Final Review: The Lowdown on Office 2007

Should you upgrade to the latest version of Microsoft Office?

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PowerPoint improvements

Just as galleries help you apply Styles in Word and chart templates do so in Excel, the new PowerPoint 2007 Theme Gallery gives your presentations a more sophisticated and graphically appealing design, and the one-click feature lets you apply a consistent look and feel across the entire slide set. It's more than just changing such simple things as fonts and colors -- in addition to changing background colors, it will change the color scheme for diagrams, tables and charts.

As in Word, you can convert a bulleted list into a rich SmartArt graphic (perfect for flowcharts and workflow illustrations).

Useful new features in Outlook

In terms of new and useful features that help you get your work done, Outlook 2007 leads the pack. Some improvements focus on making components work together -- previous versions let you flag a message for follow-up, but in Outlook 2007 you can right-click on the flag icon to add the message to your task list.

Calendars are an important part of Outlook; the 2007 version lets you display multiple calendars side by side (see Figure 15) or with appointments superimposed (color coding tells you the source -- see Figure 16). Below the calendar display is a brand-new task view with your appointments and tasks listed. To schedule time for the task, just drag it into the calendar.

Also new in this version is a To-Do bar that integrates a calendar, a look at a few of your upcoming appointments and a task list -- all contained in a single, optional pane (shown in Figure 17).

Your To-Do list in a single pane

Your To-Do list in a single pane (Click image to see larger view)

In terms of messages, Outlook finally adds the ability to view RSS feeds as just another message type (see Figure 18), though we'd like to see a smarter way to add such feeds when you view a Web site that hosts them. As with e-mail messages, you can apply rules to RSS feeds, moving an RSS feed item to another folder based on a keyword, for example.

Among the other changes is a new Instant Search that lets you locate information in e-mail messages, your contacts, tasks or calendar items; indexing is handled automatically. Microsoft says searching these Outlook items will be incorporated into Vista's search engine as well.

Not much new in Access

Access has mostly undergone a facelift (see Figure 19). The program continues to provide a strong set of tools for building database applications, but while its new interface and set of prebuilt database templates is a welcome addition, there's little under the hood that makes it a more powerful product.

As in previous versions, you can work with many data sources, including Microsoft SQL Server, and now you can integrate an Access database with SharePoint (you can save it to a Document Management server to provide greater access and control, a feature we did not test), but that's about it.

Introducing SharePoint

In early 2006, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates called SharePoint Server 2007 "the most revolutionary element" of the upcoming Microsoft Office 2007 suite. It's a separate product, not technically part of the actual Office suite of applications, but it is revolutionary.

Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) allows groups to easily create and update sites for collaboration and communication. It offers well-designed screens that help you customize the content, and you can quickly interact with these sites -- adding new files, updating reports and so on -- from several spots within Office applications.

A SharePoint site

A SharePoint site (Click image to see larger view)

Central to SharePoint is the ability to select components -- a calendar, a document library, a list of headlines from an RSS feed -- and organize their display into a "site" (see Figure 20). The components, called Web Parts, are organized in one of three areas on a site, with a choice of layout variations available (see Figure 21). There are several predefined Web Parts, including forms, images, task lists, announcements, discussion forums, and more. You can have more than one Web Part type -- a production team and a testing team calendar, for example -- on your site. Your SharePoint site can have multiple pages, and you can organize subsites in a hierarchy, much like folders on your hard drive.

If you don't want a site with multiple Web Parts, you can create what SharePoint calls a Document Workspace -- a simple layout that lets you share documents about anything you choose (see Figure 22). We built a Document Workspace to serve as a central repository for next year's marketing plans -- Word narratives that explain assumptions and high-level plans, Excel forecasts, and the like. Defining the Document Workspace took a couple of mouse clicks, and in just a few seconds we had a separate SharePoint site devoted to the project. In addition to creating a shared-document list, the default Document Workspace we chose included team announcements and a task list. As with any other SharePoint site you create, you can incorporate any additional Web Parts you need.

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