Ever since Microsoft launched Office 2004 for Mac, users have loudly demanded full Exchange support from the suite’s e-mail client, Entourage-a reasonable request considering that the suite’s reason for being boils down to enabling users of Apple’s computers to interface as seamlessly as possible with the wider Windows world.
And yet, after four years of development, Microsoft’s Office 2008 for Mac still sports an e-mail client that’s crippled compared to its Windows-based sibling, Outlook, lacking key support for Tasks and Notes synchronization, .PST file importing and Public Folders access.
What’s more, while Office 2008 for Mac adds support for Microsoft’s now year-old OOXML (Open Office XML) default file format, and still handles Word, Excel and PowerPoint better than Apple’s iWork or Sun’s OpenOffice.org suites, Office 2008 has regressed somewhat in file format compatibility by dropping support for Visual Basic macros.
However, setting those major missteps aside, Office 2008 for Mac should prove a worthwhile upgrade for many companies, if for no other reason than the suites new support for Apple’s universal binary format, which enables Office 2008 to run natively on both PowerPC and Intel-based Macs. On Intel hardware, Office 2004 for Mac runs in emulation mode, which has earned the suite a reputation for being excruciatingly slow.
What’s more, in my tests, I found that Office 2008 has picked up some worthwhile new usability-boosting features, such the suite’s Elements Gallery, SmartArt Graphics and OfficeArt tools-each of which makes it easier for users to produce sophisticated-looking documents.
Depending on your point of view, another benefit (or drawback) of Office 2008 is the absence of the hotly debated “ribbon” user interface that debuted in Office 2007. Instead, Office 2008 organizes certain functions in tabs and stashes the bulk of its capabilities in familiar drop-down menus, such as File, Edit and View.
Overall, though, the puzzling absence of full support for Exchange and the lack of support for Visual Basic macros, both of which detract from Office 2008’s basic mandate for providing Windows-world compatibility for the Mac, will make it tough for many to afford this product’s hefty $400 price tag ($240 for the upgrade version) in the face of Apple’s $79 iWork ’08 and the free e-mail and personal information management (PIM) tools that come bundled with OS X.
Besides not offering full Exchange support or support for importing .PST files, Entourage 2008 is incompatible with the Time Machine backup feature that ships with the latest version of OS X, which means that users will have to seek out alternative backup methods.
Still, this e-mail and PIM application does tout some across-the-board improvements, including the modest addition of an Out of Office Assistant function that works with Microsoft Exchange server and enables users to create individualized e-mail replies. Other Entourage enhancements that make the application more Outlook-like include meeting reminders and the option to keep multiple meeting participants apprised of last-minute changes.
Entourage 2008 also includes the new My Day tool, which opens a window into your calendar and to-do items, and can run separately from the main Entourage application to provide a quick, lightweight agenda reference. This feature has been added as a flashy substitute for the product’s missing support for Exchange-synchronized tasks. While the My Day tool is handy, it takes up a large chunk of space on the screen.
Besides being unable to access my Tasks and Notes in my Exchange account, I was also unable to access my company’s public folders, which we use to reserve conference rooms and access shared documents such as human resources department forms.
Considering the ways in which Entourage fails to offer parity with Outlook, it’s worth considering how much different Entourage is from Mail, the free e-mail and PIM client that comes with Mac OS X. When all is said and done, there’s not very much that separates the two applications.
The big differences lie in the Exchange-backed calendar functions, where Entourage 2008 works and looks much more like Outlook than Mail does. In Apple’s Mail, calendar items stored on Exchange get shoehorned into the IMAP model, showing up as e-mails rather than events. The calendar feature in Entourage 2008 also lets users color-code events by category. However, this feature does not work with multiple calendars simultaneously, which is another ongoing request from Office for Mac users.
File format compatibility is probably the No. 1 reason IT departments would choose Office 2008 instead of the significantly cheaper iWork ’08 or the entirely free OpenOffice 2.3. Compared to these non-Microsoft applications, Office 2008 proved itself significantly more fluent with Microsoft Office documents.
To test the file conversion fidelity of Office for Mac 2008, I used the same group of files I used when testing iWork’s presentation, word-processing and spreadsheet applications in my review of iWork ’08 last year (see links below) and found none of the formatting issued I’d encountered during those tests.
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- I also tested a set of OOXML documents from Office 2007 and found that, as with the older binary formatted documents I tested, the new OOXML files worked well with Office 2008. As with Office 2007, OOXML is now the default format for Office 2008, although I had the option of saving my documents in the older format. According to Microsoft, converters for enabling Office 2004 users to work with OOXML files will become available about eight weeks after Office 2008 hits retail shelves.
Office 2008 for Mac sports a series of usability enhancements that should make it easier for users to create nice-looking word-processor, spreadsheet and presentation applications. In this regard, Office 2008 has a lot in common with iWork ’08, which is focused principally on usability.
In Word 2008, for instance, I noted the addition of a “publishing layout view” in which I could work with a variety of predesigned templates for creating brochures, flyers, newsletters and the like. Word’s formatting palette has been beefed up to let users customize documents by changing font size and style, bullets, border and paragraph styles; and tapping into other features such as an object palette, citations, scrapbook and compatibility report tools. Users will notice, however, that the Office 2004’s spate of irksome floating palettes are no more, with most of the functions now positioned on the menu bar at the top of the document.
Word’s newly introduced Document Elements toolbar helps users preview the predesigned cover pages, tables of contents, headers, footers, etc. available to them. Similarly, Elements Gallery gives users quick access to tools such as OfficeArt, which work in Word, Excel and PowerPoint, and give users the ability to add more three-dimensional and animation effects to their presentations.
The most significant addition to Excel 2008 is that of Ledger Sheets, a library of preformulated templates that help users create different styles of invoices, payroll documents, budgets and reports. Ledger Sheets allow users to get rolling right away with formula-enhanced worksheets. For instance, I tested out an invoice template with all the needed formulas in place.
Another Excel 2008 feature that spreadsheet beginners should appreciate is the application’s handy Formula Builder tool, which appears as a floating toolbar and provides a comprehensive list of all of Excel’s formula functions. For example, if you click on SUM, you are provided with a definition “adds all the numbers in a range of cells,” the syntax and an “arguments” section where you can manually enter the set of numbers you wish to analyze. The content in the Formula Builder corresponds with the information in the formula toolbar located at the top of the worksheet, so users can see how formulas translate from the builder to their active data set.
While testing PowerPoint 2008, I was impressed by the product’s SmartArt Graphics tool. Using this feature, which is also accessible from Word and Excel, I was able to create a flow chart in my presentation by first selecting from a variety of predesigned cycle, process or hierarchy layouts. I chose a design from the cycle process titled “block cycle,” which laid out rectangular blocks illustrating a circular flow of tasks. Then I was able to add text to these blocks via a text pane that handily opened once I’d selected a cycle design.
I was also able to add custom animation to the presentation with the help of a custom animation pane, which allowed me to select effects for tweaking the entrance, exit or emphasis characteristics of objects in my presentation. For instance, I chose to have my block cycle diagram “grow and turn” on to the page, and then exit the page by sliding down the screen.
eWEEK Labs Technical Analyst Tiffany Maleshefski can be reached at [email protected].