Office v. X, Part Two

In part one of this review, I discussed Microsoft's recently released Office suite for Mac OS X—Office v. X. In part two, I drill down into the suite's four primary applications and examine how the individual applications evolved compared to previous Office suites on both Mac and Windows.

Entourage X


Microsoft Entourage debuted in Mac:Office 2001 as a home version of the popular Outlook client many people are familiar with on the PC. Although Entourage includes email and personal information manager (PIM) tools like its Outlook cousin, the two products differ substantially in scope. At its heart, Outlook is an enterprise tool, designed to work most adeptly with Microsoft's Exchange Server products. Entourage, however, offers no such compatibility and is more at home with Internet-based POP3 servers. As further evidence of its consumer orientation, Entourage even includes an integrated Usenet newsgroup client, a feature Outlook users have spent years clamoring for. Oh, the shame.

Entourage X is the one application in Office v. X that Microsoft significantly upgraded over the previous version. For example, the software offers colorful, friendly task buttons that let you easily switch between its Email, Contacts, Calendar, Notes, and Tasks modules. And Microsoft has extensively updated the Calendar module with color-coded events that make it the most attractive calendaring product I've ever used. And here's a kicker: Unlike Outlook, Entourage correctly handles time zones. I've complained about Outlook's lack of this feature for years.

Entourage suffers the same performance problems that plague the other Office v. X applications, although they aren't as severe as the problems in Word (see below). Entourage experiences strange pauses. For example, you might hit CMD+R to reply to a message and then wait 5 or 6 seconds before the window appears. That might not sound like a long time, but when you're used to the computer responding immediately, 6 seconds is a lifetime. These strange pauses are disconcerting, and something I haven't experienced on the PC in ages.

But Entourage is a great email client and easily my favorite PIM application. Its only downside is PDA compatibility: Microsoft is waiting for Palm to finish its Palm OS conduit, so compatibility is nonexistent at the moment, and we probably won't ever see Pocket PC compatibility. This lack of PDA compatibility is a huge problem for me, but it might not be for other users.

Word X


The latest version of Word doesn't offer any of the cool task panes I appreciate so much in Office XP on the PC. But Word X does include a couple of Windows-first features, such as multiselection (which lets you select multiple, unattached blocks of text so you can perform style changes and similar operations) and simple, Save As Web page authoring. Aside from email, word processing is my most crucial application, and I miss some Windows features, such as full keyboard control (inexplicably, the Mac doesn't have a Save As keyboard shortcut, for example).

But performance is Word's chief problem. Every once in a while, Word X just stops responding. If I'm typing, the text I enter doesn't appear for several seconds and then it all appears—quite suddenly. I can't tell whether the problem lies with the OS or Office, but it's annoying. I generally run Office v. X on an iBook, which is a relatively low-end machine, and I chalked up the performance problems to the machine. But when I tried Word X on a brand new 800MHz G4-based iMac, it suffered from the same problem, so the problem is software, not hardware, related. Let's hope Microsoft can fix this problem in a service release; it's the only major problem marring this otherwise functional Office suite.

Excel X


I admit that I've never been a huge spreadsheet user, but Excel X has two features that stand out. First, Excel X uses Mac OS X's underlying Quartz rendering technology to create beautiful, transparent, anti-aliased charts and graphs. You have to see this technology to appreciate it; it far outstrips anything on the PC. The other nice feature is the way Excel X integrates with REALbasic, a popular Mac programming environment. In this area, Microsoft could have easily ignored the market, and few people would have complained. Instead, the company stepped up to the plate and hit an interoperability home run; Microsoft even includes a trial version of REALbasic in the box. Good stuff.

PowerPoint X


Microsoft has upgraded PowerPoint X with two new features that make this version innovative. The first feature is a Packages option that lets you pack your presentations and all associated art work into a single folder that you can copy across the Internet or onto a CD-ROM. When you open the package on a different machine, your presentation is ready for editing, and everything is in place. This option is handy, and it works well. The second cool feature is PowerPoint Movies, a feature that lets you save your presentations as QuickTime movies so any user—even a user who doesn't own PowerPoint—can view them. This common-sense feature makes good use of the existing underlying technology and makes it possible to share your work with a much wider audience. Kudos to Microsoft for not making PowerPoint Movies a Windows Media feature in lieu of the Apple technologies that Mac people use.

Conclusion


Niggling performance concerns aside, Office v. X is a champ and a worthy addition to any Mac OS X user's system, although I hope to see some problems addressed in a future update. The suite isn't quite a hands-down winner when compared to Office XP, but it does include many of Office XP's best features and a few unique Mac-only features that make it stand out from the crowd. Most importantly, Office v. X legitimizes Mac OS X as a viable productivity platform, and given my experience with it on the road during the past few months, I can wholeheartedly recommend this product to any Mac OS X user, assuming you can afford the price. If you remain unconvinced, download the free 30-day Office v. X trial from the Microsoft Web site (you can also order it on CD-ROM). I suspect you'll be hunting for the best price as soon as you try the software.

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