Review: Microsoft Office for Mac 2008 -- better than iWork?

Microsoft's latest version of Office for Mac adds some nifty interface improvements and a bunch of new features. Should you switch?

It has been almost four years since the last revision of Microsoft Office for the Mac, and Macintosh users can be forgiven for getting a little impatient. We heard all the buzz about the radical interface makeover for Office 2007 for Windows, and we wondered what user-interface goodies might be waiting for us.

While we waited, alternatives presented themselves. Apple Inc.'s Pages, part of the company's iWork '08 suite that arrived last fall, challenges the standard conception of word processing by blending in a generous helping of page layout. And open-source suites such as NeoOffice have duplicated and gone beyond what Microsoft Office has to offer.

After all that, what would the granddaddy of office suites have in store?

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Well, it's safe to say that no one will really be startled by the way Office 2008 has turned out. The weight of history is too great to allow any really radical changes. There are established expectations of what users should be able to do with the programs, legacy documents that need to be able to opened and a world of Windows Office users whom Mac users need to exchange files with.

As a result, instead of drastically rethinking its Office suite, Microsoft Corp. has focused -- mostly successfully -- on making what's already there more accessible and easier to use. If there were features in Word, Excel or PowerPoint that you never knew about or just couldn't figure out how to use, chances are Office 2008 will either help you find them or help you use them.

After three weeks spent with the final beta of Office 2008, I'd say it's kind of like getting a new Chevy. It's not going to turn heads like a Prius or a Smart car would. It feels a little staid, a little safe. But it certainly beats driving an old Chevy.

New suitewide features

Office 2008 for Mac comes in three different flavors. The standard product ($400; upgrade price $240) includes Word 2008, Excel 2008, PowerPoint 2008 and Entourage 2008. The Special Media Edition ($500; upgrade price $300) adds the Expression Media digital asset management system, which works with a Microsoft Exchange server. And the Home and Student Edition costs $150, with no upgrade pricing available.

Microsoft's stated goals for Office for Mac 2008 are similar to those announced for Windows Office 2007: To make it easier for users to access the wealth of features these programs offer. This goal is addressed through additions to the interface that don't get in the way when you don't use them but easily open up new and obscure features. The changes to the interface aren't nearly as drastic as those introduced in Office 2007, and the new features aren't earth-shaking, but they are welcome.

The new Office applications are universal, which means they run natively on Intel Macs. Reviewers who tested Office on Intel-based Macs have reported that Office runs faster on those machines than Office 2004 does, and that's probably true, since Office no longer needs the Rosetta translation layer that enables applications built for PowerPC Macs to run on Intel machines.

However, on my G5 iMac, I found that the Office 2008 doesn't run as fast as the previous version. For example, Word often lags behind my typing speed. And as I type this, my OS X Activity Monitor shows that Word 2008 is using between 20% and 50% of my CPU; when I work on this same document using Word 2004, CPU usage never rose above 25%. As a result, Office users who are still using older PowerPC Macs should probably think twice about upgrading. (It is worth mentioning, though, that in three weeks of constant use, Office 2008 didn't crash or freeze once.)

Office 2008 uses the Open XML file formats Microsoft introduced with Office 2007. You can still save in the older formats, and you can open and work on old-format files in Compatibility Mode. Over the weeks that I used Office, my sense was that Compatibility Mode ran a little slower than native mode, and I wound up converting older files to Open XML and then saving them back in the older formats for sharing.

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