Review: Office 2010 Technical Preview -- no 'wow,' just solid improvements

Now in Technical Preview, Office 2010 introduces a number of welcome features, particularly in Outlook and PowerPoint.

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Not much new in Excel

Excel hasn't been touched as much as the other major applications in Office 2010, but there have been some useful additions.

video tools in PowerPoint

"Sparklines" show data in visual snippets.

Click to view larger image.

The most important is called "Sparklines" -- small cell-sized charts that you can embed in a worksheet next to data to get a quick visual representation of the data.

For example, if you had a worksheet that tracked the performance of several dozen stocks, you could create a Sparkline for each stock that graphed its performance over time, in a very compact way.

Conditional formatting -- the ability to apply a format to a range of cells, and then have the formatting change according to the value of the cell or formula -- has been improved as well, including the addition of more styles and icons.

As with other Office 2010 applications, Excel has new tools for sharing data with other people, including multiple people working on a document at a time.

For businesses, Microsoft is touting a Project Gemini add-on for Excel 2010 that can handle very large amounts of data -- even worksheets that include hundreds of millions of rows. It will ship as part of SQL Server 2008 R2 in the first half of 2010; a community technology preview will be available in the second half of 2009.

PowerPoint enters the video age

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth at least ten thousand, but up until now PowerPoint's video features have been rudimentary at best. PowerPoint 2010 introduces a slew of enhanced video features, although in the Technical Preview not all were working properly.

Key among the new features is a set of basic video editing tools built directly into PowerPoint. They're not as powerful as full-blown video editing software but work well for common tasks such as trimming and compressing videos and adding fade-ins and fade-outs. Highlight a video you've embedded in a presentation, and the tools appear in the Ribbon.

video tools in PowerPoint

PowerPoint includes a host of new video editing tools.

Click to view larger image.

Also useful is a set of video controls you can use during the presentation to pause, rewind, fast-forward and so on -- something that the previous version of PowerPoint did not have.

video tools in PowerPoint
Trimming a video in PowerPoint.

One issue with video, though, is that PowerPoint does not play a wide variety of formats. It plays Audio Video Interleave (.avi) files as well as Windows Media (.wmv) files, but many other video formats require the installation of third-party codecs or add-in applications.

New and very useful is the ability to embed videos from online video-sharing sites such as YouTube. To embed the video, you go to the site, find the code for embedding the video you want (the code is prominently displayed on most sites, including YouTube), and then paste it into PowerPoint. Theoretically, the video will play as part of your presentation, although you'll need an Internet connection to do so because the video will play from the original site, not from your PC.

I had serious problems with this feature. I could not get PowerPoint to play any videos from the Microsoft Showcase site, MSN Video or YouTube. When I tried to embed the video, I received an error message.

However, in YouTube when I deselected the "Include related videos" option for creating the embed code and then pasted the results in to PowerPoint, PowerPoint accepted the video and played it in the slide show -- once. When I tried to play it a second time, it didn't work. Presumably, this feature will be fixed in subsequent releases.

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