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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new animation features in PowerPoint 2010

New animation features in PowerPoint 2010.

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In addition to video features, animations have been significantly improved in PowerPoint 2010. There are now far more animations to choose from, and it's easier to use them via the Ribbon.

You can also more easily edit your animations with a custom animation feature. And there's a nifty "Animation Painter" that lets you take any animation that you've selected or created, and apply that animation across multiple slides, without having to do it manually for each slide.

As with Word, you can add screenshots to presentations with the new screenshot tool. There are some other nice additions, including new slide transitions and additional SmartArt graphics and themes, but the basics of PowerPoint remain the same.

Highlights from other apps

The Microsoft Office family comprises more than Outlook, Word, Excel and PowerPoint, even if the other members of the family are not as well known. We won't cover every change to every family member, only the most important ones.

The desktop publishing app Microsoft Publisher can now handle type in a more sophisticated way, with the same tools given to Microsoft Word for handling ligatures, small caps and other kinds of type. Templates can be more easily edited, and they can be shared with others from directly within Publisher.

Microsoft also hopes that with this version of Office, OneNote -- an application that keeps track of notes and other data in multiple formats -- will finally come into its own. I've been a OneNote user for several years, and believe that it's one of the great underused Office applications. OneNote users will be pleased that it's been powered up in some important ways.

The new Side Notes feature lets you write a note while using another Office application, and have that note automatically saved in OneNote. It's also now easier to capture information and copy it to OneNote, and navigation through notebooks has been improved. Searching for information in OneNote, which previously was not particularly useful, has been augmented as well: You can now specify whether to search on a page or in a section, section group, individual notebook or all notebooks.

Office on the Web -- not yet

One of the biggest changes to Office isn't yet available in the Technical Preview -- the Web version of Office. With Google Docs finally making its way out of beta, and Google pushing it as a serious Office competitor, Web-based access to Office has taken on increased importance for Microsoft.

Details at this point are scarce, but there will be at least two kinds of Office access. For enterprises, the Web-based version of Office will run on top of SharePoint, and the rights to run Office in this way will be part of the license enterprises sign with Microsoft. Consumers will be able to get free access through Windows Live, using their Windows Live ID.

It's not clear at this point which Office features will be available via the Web and which won't, or how the consumer offering will differ from the enterprise version. Microsoft says that the Web versions will offer "lightweight editing" and "high-fidelity viewing," which clearly implies that the Web versions will be a subset of the full version, most likely lacking many advanced features. But we won't know what those features are until a later release.

In addition, there will be mobile versions of Office that will allow you to view documents on a smartphone or other mobile device, and copy and paste between applications. Outlook will run on mobile devices as well. That's all we know at this point; we'll have more details when they're available.

The bottom line

The most important change to Office 2010 -- Web-based access -- is not yet available, so it's difficult to make a judgment about the latest version of Office. Apart from that, this new version of Office adds some very useful new features such as video-editing tools in PowerPoint and much improved e-mail handling in Outlook. Global additions such as Paste Preview and the extension of the Ribbon to all Office apps are good ones as well.

So this version of Office might not wow you, but the improvements are solid ones. If you want to see the future of Office, this is well worth the download, although the usual caveats apply about not using it on a production machine. You'll find bugs here -- no surprise for a Technical Preview -- but you'll also likely welcome most of the changes.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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