Microsoft Office 2010 Boosts Core Features, Branches Out onto the Web

 
 
By Jason Brooks  |  Posted 2010-05-26
 
 
 

Microsoft Office 2010 Boosts Core Features, Branches Out onto the Web


After an Office 2007 release packed with file format and interface overhauls that many users and organizations found challenging to digest, Microsoft returns to a smaller, more familiar-size release with Office 2010, which became available earlier this month for volume license customers, and is set to hit retail next week.

As with most other Office releases, the 2010 version introduces plenty of enticements for upgraders: new features for producing slick-looking documents, spreadsheets and presentations; interface tweaks for surfacing and, in some places, tamping down the slicker-output features from previous releases; and more hooks into SharePoint Server 2010, which shipped alongside Office 2010, for more tightly knitting knowledge workers.

For instance, the biggest interface tweak in Office 2010 is probably the addition of a "backstage area" to replace what had been the "File" menu drop-down in earlier versions of Office. In each application in the suite, these backstage areas house "meta document" options, such as those for saving, opening, printing or exporting. In Outlook, the backstage area contains account and folder settings, alongside import and export options. In PowerPoint, I visited the backstage area of a presentation with embedded video to shrink the size of my video for different sorts of distribution.

Another relatively mundane but useful set of enhancements in Office 2010 revolve around cutting and pasting. In response to research that indicated that the most common action that users take after pasting a chunk of content into an Office document is hitting the undo button, the team added new pre- and post-paste features, housed in context-sensitive Smart Tags, for reducing the need to hit undo. For instance, in Excel, I entered the number 1 in the first cell of a spreadsheet column, grabbed the corner of the cell with my mouse, and dragged down 30 or so rows. Excel filled each cell in the set with a 1, and spawned a Smart Tag to ask if I'd intended to fill the cells with a series of numbers-1, 2, 3 and so on.

Modest enhancements and interface tweaks aside, Office 2010 is a major release, if not for the way it churns up existing components than for the way it expands Office onto new platforms and devices. Office 2010 marks the debut of a slate of Web-based Office applications that are available in hosted, on premises or free, ad-supported forms. What's more, these applications boast uncharacteristically broad support for non-Microsoft products-the apps support Mozilla's Firefox, Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome Web browsers nearly as well as Microsoft's own Internet Explorer.

As they stand now, the Web apps are much thinner in terms of features and extensibility that the better-established Web app offerings from Google and Zoho. Feature limitations aside, at sites that store documents on a SharePoint 2010 server, I can imagine the Office Web Apps seeing frequent use for previewing documents and carrying out minor edits. 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.

Moving forward, I'll be interested to see how Microsoft moves forward adding new features and improvements to its Web Apps. In particular, I'll be paying attention to how well the company handles the challenge of rolling out improvement not only on the Web Apps instances Microsoft hosts itself, but also on the various on-premises installations of its Office and SharePoint customers.

Office 2010 will be available at retail in a number of different editions, including Home and Student, Home and Business, and Professional editions, priced at between $150 and $500. Microsoft has done away with the upgrade pricing discounts that were available for Office 2007 and previous versions of the suite. For volume license customers, Office 2010 is available in Standard and Professional Plus editions. The Standard edition includes Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, OneNote, and Publisher, as well as access to Office Web Apps. The Professional Plus edition adds SharePoint Workspace (formerly known as Groove), InfoPath and Microsoft Communicator. For more information on Office 2010 editions and pricing, see: http://office2010.microsoft.com/en-us/buy/office-2010-pricing-information-HA101810737.aspx.

I conducted most of my Office 2010 tests on virtual machines with between 1 and 2 GB of RAM running the 64-bit version of Windows 7, or the 32-bit version of Windows XP SP3. Office 2010 ran happily on every configuration I tested. I tested the Office Web Apps from Internet Explorer 8 running on Windows 7 and Windows XP SP3, as well as from Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox running on the Ubuntu 10.04 and Fedora 13 Linux distributions. I tested the Office Web Apps hosted from a SharePoint Server 2010 instance running in our lab, and from a beta version of Microsoft's Office Live service.

