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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Excel

The improvements in Excel 2008 are in line with the rest of the suite: They'll help you get started and assist you afterwards.

Most notable are the new Ledger Sheets, accessed from the Sheets tab in the Elements Gallery. Ledger Sheets are predesigned spreadsheets with formulas and cell categories already built in; the Sheets tab offers templates for accounts, budgets, invoices, portfolios (for stocks and funds) and reports, plus a tab to add blank sheets, lists, or charts to the workbook. The Invoice Ledger Sheet, for example, comes with columns for quantity and price, plus a total invoice column that multiplies those together.

That's all helpful, but there's no obvious way to reveal the structure of the ledgers. The formula bar is grayed out, so you can't just click on the Total Invoice cell and see what its formula is -- you have to copy the entire line to a blank sheet and look at the formula there. You can add a new column to those already there, but only by choosing from a list of predefined columns. So, for example, you can add a date paid or priority column to an invoice, but not a rebate column. And even if you could, you couldn't get at the formula for the total invoice column to incorporate the rebate information.

This all seems unnecessarily restrictive, especially since some of the value of a prebuilt worksheet is that it should help inexperienced users learn how the program works. In Apple's Numbers spreadsheet application, by contrast, if you click in an invoice's Cost column, you see Quantity*Unit Price in the formula bar and can easily edit or add to it. Excel has a long way to go to match that ease of use.

When you do build your own sheet, though, help is quickly available from the Excel-specific tab in the floating palette. Click on the Formula Builder tab, and you'll see a list of functions grouped by category, with the most recently used at the top. Find the function you want and click on it to see an explanation of what it does; double-click on it to bring up boxes for entering the arguments or cells that the function will operate on. Occasional Excel users who don't have every function memorized will find that the Formula Builder makes it a lot easier to build their own spreadsheet.

You can easily select a set of chart fonts and colors from the formatting palette.

You can easily select a set of chart fonts and colors from the formatting palette.

Click to view larger image.

You'll also find significant improvement in Excel's chart-making abilities. You create a chart by -- what else? -- choosing the Charts tab in the Document Elements gallery and selecting an appropriate chart type. That's when the fun starts. In the formatting palette, you can change colors, change types of fills (solid, graduated, shiny), change line weights, add drop shadows, and add and format labels, titles, and legends -- all of those choices are now just a click away.

As with all the Office formatting palettes, there's a section for document themes, too. Choose one, and your fonts and color scheme will immediately change to reflect it. And at that point, you can go in and tweak everything again. If you love to play with your charts to get them looking exactly the way you want, Excel 2008 is meant for you.

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