Final Review: The Lowdown on Office 2007

Should you upgrade to the latest version of Microsoft Office?

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Files and formats

The core application formats have undergone a significant change -- they now store parts of a document as separate files in a single, compressed, Zip-compatible format. This should make files easier to restore should they become corrupted (since you might be able to restore the text but not macros); in earlier versions of Office, a corrupt file meant no data was retrievable. In Word, the format is named .DOCx. In Excel it's .XLSx and in PowerPoint it's .PPTx.

Complicating matters is the fact that some applications actually have a pair of new formats. For instance, a Word document containing a macro will be named .DOCM, and in Excel, a macro-using file is saved with an .XLSM extension. One advantage of the new format: Files are smaller, saving both hard disk space and network bandwidth requirements.

When a file saved in the new file format is opened in Office 2003, Office pops up a warning message and, if needed, asks if you want to download a conversion program (a step that's needed only once). If you answer yes, you'll be linked to a Microsoft page where you can download a 26.6MB "Compatibility Pack." Download and installation took us more than 20 minutes, even with a broadband connection.

If you're an early adopter of Office 2007, asking your partners or clients to jump through such hoops is probably asking too much. Fortunately, you can tell Office 2007 applications to default to saving in the Office 2003 file format, a step we recommend until users of earlier Office versions are more likely to have updated their systems with the Compatibility Pack.

Speaking of making files smaller, now built in is the ability to remove sensitive and space-using data from a document before you save it, a feature previously available as an add-in for Word. This new "Prepare" feature lets you strip sensitive information (your name from the author field, tracked changes and the like) from your files.

If you want to protect your documents from changes, you can convert them to XML Paper Specification (XPS), Microsoft's answer to Adobe's PDF format. PDF output was part of the original Office 2007 betas; that was yanked (a Microsoft/Adobe spat is alleged), though the functionality is still available -- you simply need to download and install an add-in from Microsoft's site.

A few words on Word

Word has some small but annoying changes for experienced users -- for example, the template defaults to 10-point spacing following a paragraph. On the other hand, there's a new default font (Calibri) that we like, though it often appeared too light when viewed in previous versions of Office.

The status bar in Word 2007 sports buttons for the different views (Print, Web, Reading, Outline and Draft), plus a slider to change the zoom level. You also have more control over the status bar -- check some boxes and you can display the word count (updated constantly), caps lock status, and more. Thanks to some refinements in the interface, watermarks, citations and cover pages are easier to work with, and a new dialog box makes more sense when comparing documents (see Figure 8).

A more useful Compare Documents dialog box

A more useful Compare Documents dialog box (Click image to see larger view)

Little has been done to address the subject of a key customer complaint: mail merge. Word 2007 uses the same wizard (in a Task Pane) as Word 2003. The spell checker is still flawed; add a custom word (Computerworld, for example) to the dictionary and Word still isn't smart enough to know that the possessive form (Computerworld's) is correct as well.

Some productivity options are implemented with no apparent thought at all. For example, the Insert Table command offers a variety of Quick Tables. That sounds promising, but selecting the Calendar2 option inserts a calendar for May (no year specified) rather than the current month's calendar (you can't even choose the month and year you want). This is certainly quick -- and completely useless.

Quick Parts is the new name for inserting fields (current date, for example) or document properties (such as author name); hover over the field and a box appears to indicate the field name displayed (see below). You can also copy text or graphics from a document and create your own Quick Part, which you can preview in the Building Blocks Organizer (see Figure 9).

Hovering over a field shows you the name of its property

Hovering over a field shows you the name of its property

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