FAQ: All you need to try out the Office 2010 Beta

Everyone can get Microsoft's next-gen productivity suite, but all the pieces aren't ready

As anticipated, Microsoft yesterday launched the first, and likely only, public beta of Office 2010.

Because this is the last available-to-all milestone for the new suite, Microsoft's geared up to get the beta into the hands of a very large group. "Instead of tens of thousands who tried the Technical Preview, now we're talking about millions and million of people," Takeshi Numoto, the corporate vice president for Office, said in an interview Wednesday.

On your end, the best thing about Office 2010 Beta is that you can use it free-of-charge for nearly a year: The preview won't expire until Oct. 31, 2010.

But what does our expert say? "Anyone interested in Office should get a copy of this beta," wrote Preston Gralla in his first-take review. "It was solid and performed well without crashing once. I experienced none of the slowness that you sometimes do with betas."

You can find out whether Gralla's right by downloading the beta and giving Office 2010 a spin yourself. But where is it, how do you install it, what do you need to run it, and how do you get rid of it if it's a can of worms?

Questions, questions, questions. Here are our answers.

When can I download the beta? That's easy: Now. Microsoft rolled out the beta during a keynote at its Professional Developers Conference (PDC) mid-day Wednesday.

Where do I get it? The public download is available from the Microsoft site, on this page.

Office 2010, by the way, is the first Microsoft suite to be offered in both 32- and 64-bit versions. Choose the version that fits your operating system. You can check to see whether you have a 32-bit or 64-bit edition of Windows 7 by clicking the Start button, then clicking Control Panel and System Maintenance. Click System.

Follow the instructions here for checking Vista and XP.

Is Microsoft limiting who can download the beta, like it did with the Technical Preview, or the number of people who can have it? No, there is no numerical cap on the number of downloads for Office 2010.

It's unclear whether Microsoft will set a time limit on Office 2010 Beta, as it did for Windows 7 Release Candidate (RC) last summer. "I'm not sure if we have a specific plan to shut off availability at some point," said Numoto. Microsoft does plan, however, on making sure "millions and millions" of users are able to download and try the preview, Numoto added.

What edition of Office 2010 is the beta? At the Nov. 18 debut, the version offered everyone was Office Professional Plus 2010, the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink collection.

That's odd, even ironic, since Professional Plus is the feature-laden edition that will be available only to enterprises and organizations that purchase licenses in volume when the final ships next year. Professional Plus includes Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, OneNote, Access, Publisher, InfoPath, SharePoint Workspace -- formerly called Groove -- and Communicator.

Earlier on the Office 2010 Beta site, Microsoft had listed three different versions that would be made available to users: Professional Plus, and the to-be-sold-at-retail Office Home and Business, and Office Professional.

So, what happened to the other versions? Why aren't they part of the beta? Microsoft's Numoto said the company still plans to offer versions other than Professional, but wouldn't say when. "We'll make additional offerings after today," he said Wednesday, getting only as specific as "fairly shortly."

If Microsoft comes through on that promise, it will end up delivering three of the five editions of Office during the beta. A trio will be sold at retail -- the low-end Office Home and Student, as well as Office Home and Business and Office Professional -- while two Office Standard and Office Professional Plus, will be sold only to volume licensing customers.

How's the Office 2010 download process going? Good -- so far.

A few users yesterday posted messages on the beta's support forum saying that they were unable to reach the download page, but it may have been a local issue, since most of those who complained said they were in Germany. We didn't have any trouble accessing the site, retrieving a product key or grabbing the beta.

But the question was legitimate. Last month, a major snafu in the downloading of student discount copies of Windows 7 led hundreds to gripe that they were unable to install the new OS. And last January, when Microsoft launched the beta of Windows 7, a debacle forced Microsoft to restart the roll-out because of server overloads.

What do I need in order to install the beta? Microsoft has set the minimum requirements for the beta as a 500MHz or faster processor; 256MB or more of memory; 3GB of free hard drive space; and Windows XP Service Pack 3 (SP3), Windows Vista SP1, Windows Server 2003 R2, Windows Server 2008 SP2, or Windows 7.

Microsoft made it clear that you shouldn't need to upgrade your hardware to run Office 2010, assuming you're already running its predecessor. "You don't need to replace hardware that is capable of running Office 2007; it will support Office 2010," the company said in its own FAQ for the beta.

How big is the download? The 32-bit version weighs in at about 685MB, while the 64-bit version tips the scales at 750MB.

Do I need a product activation key? Yes. To use the Office 2010 beta beyond 30 days, you'll need to activate it with the 25-character key that you'll receive prior to starting the download. That key is valid only for the beta, and can't be used to activate a copy of the final when that launches sometime in the first half of next year.

Hint: Print out the page that shows the key, as Microsoft suggests.

I've been running the Office 2010 Technical Preview. Can I upgrade that to the beta? No, says Microsoft.

In an e-mail sent to Technical Preview testers last week, Microsoft said they must uninstall that version before installing Office 2010 Beta.

We found that out the hard way when the beta repeatedly refused to install on an XP-based test system; it took several trips to the Add/Remove applet to scrub the Technical Preview from the PC, including one to uninstall the virtualization component that the earlier edition added when it was installed with Microsoft's new "Click-To-Run" technology. More on Click-To-Run in a bit.

