Dissecting Microsoft Office 2010

The shipping version of Microsoft's latest office suite offers some exciting new changes, including a vastly improved Outlook.

I review plenty of software packages throughout the course of a year, and it's rare that I come across one that I believe will truly make a difference in the way that I work or use my computer. This is one of those times.

Microsoft just launched the Release to Manufacturing (RTM) version of Office 2010 (to subscribers of Microsoft TechNet and MSDN only), and the suite will be available to businesses on May 12. It will go on sale to the general public sometime in June. (The final version of Microsoft Office Web Apps, the Web-based version of Office, isn't yet available but is expected before summer.)

In this latest version, Microsoft Office has gotten some nifty improvements. The main attraction, as far as I'm concerned, is the Outlook makeover that makes it far easier to cut through e-mail overload and keep up with your ever-expanding group of contacts on social networking sites.

In addition to the Outlook updates, there are plenty of new features in Office 2010, including an improved Ribbon that now works across all Office applications, and some very useful new PowerPoint tools for giving Internet-based presentations and handling video.

And for the first time, the OneNote application is part of the core Office suite. But on the whole, Microsoft seems to have focused most of its efforts where people have the most frustration -- handling e-mail.

In short -- if, like me, you live in e-mail, you'll want this suite. If, on the other hand, you mainly use Word and Excel, and you don't use Outlook or use it rarely, this new version will rank on your nice-to-have rather than must-have list.

Overall interface improvements

Microsoft made a number of improvements to the entire Office suite, notably to the Ribbon. I'll first take a look at the Office-wide improvements and then examine the individual core Office applications.

The Ribbon steps out

In Office 2007, Microsoft made the most drastic change to Office in years with the introduction of the Ribbon, which replaced Office's menus and submenus with a graphical system that groups buttons for common tasks together in tabs. But Microsoft hedged its bets to a certain extent, because Outlook -- as well as OneNote, SharePoint and Publisher -- didn't get the full Ribbon treatment. In Office 2010, that changes. From now on, the Ribbon rules among all Office applications -- and that's a good thing.

Microsoft Office 2010

The Ribbon is now suite-wide.

Click to view larger image.

It was always disconcerting in Office 2007 to switch among applications that had different menuing systems, or which (like Outlook) applied the Ribbon half-heartedly. Now it's seamless to work among different applications. For example, there's now a standard way of handling graphics for all applications via the Ribbon; no more trying to remember how each app handles things differently. I'm a big Ribbon fan and am certainly pleased with its standardization across the suite.

Dedicated interface tweakers like me will also appreciate the control over the Ribbon that Office 2010 gives you -- you can now customize it to a remarkable degree by adding or taking away features from individual tabs, hiding tabs, moving tabs to different locations, and even renaming tabs. Finally, you can make the Ribbon your own.

Microsoft Office 2010

You can now customize the Ribbon by adding or taking away features.

Click to view larger image.
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