Office 2010 Tech Preview Boasts Updates Great and Small

 
 
By Jason Brooks  |  Posted 2009-07-16
 
 
 

Office 2010 Tech Preview Boasts Updates Great and Small


Microsoft's Office 2010, which eWEEK Labs tested in a Technical Preview release, has quite a bit in common with the past several new Office upgrades--namely, the new suite is brimming with enhancements to core Office capabilities, many of which center around exposing the apocryphal 80 percent of Office functionality that most users overlook.

For example, Microsoft's Office team has put a great deal of work into the fairly mundane area of cut and paste, calling on the Smart Tags that first appeared in Office XP to save users the trouble of rooting through the Ribbon to access the suite's style and formatting controls.

Along similar lines, the charting capabilities that have always lurked in Excel have undergone a major overhaul in Office 2010. Not only is there a handful of new chart types from which to choose, but Microsoft has made Excel charts significantly more useful by integrating them into spreadsheet data cells.

However, in addition to the incremental improvements that mark every Office upgrade, Office 2010 breaks significant new ground by expanding beyond the bounds of the Windows desktop to appear in rich, Web-based versions that perform as well on Firefox and Safari browsers as on Microsoft's own Internet Explorer.

Microsoft has not yet made the Web-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook available for testing, but Office product managers demonstrated these applications for me in our San Francisco lab offices. I'm withholding further judgment on Microsoft's Office Web applications until I've had the chance to test them myself, but based on those demonstrations, I was very impressed with the richness of the applications' interfaces, both on IE and on Firefox.

What's more, according to Microsoft, the Web versions of Office 2010 applications will be available to enterprises in both hosted and on-premises versions, as well as in freely accessible versions for individual users. Somewhat marring the cross-platform appeal of Office on Web will be Microsoft's offline access solution for the suite, which will depend on the Windows-only SharePoint Workspace (the application previously known as Groove).

To see a slide show of Office 2010, please click here. 

The Technical Preview release that I tested will be accessible to a limited group of users, but should be followed by a broadly available public beta later this year.

Backstage Pass

Each of the Office 2010 components that I tested include a new Backstage area, which I could reach by clicking a round Office logo button at the left side of the Ribbon.

Each Backstage area housed "meta document" options, such as 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.

Cut and Paste


 

It may not sound particularly exciting, but many of the new features in Office 2010 revolve around cutting and pasting.

The Office team told me that research has shown that the most common action that users take after pasting a chunk of content into an Office document is hitting the undo button. Office 2010 sports new pre- and post-paste features, housed in context-sensitive Smart Tags, for reducing the need to hit undo.

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 2010 boasts its own version of undo avoidance with cut and paste. I copied a multicolumn file list from a PowerShell command line and pasted it into Excel 2010, only to find that all my chosen content had been stuffed into a single column. Rather than undo the operation and figure out how to turn Excel's text import engine on my data, I was able to click on a Smart Tag that appeared near the text I'd pasted. The tag offered to re-run my paste operation through Excel's text import wizard.

Similarly, 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.

Office's handy free-form note-taking application, OneNote, also receives a helping of cut-and-paste goodness in Office 2010. I could, for instance, paste a chunk of text into a OneNote notebook as an image file, and later ask OneNote to recognize and copy the text out of my pasted picture. I found that, as with any OCR operation I've tested, OneNote's text extraction accuracy was less than perfect.

I was also able to paste passages from other Office documents into OneNote, and the application preserved a link back to the source document for future reference. Similarly, through integration with Internet Explorer 8, I could add text and images to my notebooks from the Web, and retain a link back to the source page.

Pictures & Video

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 Word 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.

Excel Charts

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.

Given that the OpenDocument Format support that Microsoft added to Office 2007 in SP2 carries over to Office 2010, I was interested to see if any of these handsome visualizations would survive if I saved my spreadsheet in ODF. Not surprisingly, they disappeared when I saved my spreadsheet to ODF.

I also found that the classic XLS format lacked support for sparklines and other in-cell chart goodies. However, unlike saving in ODF, which spawned a generic warning message, Excel 2010 told me explicitly what wouldn't work when I tried to save in XLS format. I would love to see Excel 2010 provide this same level of information to ODF users.

Executive Editor Jason Brooks can be reached at jbrooks@eweek.com.
 

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