machine running the 64-bit version of Windows 7, as well as on a VM running 32-bit Windows XP Service Pack 3.
Office ran happily on all three setups. However, I missed the opportunity to test Microsoft's new PowerPivot add-on for Excel, which expands the maximum number of rows that Excel can crunch well beyond the app's typical million-row limit, due to problems I experienced with the add-on's installer.
Look for coverage of PowerPivot-as well as of Outlook, PowerPoint and other 2010 features-in our future reviews of the Office suite.