Office 2010 is the first version of the suite to be available in 64-bit, as well as 32-bit versions. The suite installs its 32-bit version by default, whether or not you're running a 64-bit operating system. I didn't test the 64-bit versions of the applications.

Web Apps 

The aspect of the Office 2010 release that's most fascinated me is the extension of the suite to include Web-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. Office 2010 isn't the first version of the suite to reach out to the Web, but it is the first release to enable users to get at least some of their Office work done through a Web browser. What's more, as with the version of Outlook Web Access that ships with Exchange 2010, the new Office Web Apps are designed to run well not only on the Windows-only Internet Explorer, but on the cross-platform friendly Firefox, Safari and Chrome browsers.

After testing the Office Web Apps in their in-development and final versions over the past several months, I'd say that the while Apps are off to a solid start in these areas of usefulness and cross-platform support, there's still plenty of work to be done before they catch up to the better-established office Web application offerings from Google and Zoho. Basic features such as a word count function in Word are missing, and the Office Web Apps offer a much narrower range of file format options than either Google and Zoho or the full-sized Office applications.

With that said, the Office Web Apps do shine rather brightly for their handling of Office's default file formats. The Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents I tested with rendered well in my test browsers, offering the best route I've seen for viewing an Office document as intended without having a copy of Office installed. In addition, the print function in the Web Apps does an excellent job converting Office documents to PDF format.

I tested the Office Web Apps from a SharePoint Server 2010 instance running in our lab, and from a test version of Microsoft's Windows Live service. From Windows Live, I found new options for creating, editing and viewing Office documents using Office Web Apps. I could start by uploading an existing document or starting a new one. On our SharePoint, I couldn't figure out how to create a new document from scratch-the New Document options I found in SharePoint directed me only to a file upload function.

I uploaded a Word document stored in the binary .DOC format to our SharePoint instance, and could readily view it from my browser. When I opted to "edit in browser," the server alerted me that it would have to convert my document to the newer, .DOCX format in order for me to edit it. The same went for dealing with PowerPoint and Excel documents stored in the earlier format. I uploaded a different document stored in the OpenDocument Format-the default format for OpenOffice.org, which Office 2010 does support-but found that there was no way to view, edit or convert the ODF document from Office Web Apps.

Once I'd opened my test Word document for viewing, the Word Web App promised improved performance and rendering if I installed Silverlight, which I did while testing with Internet Explorer 8. The Silverlight plugin delivered its promised performance improvements while zooming in and out of the documents I viewed. Without the plugin, zoomed-in documents appeared somewhat jagged-looking.

In my tests with Firefox on Linux, I installed Novell's Moonlight plug-in in an attempt to partake in the promised Silverlight goodness, but the plug-in prevented me from viewing these documents at all. In tests with a previous version of the Web Apps, the presence of the plug-in seemed to have no effect at all, so this is one area where cross-platform support has actually backslid. I had to uninstall the plug-in to get back in business.

With the Silverlight detour behind me, I found that my test document rendered rather nicely in both Firefox and IE. I was able to scroll through my documents with ease, with new pages loading promptly as I moved through the document. Links embedded in my test document, such as those in the table of contents, worked as I expected, and I could zoom in and out of the document in more or less the same way as with the desktop-based version of Word. Also, I was pleased to see that the Web version of Word mimics well the handy sidebar-based document search feature that's new to Word 2010.

Each of the Office Web Apps offered an option for opening the current document directly in its full-sized Office application, but this feature only works on Internet Explorer and Windows. According to Microsoft, the online office applications use WebDAV (Web-based Distributed Authoring and Versioning) as the underlying protocol for this integration, so such a connection should be possible. While testing on Linux, I was able to work around the issues by downloading my test documents, editing them in OpenOffice.org, and then uploading the files back to the Web or to SharePoint.

My experiences testing with the Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote Web Apps were similar to what I found with Word-in each case, I could view binary-formatted Office documents with good fidelity, but I had to convert to the newer formats for editing.

