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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Word

The first thing you'll notice when you launch Word 2008 is the new unified tool area, with your tool bars collected into the document window under the document title rather than floating by themselves as before. One thing I appreciated was that the tool bars retained all my customizations, including my custom tool-bar icon for curly quotes.

I also liked the way the Preferences pane has been redesigned to mimic the OS X System Preferences pane, with a Search box added. Since I'm one of those who find Word more usable after turning off a lot of its default "helpful" settings, I was glad for the help tracking them down.

The Word-specific tabs in the Elements Gallery are Document Elements and Quick Tables. Click the Document Elements tab, and you see buttons for cover pages, table of contents, header, footer and bibliographies. Click one of the buttons, and you get a gallery row of thumbnail examples of that element. Just click on the thumbnail to insert the element. You can then modify the colors, replace the pictures (if there are any) or do anything you could to one you laboriously built from scratch.

Similarly, the Quick Tables tab brings up a row of predesigned tables. You can, for example, insert a table with a header row of white text on a black background and alternating dark and light blue rows for the data underneath.

As a longtime Mac Word user, I was initially inclined to turn up my nose at this kind of hand-holding. But frankly, it's unobtrusive and does what it's supposed to do: open up features a lot of people don't how to use or don't even know are there. And even for those who do know how to, for example, build a table from scratch, it's quicker to drop it in from the Elements Gallery and modify it to your taste.

Another major addition to Word 2008 puts one in mind of Pages: the new publishing layout view, which displays your document as though it's sitting on a desk, with a choice of backgrounds including wood grains, brushed aluminum and even Grill, which looks like the front of a Mac Pro. These backgrounds are silly fun, a feature we don't usually get from Microsoft.

A Publishing Layout View adds a set of page layout tools and typographic options.

A publishing layout view adds a set of page-layout tools and typographic options.

Click to view larger image.

The publishing layout view also brings up a new tool bar of page-layout tools, adds new options to the formatting palette, and places a Publication Templates tab in the Elements Gallery. The page-layout tools let you create text boxes (regular or vertical), draw shapes, set up page guides, group objects, arrange objects front to back and perform other similar tasks. The formatting palette offers the option to use ligatures and adds controls for tracking and kerning, baseline shift, and more.

You can drop into Publishing Layout View in any document, but most users will probably begin by selecting one of the new publication templates. These are well-designed layouts for newsletters, brochures, flyers, catalogs and other standard documents, with dummy text and photos that you can replace with your own. Personally, I find the Pages templates to be a little more sophisticated.

One welcome feature is that you can modify an existing template to your taste and save it as a custom template. If you save it to the appropriate folder in Applications/Microsoft Office 2008/Office/Media/Templates, it will appear in your Document Elements tool bar along with the default templates.

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