Office 2008 for Mac Review

I'm typing this overview in an application that should be immediately familiar but is instead curiously and frustratingly unfamiliar. I'm speaking of course about Word 2008 for the Mac, part of Office 2008 for the Mac, the latest version of Microsoft's office productivity suite for that other OS platform you may have heard of. I've used several versions of Mac Office over the years, and while some others have incorrectly called this suite the best version of Office on any platform, I've always found it to be a bizarre and nonstandard set of applications, one that manages to be as decidedly un-Mac-like as it is un-Windows-like. But Mac Office is also one of those very necessary products, something that virtually all Mac users need. The question, of course, is what the newest version, Office 2008, brings to the party.

The answer, sadly, is not much. As Apple CEO Steve Jobs not-so-subtly noted during his recent MacWorld 2008 keynote address, Mac Office is literally the last major Macintosh application that's been released in the so-called Universal format. That is, Office 2008 is the first version of Mac Office that runs natively on Intel-based Macs. Previous versions, including Office 2004, ran natively only on older PowerPC-based Macs, and had to utilize Apple's Rosetta emulation technology to run (a bit more slowly) on Intel Macs. Microsoft should be given some credit for moving its massive and monolithic suite to the Universal format, yes, but it also took a long time and was clearly the main effort behind Office 2008. (In this way, Office 2008 parallels Office 95 for Windows, the first Windows version of Office to target 32-bit versions of Windows.)

One might expect Office 2008 to run faster on Intel hardware than Office 2004, but I don't notice much of a difference on my MacBook. A bigger issue is that the core Office UI hasn't changed much at all since the last version. Put simply, Office 2008 doesn't do anything to take advantage of the Mac's unique UI features. Indeed, it offers odd throwback UI pieces that date back to ?Classic? versions of Mac OS, like Mac OS 9.x. This is especially true of Entourage, Microsoft's consumer-oriented email and personal information management application. But it's not just that. Word, Excel, and PowerPoint all utilize terrible floating palettes, mini-windows with collapsible sections that contain such things as formatting tools and other miscellanea that would be more easily accessible via standard toolbars. (And, optionally, they can be.)

The problem with Mac Office, from a UI standpoint, is that it just doesn't make sense. You get used to it, I guess, but it's unclear why some tools are in toolbars, while others are in floating palettes. And if you're used to Windows versions of Office, good luck. Some tools aren't available at all--like the wonderful Ribbon user interface from Office 2007--while others are hidden under menus, like an application from the early 1990s. There's even a whole new UI convention--the Gallery?that's been tacked on for good measure, giving you yet another place to look. The whole thing is a mess.

Installation

While previous versions of Mac Office offered a standard installer as well as a more typical Mac-like drag and drop installer, Office 2008 only offers the standard executable installer. If you don't want the full install, you'll need to be careful because the option for a custom install is particularly subtle and easy to miss. Office 2008 will uninstall any previous version of Mac Office, as you cannot run two versions side-by-side. Office 2008 will, of course, migrate any settings you may have forward to the new version.

Word 2008

Word is virtually the only part of Mac Office I use regularly: I'm a writer, after all, and the Mac isn't my primary computing platform. (And anyone who tells you that Apple's Pages application is somehow an adequate replacement for Word needs therapy.)

The big improvement in Word 2008 is about exciting as Office 2008's transition to the Universal format: It now supports the Open XML document format that Microsoft first provided in Office 2007 on Windows. (Likewise, Word 2008 mimics the new default styles and fonts that appeared in Office 2007 as well.) Word 2008 retains the awful Formatting Palette from Word 2004, but introduces new galleries--Document Elements, Quick Tables, Charts, SmartArt Graphics, and Word Art--which are available via expandable buttons, like tabs, below the standard toolbar. (As with the Office 2007 Ribbon, you can however hide the overly large Word 2008 toolbar via the gel-like button in the top right of the Word application window. However, that's an OS X feature, not an Office feature.)

As for the galleries, I'm not quite sure why they're given such prominence in the UI. What the heck are "document elements"? And why aren't these galleries more analogous to the Office 2007 Ribbon? This whole thing seems pointless and tacked-on. Hopefully, Microsoft will rethink this if they ever update Mac Office again.

One bright point: The Font drop-down list box, which lists each font alphabetically in their actual font, actually performs quite quickly. Just opening this box on older versions of Word could bring the system temporarily to a halt.

Excel 2008

The latest Excel version adopts the same too-tall standard toolbar and Formatting Palette as Word 2008, and adds four galleries of its own: Sheets, Charts, SmartArt Grahics, and Word Art. These seem more useful to me than Word's galleries, but they're just as consumer oriented, which makes sense given how this suite is targeted. The Sheets gallery, for example, includes default templates for such things as a business checkbook, a savings passbook, various budgets and bill trackers, invoices, expense reports, and more. And the Charts gallery makes it possible to easily create very attractive charts and graphs.