Word


 

Word 2010 sports a handful of nice enhancements to its sidebar interface element, starting with the application's Navigation Pane, which replaces Word 2007's Document Map feature. I used the Navigation Pane to traverse Word documents by jumping from heading to heading. I liked the way I could reorganize topics within a document by dragging the headings around within the pane.

Also situated in this side pane is a useful search feature. I typed the words I sought in my document, and the search pane would fill in with results and a bit of context from around the found term-more or less like search engine results do. By default, the search pane tool looks for text, but I could also seek out graphics, tables, equations, footnotes and comments by selecting one of these options from a drop-down menu in the search box.

For example, if I were converting a large Word document from a previous Word format, I could select "graphics" from the drop-down menu and cycle through each graphic in the document, looking for needed placement tweaks. This is especially useful, since slight graphics misplacement is one of the most common format-conversion casualties.

Word 2010 also sports contextual spell-checking. I typed the sentence, "I can't wait to meat you," and Word duly corrected me with a blue squiggly line instead of the red one with which it would mark a misspelling.

I also took note of Word's cut-and-paste enhancements-for instance, in Word, I copied to my clipboard a chunk of text, bullets and images from one document, and shifted to a new document. Right-clicking in the part of my new document in which I meant to paste the content pulled up the familiar menu of options, with a few additional Paste Preview choices. I could retain the formatting from my source document, shift to the formatting style from my new document or retain only text. For each option, I could preview the outcome by hovering my mouse over each paste option. I was also able to switch among these paste formatting options after I'd pasted the content, again via a Smart Tag.

Excel 

Excel 2010 packs a handful of interesting tweaks to its PivotTable and PivotChart features. I checked out these changes by linking a fresh Excel spreadsheet to a set of NBA statistics from last season. I then created a quick PivotChart to display players' average offensive rebounds per game. With a few hundred players in my data set, I was faced with a rather unwieldy chart-and a great opportunity to try out Excel's new search filter capabilities.

Clicking a "Player" button on my PivotChart brought up a menu with a bunch of sort and filter options. I used these options to trim my set of Players to the top five performers in terms of average offensive rebounds per game. From the same menu, I could remove certain players from consideration by unchecking boxes next to the players' names in the dialog.

As with the filter button, I could modify other aspects of my PivotChart (and the PivotTable underlying it) using buttons situated on the chart. All in all, I expect that the new options for manipulating charts will help flatten out the learning curve for users who haven't quite gotten comfortable with these Excel features.

Another addition to Excel's PivotTable and PivotChart toolbox is the Slicer-a graphical element that allows users to modify data under analysis by slicing it up by particular categories.

I inserted a Slicer into my offensive rebounds chart that let me consider only wins or losses in determining my top five performers. For example, when taking into account only losses, Golden State Warriors' Andris Biedrins was second in the league in offensive rebounds per game. Considering only wins, Biedrins didn't crack the top five. 

Some of my favorite new sets of features in Office 2010 are those that involve data visualization in Excel. Microsoft has enhanced the conditional formatting capabilities of Excel with easy-to-apply visuals such as in-cell data bars. I imported a set of NBA statistics into an Excel spreadsheet, highlighted the rebounds column, and then applied a data bar conditional formatting element to the column. A bar appeared in each cell representing the size of the cell's value relative to the rest of the values in my selection.

Elsewhere, I imported the statistics for a single player across a 10-year span, and illustrated the rise and fall of that player's stats in a compact, single-cell chart called a sparkline. I could add detail to my sparkline charts, highlighting, for instance, the high and low points on the curve.

For a look at Excel's new PowerPivot add-on, which enables the application to take much larger data sets, see my review here.

PowerPoint


 

Many document- and presentation-building tasks for which Office users tap Word and PowerPoint involve pictures and video. Office 2010 stands to make these tasks a bit easier with an assortment of new multimedia features.

PowerPoint and Word both have an option embedded in their Ribbons for inserting screenshots of active windows into documents or presentations. Choosing this option spawned a dialog with thumbnails of all the open windows on my test machine. I could choose to insert these thumbnails into my document or presentation. I could also grab new screen clippings to insert, but I had to make sure that the window from which I wished to clip was the one I was viewing just before focusing on the Word or PowerPoint window. I found it easier to select a whole window and do my cropping as a second step.

