Microsoft's Remodeled Office

Office has a nifty, new look and feel, and a handy "command ribbon," but it's not a must-have for ordinary users

Longtime users of Microsoft Office are in for a shock when they get their first look at the new version, which goes on sale Jan. 30. Almost everything familiar about Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and other programs has changed. It's not a bad face-lift, on the whole, but there are important issues to consider before you upgrade to the new suite.

On the plus side, the design is clean and intuitive. Drop-down menus have been replaced by a command "ribbon," a sort of super-toolbar that shows the commands appropriate for the task at hand, such as entering text, reviewing a document, or inserting an illustration. In the old Office, when you were working in Word, commands related to formatting were scattered among the File and Format menus, various toolbars, and the Styles and Formatting task panel. The new version makes them all available on the Page Layout ribbon.

I like this approach, but there's a trade-off: A lot of users have grown adept at Office, which has changed little in the 20 years since it was launched. Now many of us will have to relearn what we already know.

Overly Optimistic?

Microsoft (MSFT) says office veterans will get up to speed after using the new programs for a few hours. I suspect that's optimistic. I found, for instance, that the References ribbon in Word simplifies tasks that were obscure in previous versions, such as creating footnotes or assembling a bibliography. But for a while I had to fumble around looking for the Undo command, which has moved from the top of the Edit menu to a little toolbar at the top of the window.

Microsoft did take two steps to make life easier for power users who have done extensive customization of programs. All of the keyboard shortcuts from previous versions still work—like control Z for "undo"—and prior customization will be applied to the new program versions upon upgrade.

The new design is consistent across all the Office programs. Excel has a "Formulas" ribbon, for example; PowerPoint has one for animations. The exception is Outlook 2007, which resembles Outlook 2003. But the window for writing a new message closely resembles Word, with a ribbon instead of menus.

A Downside in Sharing

The look and feel aren't the only things that are new in Office. For the first time since 1997, Microsoft has changed the way Office programs store their data. Instead of the familiar ".doc" ending, for example, you'll see ".docx." This indicates that the Word document adheres to an industry standard called XML, designed to facilitate the sharing of data. The new formats make it easier for programs from different companies to read and write Word, Excel, or PowerPoint files.

This change also has a downside. If you use Office 2003 or XP you'll have to download a converter from Microsoft before you can open, edit, or save files that somebody sends you in the new formats. And by the same token, if you upgrade to the new Office, you may want to set a preference to save files in the old formats—otherwise you may have trouble sharing them with people who haven't upgraded.

Since earlier versions of Office already contain just about every bell and whistle you could imagine, there aren't a lot of new features in Office 2007. One nice touch is instant preview of a document's changed appearance as you move the cursor over a different typeface in the font list.

You'll have to decide if ribbons and other improvements are worth the learning curve—and the money. The cheapest version of Office 2007 is the $149 Home & Student Edition. It can be installed on up to three PCs and includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote, an application for taking notes. More extensive packages range from $239 to $679. If you are happy with your current version of Office, there's no compelling reason to rush out and buy Office 2007.

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