PowerPoint 2008

This one is interesting because Apple makes exactly one decent productivity application, a presentation package called Keynote that CEO Steve Jobs uses in his own speeches. So while PowerPoint is the corporate standard on the Windows side, it's got some real competition on the Mac, one that's used (and apparently inspired by) the most famous Mac user on earth.

PowerPoint 2008 lacks the visual flair of Keynote, but it is a familiar workspace for users of PowerPoint on Windows. Annoyingly, it retains the Formatting Palette seen in other Mac Office applications, and of course none of the standard Windows shortcut keys work (F5 on the Mac raises the volume, go figure). On the plus side, you can use that tiny Apple remote that comes with your Mac to control your presentations. Sweet!

As with Excel, the galleries in PowerPoint are quite useful and obvious. You get Slide Themes, Slide Layouts, Transitions, Table Styles, Charts, SmartArt Graphics, and the ever-present Word Art. The included themes are quite nice, and the gallery UI convention makes it very easy to choose between different themes in real time to observe the changes. This is, perhaps, the best use of galleries in the suite.

Entourage 2008

I'm not a big fan of Entourage, and never have been. I have always found it to be a completely pointless application, a weird combination of what used to be called Outlook Express and the PIM parts of Outlook, and I can't imagine why Microsoft didn't (and doesn't) just make a proper version of Outlook for the Mac instead. (There was once a weird Outlook app aimed at Exchange users that's mostly unrelated.)

What makes Entourage 2008 even more pointless is that Mac users don't need it at all. They have Mail.app, Contacts, and iCal built right into Mac OS X, and those applications look and perform better than Entourage. On the other hand, Entourage is now Exchange compatible, at least if you pay for one of the more expensive Office 2008 versions, so at least it has that going for it.

Another plus: Entourage is the one Office 2008 application that doesn't include a floating palette of any kind. But it's very clearly a Classic Mac OS application that's been ported to Mac OS X and then, more recently, to Universal. It still features Classic Mac OS UI elements, like the awful Back and Next buttons in the Account Setup Assistant. In this way, Entourage is sloppy, the kind of application you get from people who just don't care anymore. Which makes sense, as it's almost completely unnecessary.

And what's up with the bizarre My Day window? It's like a floating mobile phone emulator, sitting on top of all other windows in its deep purple glory. It looks nothing like the rest of Entourage or Office 2008, let alone the Mac. Why is it purple?

Other applications in Office 2008

In addition to the four core applications, Office 2008 also includes the newly renamed Microsoft Messenger (go figure, but Mac users found an application called "Windows Messenger: Mac" to be slightly irritating), which provides compatibility with both Windows Live Messenger and Office Live Communications Server. As with its predecessor, Microsoft Messenger is a bit heavy handed with its gel candy-like UI bits, but it works fine.

Office 2008 also includes an Office Project Gallery, per previous versions, but it no longer pops up each time you launch an Office application by default. (You can re-enable that if you hate yourself.) The My Day feature from Entourage can be run as a separate application as well, and can be configured to run in the Mac menu bar if you're so inclined.

Availability and pricing

Microsoft offers three versions of Office 2008. The low-cost Office 2008 for Mac Home and Student Edition costs about $145 and includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Entourage. Best of all, it can be installed on up to three Macs, and indeed it does ship with three separate Product Keys.

The mid-tier version, simply titled Office 2008 for Mac, includes the same four applications but adds support for Exchange Server and Mac OS X's Automator feature, the latter of which sort-of replaces Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), which has been discontinued in this release. Office 2008 for Mac retails for about $400, or $240 for the upgrade version.

On the high-end, Microsoft offers Office 2008 for Mac Special Media Edition, which includes everything in Office 2008 for Mac plus something called Microsoft Expression Media. This is an updated version of a Mac-based application called iView MediaPro, which provides media asset management capabilities. (A Windows version is also available.) This version costs about $500, or $300 for an upgrade.

I purchased and will continue to use the Home and Student Edition, as I suspect will be the case with most Mac users of Office. It's a good deal, and it isn't hobbled in any way beyond the lack of Exchange support. But if you would prefer just an individual application, you can purchase Word 2008, Excel 2008, PowerPoint 2008, and Entourage 2008 as separate packages, in both full and upgrade versions.

Final thoughts

Mac users waiting for a Universal version of Office can rejoice, as Office 2008 for Mac brings the power of Microsoft's all-important office productivity suite into the 21st century. There's nothing here to sway users of the Windows version of Microsoft Office, however, and though the new galleries sometimes approach the usefulness of Office 2007's Ribbon, they're not as pervasive or obvious in Office 2008. Upgraders from Office 2004 won't notice many improvements either. Overall, Office 2008 is solid, if unexceptional. But the low price of the Home and Student Edition makes it an obvious choice. Recommended.

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