PowerPoint 2010 has picked up some new, slick-looking Smart Art elements, along with some fancy new Apple Keynote-style slide transition effects.

In addition, PowerPoint has gained the ability to trim embedded videos down to size with fairly easy-to-use controls. The application offered the option of embedding Web-hosted videos, but I had trouble getting this feature to work with the YouTube video that I tried out during my test.

I was happy to see that PowerPoint now includes Windows Media Video as an output format--previously, exporting presentations to video required a separate plug-in. I'd like to see PowerPoint join OpenOffice.org Impress in adopting Adobe's SWF as an export format, as well.

During my tests, I had a bit of fun with PowerPoint 2010's new image manipulation capabilities, which include a nifty new Background Removal tool. I was able to click on a person in the foreground area of an image and direct Word to swap out my picture's background for a transparent one. Then, I managed to add a drop shadow to my image with another click.

Access 

Users who prize Access as a tool for roughing out database-backed applications will find a handful of welcome improvements in the 2010 version of Office.

I began putting Access through its paces by selecting one of the template applications offered up from the tool's start page. The first thing I noticed about the new database app I created was an information bar across the top of its interface, alerting me of blocked active content.

By now, macro-blocking has become a very familiar part of Office applications, and the experience that the Office team has accrued while dodging malware writers really shows in the interfaces around trust management. For example, I was pleased to find that clicking for more information on the blocked-content notice did not call forth a dialog box with tough-to-relocate information. Rather, I was sent to the Backstage area for Access-the landing page for meta-document operations and information-where I could read what Access had to say about the active content and then decide whether to enable the content, knowing exactly where to find that information when I was ready to act on it.

I opted to mark the database as a trusted document, which cleared the way for the active content. I noticed, however, that when I e-mailed the database to myself for testing on a different machine, the trusted status did not carry over to the second machine. I had to mark the document as trusted again. I also could have configured a trusted location and ferried the database from one machine to the other through that trusted channel. This document trust scheme appears in other components across Office.

The application template I'd selected was for a project management application, with tables and interface forms for users and tasks, among other things. I was interested to see that both the user and task components of the template were available for easy use in other applications in the form of Application Parts, available under the Create tab of the Access ribbon.

Access 2010 now supports triggers-database operations that can be scripted to occur, for instance, when records are inserted into a database. In Access, this feature is called Data Macros. Along similar lines, I was pleased to see that Access now supports calculated fields, derived from other fields in a record.

Outlook 

When Microsoft rolled out its new Ribbon UI in Office 2007, Outlook was left Ribbon-free. In Office 2010, Outlook has joined its officemates in taking on the new UI. Outlook, along with all of Office's other components, offers the option Ribbon customization-I could add any of the application's functions to the Outlook Ribbon. In some parts of Office, the Ribbon customization option served as a window into long-ignored but not quite dead Office features. For instance, in Outlook, I tricked out my Ribbon with a new custom group (I called it "Graveyard") and populated it with the command, "Windows CE Inbox Transfer."

Along similar lines, Outlook 2010 picks up its own version of the backstage view, and, through its integration with Word as an editor, partakes in all the same paste preview and image editing features that Office's word processor and presentation applications now offer.

Elsewhere, Outlook picks up a nifty new calendar preview feature, which I used to survey potential appointment conflicts while reading meeting request messages. Also on the theme of teasing out additional information from inbox messages is Outlook's social connector feature, which, for a given message, offers additional information about the message sender and recipients. By default, I could see a list of recent messages passed between me and a particular contact, along with information from the company directory. I could extend the available information by connecting to SharePoint or to outside social networks. At the time I tested, MySpace and LinkedIn were the only social network options, but support for additional networks is on the way.

Another notable new Outlook feature is a sort of quick rule-making interface called Quick Steps, which offers up some common multistep processes, such as forwarding to one's manager or responding and deleting the original message, as well as a means of creating new Quick Steps. In the case of the forward to manager option, I was presented with a first run dialog that asked me for my manager's address for future use.

 

 


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