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?

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Two new major features

Office 2008 offers two prominent features common to all three of the content-creation applications (Word, Excel and PowerPoint) that make it easier to find the many features the programs offer and easier to use them once found: the Elements Gallery and the Object Palette.

The Elements Gallery is an unobtrusive set of tabs that appears above the document window and below the other tool bars in all three applications. These tabs offer quick access to new features and to features that were previously scattered among different menus. These tabs include those for Charts, SmartArt Graphics and WordArt (an assortment of typographic special effects).

The Elements Gallery gives quick access to some common features.
The Elements Gallery gives quick access to some common features.
The Elements Gallery gives quick access to some common features.

The Elements Gallery gives quick access to some common features.

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Besides the common tabs, of course, each program also has its own set of tabs. In Word, for example, there are also tabs for document elements and quick tables, while in Excel you get sheets, and PowerPoint has slide themes, slide layouts and transitions.

The second suitewide feature is a new integrated floating palette. This multipurpose palette incorporates the previous Formatting Palette and Toolbox, and adds a new Object Palette and a program-specific tool. You switch from palette to palette within the same, uh, palette by clicking tabs across the top, reminiscent of the Inspector palette in iWork and other recent Mac programs.

The Object Palette gives quick access to shapes, clip art, symbols (such as fractions and math and currency symbols) and your iPhoto library. Having a button to get right to your photos is a nice idea, but on my machine, loading the library left me looking at the spinning beach ball for so long that I was reaching for the Force Quit keys by the time it finally came up. Maybe it's faster on an Intel Mac, but for me it would take less time just to open iPhoto and export the image I wanted.

The Objects Palette makes it easy to get at your iPhoto Library.

The Objects Palette makes it easy to get at your iPhoto Library.

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Each program's Formatting Palette now features a section for document themes. Themes consist of predefined color combinations (similar to the longstanding slide color schemes in PowerPoint) and fonts that are supposed to work well together. The Apex theme, for example, combines Lucida Sans and Book Antiqua with a set of grayed-out blues and browns, while Flow combines Calibri and Constantia (two of Microsoft's new Office fonts) with blues and greens.

Choose a Theme, and the theme colors and associated tints are added to the standard colors in all the color palettes, while the fonts are put at the top of the Font list and incorporated into the document's predefined styles. Themes are a quick way to get a nice-looking if not dazzling document (and dazzling is often best left to the pros).

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