Can I upgrade my existing copy of Office to the beta? Yes, but you may not want to. When you install Office 2010 Beta, you can choose between and "Upgrade" or "Customize" options. The former upgrades your current version of Office, replacing it with Office 2010.

Down the road, however, when Office 2010 Beta expires, you'll have to reinstall the earlier edition by digging up the installation CD. That's a good reason to nix the upgrade idea.

Instead, you can choose the Customize option, which installs Office 2010 Beta alongside your existing version so you can use both. You'll still need to reinstall one, possibly two, applications from your older edition once you stop using Office 2010 Beta, however.

What will I have to reinstall? Outlook, Office's e-mail application, and SharePoint Workspace, formerly called Office Groove 2007, cannot coexist with previous versions on your computer. Microsoft says that you have to select one version of Outlook and SharePoint Workspace/Groove 2007 to install: You can't run two copies of Outlook on the same PC, in other words.

What if I don't see the Upgrade and Customize options when I install Office 2010 Beta? You sure you're not hallucinating? Or, if you're reading this post-launch, maybe a long time post-launch, that means Microsoft has managed to kick Click-To-Run into gear. When the beta's delivered using that technology, you won't have a choice: By design, Office 2010 Beta will install side-by-side with any existing version.

What's this Click-To-Run you keep talking about? Click-To-Run is a new technology that Microsoft debuted in the Technical Preview that went out to a small group of testers in July. Essentially, it "streams" pieces of the suite as you begin a download, letting you start using the suite within minutes. While you work with the trial, the remainder of the code is downloaded in the background by Click-To-Run.

Microsoft has said it will use Click-To-Run to deliver free trials of Office 2010 when the final bits ship next year, and hinted earlier this month that it would use the technology to offer the beta of Office Home and Business 2010 this week. That didn't happen.

"We're working to make that available as soon as possible," said Numoto, who declined to explain why Click-To-Run wasn't being used immediately.

An interesting facet of Click-To-Run is that it not only speeds up the process of starting to use Office 2010, but also runs the application in a virtualized environment, separating it from the rest of Windows, and thus, other applications.

"This means that [users] have private copies of their files and settings, and that any changes they make are captured in the virtual environment," said the Office 2010 engineering team in a blog post two weeks ago. "The effect is [Click-To-Run applications] don't end up modifying any other software installed on the system. With few exceptions, only user data actually passes through the virtual environment to the local system."

Click-to-Run adds a virtual drive to Windows, marked as the "Q:" drive.

According to Numoto, Click-To-Run will be used at some point to deliver the beta of Home and Business, the edition that includes Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint and OneNote.

What languages are supported? Microsoft has limited the beta to English, Chinese, French, German, Russian and Spanish. Japanese had been on Microsoft's list as recently as last weekend, but by Wednesday, that version had vanished.

Does Microsoft provide support for Office 2010 Beta? Microsoft doesn't do its usual technical support for pre-release software, so your only option is online. You can browse the support material on Office.com, or ask other beta testers for help in the user-to-user forums.

When does Office 2010 Beta expire? Halloween 2010.

Microsoft's pretty adamant about that. In the end-user licensing agreement (EULA) that accompanies the beta, the company starkly says: "The software will stop running on 31/10/2010. You will not receive any other notice. You may not be able to access data used with the software when it stops running."

No warning? Really? That's not what Numoto said. "You do get warnings as the expiration date approaches," he said in a follow-up e-mail message yesterday.

Do I get to try Microsoft's online edition of Office? Yes and no.

In September, Microsoft launched an invite-only test of Office Web Apps, the name it slapped on its Google Docs competitor. But with Office 2010 Beta, the company's opening three stripped-down Web-based programs -- Word, Excel and PowerPoint -- to the public.

Although enterprises will be able to test the full Office Web Apps -- including OneNote Web App, which Microsoft only recently finished -- by running them from a SharePoint 2010 server, consumers will have to wait. "We should have a full-featured beta [of Office Web Apps] for consumers early next calendar year," said Numoto. "Until then, consumers will continue to get the Technical Preview of Office Web Apps."

Microsoft has posted more information about deploying Office Web Apps on a beta of SharePoint 2010 in a blog post.

Will Microsoft release an updated preview before it ships the final version of Office 2010? No. "We'll be going from beta to RTM," said Numoto, referring to the "release-to-manufacturing" tag that Microsoft slaps on finished code.

There will not be a release candidate, or RC, preview of Office 2010, Numoto added.

How do I get rid of the beta if it's junk? Get to Windows' Control Panel and pick the uninstall applet. On XP, it's called "Add or Remove Programs," while Vista dubs it "Uninstall a Program." Windows 7 hides it, though: Click "Programs" from the Control Panel, then "Programs and Features;" pick Office 2010 and click "Uninstall" at the top of the list.

You'll have to reinstall your previous version of Office using the original media if you replaced it with the beta; even if you only added Office 2010 so that the two were side-by-side, you'll have to reinstall the older edition of Outlook.

When will Office 2010 ship? No news there. Yesterday, Microsoft stuck to its vague timeline of the first half of next year. Nor will the company be announcing pricing for the various editions of the new suite until that release date gets closer.

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