Final Review: The Lowdown on Office 2007

Should you upgrade to the latest version of Microsoft Office?

Editor's Note: This story, originally published on Oct. 11, 2006 and based on Microsoft's Technical Refresh of Office 2007 Beta 2, was reviewed and updated on Jan. 25, 2007 to ensure that it is consistent with the shipping version of Office 2007.

Simplify, simplify, simplify. The challenge for Microsoft in revamping Office was to better organize all the options available without negatively impacting productivity. For new users, that's a particularly important goal, since the menus and toolbars in current versions may appear to be a mishmash.

The overriding design goal for the new user interface, Microsoft says, is to make it easier for users "to find and use the full range of features these applications provide" while preserving "an uncluttered workspace that reduces distraction for users so they can spend more time and energy focused on their work." The redesign makes most Office 2007 applications look completely fresh, clean, new -- and more colorful. From Ribbons that offer clearly labeled buttons to thumbnail previews of most graphic features, the applications bear only a slight resemblance to their former selves.

You'll probably get used to the new interface within a few hours; whether you like it, however, is a different story. New users will benefit most, since they won't have to change existing habits. For advanced and power users, the adjustment may be a bit more disconcerting, at least initially.

We've put Office 2007 through its paces, exploring new features, both Office-wide and in specific apps, and taking a particularly close look at the new SharePoint Server 2007.

A new look, starring the Ribbon

In Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access and most areas of Outlook, the menus and toolbars of previous versions are history. In their place is the Ribbon, a tabbed, horizontal bar divided into groups of icons and buttons organized by task.

The Home Ribbon in Word (see Figure 1) contains groups related to the Clipboard (cut, copy, paste and, for some odd reason, the Format Painter), Fonts (font style and size, plus formatting characteristics such as bold, italic and subscript), Paragraph (for bullets, indenting text, sorting paragraphs, alignment, line spacing and shading), Styles (displayed as a thumbnail gallery), plus Editing (find, replace and text/object selection).

The Home Ribbon covers about 90% of everything you'll need for simple text editing -- the remaining features are dispersed throughout the interface: spell check is on the Review tab, while headers and footers have been moved to the Insert tab (from the View menu in earlier versions). The core formatting features appear on yet another pop-up menu when you select text.

If you want to add a little more spice to a document, the Insert Ribbon has groups for creating and inserting tables, images, links and special text (one group for boxes, WordArt and drop caps, another for equations and symbols). Other Ribbons are provided for controlling page layouts, performing reviews, and defining the current view.

Word's Home Ribbon has most of the tools you need

Word's Home Ribbon has most of the tools you need (Click image to see larger view)

Excel's Ribbons are similar: Home (for worksheet editing, formatting and sorting tasks), Insert (to add charts and graphs, hyperlinks and headers/footers), Page Layout (for controlling cell size, grid lines and backgrounds), Formulas (including a new Name Manager for handling named ranges), Data (for import/export, removing duplicates and grouping data), Review (for comments and data protection), and View (freezing panes, adding page breaks and more). At the bottom of some groups is a tiny arrow button that, when clicked, opens a familiar dialog box. Most dialog boxes are unchanged from previous versions of Office -- still dull gray, but at least the options are where you expect them to be.

These "standard" Ribbons are supplemented with contextual ribbons that appear when you're working with a particular object -- a table in Word (see Figure 2), an Excel chart, a diagram in PowerPoint -- then disappear when you click away from that object.

Microsoft says the Ribbon doesn't occupy more space than the standard toolbars of previous versions, though it feels larger. Fortunately, Ribbons can be hidden (Ctrl + F1 is the secret toggle), giving you more document workspace.

The Ribbons can't be customized from within the Office application. Microsoft's Office UI guru, Jensen Harris, says that they're XML-based, and that the company is working with third-party developers who are building ribbon-editing utilities for customizing the interface. We know of only one that is shipping: RibbonCustomizer Professional.

Instead, Jensen suggests, users who want a customized look can add icons to the Quick Access Toolbar (QAT), a button strip that can be docked above or below the Ribbon. (It's above the Ribbon in Figure 1.) Right-clicking on the QAT, or from several other dialog boxes, lets you add buttons, such as the spell check, that are missing from the Home Ribbon. Keyboard shortcut enthusiasts can press the Alt key to see small boxes that represent the available shortcuts for the current Ribbon plus all buttons on the QAT.

Press Alt to see the shortcut keys for editing commands

Press Alt to see the shortcut keys for editing commands

We found that the new interface made some tasks in Office 2007 harder to complete than in previous versions. With no menu, and depending on what you're doing, it can take a greater number of mouse clicks or keyboard tapping to perform simple tasks, such as switching between two open Excel workbooks -- another reason you may soon find yourself with a crowded QAT.

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