Hands on: Office 2010 beta debuts major features

Online integration is a key aim of the beta

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As with the Technical Preview, something very important is missing in the beta: automatic synchronization of files between the Web-based version of Office and the client version. When you work on the Web version, those files live on the Web, not your local PC. When you work on the client version, they live on your local PC, not the Web.

You can save files between the versions -- for example, when you have a file open on your local PC, you can save it to the Web, and when you have a file open on the Web, you can save it to your local PC.

But unlike in Google Docs, there is no automatic synchronization of files. This can potentially be very confusing, because you can end up with different versions of the same document in different locations, and so you might overwrite newer documents with older ones, or simply not know which is the latest version.

Microsoft already has the technology to do automatic synchronization built into its free Live Mesh and Live Sync products. So it's baffling that the company didn't include that feature in Office, especially because its biggest competitor, Google, includes it in Google Docs.

Other additions and cleanups

The Office 2010 beta has a few other additions and changes as well. There have been some menu and small interface tweaks, such as changes to some icons.

In addition, the client version of Excel has been beefed up somewhat with the addition of "slicers," which are tools that help you display and filter data visually. For instance, you can use slicers to create dashboards that make it easier to see information displayed as a series of graphs and charts.

There's one intriguing feature in Office 2010 that I didn't get a chance to test because it wasn't available at the time of testing -- Click to Run. Essentially, it's a more streamlined way to install and use Office via download. It creates a local virtual environment on your PC, runs in that environment, and takes up less hard disk space than installing the traditional way. However, Microsoft warns that some add-ins may not work properly or at all. Until I get my hands on it, there's not much more to report.

Is it worth the download?

Anyone interested in Office should get a copy of this beta and run it on a test machine. When I worked with it, it was solid and performed well without crashing once. I experienced none of the slowness that you sometimes do with betas. Features new to Office 2010 -- such as better paste and a standardized, Office-wide reliance on the Ribbon -- will most likely improve most people's productivity.

Unfortunately, some of the most intriguing new features of Office 2010 are not ready to be publicly tested. The Outlook Social Connector is only partially functional at this point -- there are no connectors available for social networking sites. And the public, consumer version of Office Web Apps is not part of the beta, either.

Still, any Office user interested seeing the next generation of Office should download the suite, with the usual precautions about not using it for production purposes.

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