11:49 AM

Review: 2007 Microsoft Office Beta 2 Is Up And Running

Beta 2 of Microsoft's upcoming Office suite is out. It's bigger and better, but still a bit strange.

Inspecting The Interface
The most obvious change in Office's applications, and the one that most people will be talking about, is the new interface that overlays many of Office's applications. If you've been following the descriptions in past coverage, for example, you'll know that Microsoft has replaced its previous icon and menu system with a new -- and much discussed -- interface.

The new Office interface -- especially the Ribbon that has replaced the well-known toolbars -- has caused quite a stir. Click image to enlarge and launch image gallery.

Here's the story in a nutshell: Instead of the well-known drop-down file system that has been the basis for the Office interface ever since its beginning, each Office app now sports a "Ribbon" that runs across the top of the window and gives access to all the application's features. Features are collected into tabbed groupings; click on one of the tabs, which run across the top of the Ribbon, and you can see all the features that belong to that group.

For example, there are seven tabbed groups in Microsoft Word, including Home (which contains the more commonly used features, such as cut-and-paste and paragraph styling); Insert (for placing items such as headers/footers, tables, and illustrations within text); Page Layout (for setting margins, paragraph formatting, and design themes); References (footnotes, citations, captions); Mailings (mail merge, labels); Review (comments, change tracking, spelling and grammar); and View (document views, show/hide page elements, zoom). Add an element such as a table, and more context-sensitive feature tabs appear.

Tabbed feature groups replace the familiar menu structure of previous versions of Office. Click image to enlarge and launch image gallery.

There has been a lot of skepticism about the usefulness – and, indeed, the necessity – of the Ribbon, and I have to admit that I was among the doubters. Why change something that works for many people? Because, according to Microsoft, the current interface has become bloated with too many menus.

Jenson Harris, the lead program manager for the Microsoft Office user experience team, explained that the current system of toolbars has meant an exponential increase from two toolbars in Word 1.0 to 31 in Word 2003. "Conventional punditry was that people only use 5 percent of Office and that everything we need was in older versions," he said in a recent press event. "However, we found that real people said that people simply can't figure out how to use what features there are in there." He described the new interface as providing "one home for functionality."

Review: 2007 Office Beta 2

•  Introduction

•  Packages And Pricing

•  Inspecting The Interface

•  More Interface Fun

•  Open XML And Conclusions

•  Image Gallery

When I first saw the new interface, I must admit I didn't think I could acclimate to it. In fact, I was so sure that there were going to be real problems with the lack of a traditional menu structure that I foresaw a mass desertion to, say, OpenOffice.

Now I'm not so sure. After working with several of the applications -- those I was very familiar with (such as Word) and those I seldom, if ever, use (such as Access) -- I found that I could more easily deal with features that I had found awkward in the past. For example, I was able to add an arrow to a Word document, change its design, and experiment with the way text wrapped around it with a lot more confidence than I had before.

There are a number of other interface changes that Microsoft hopes will prove attractive to both new and experienced users. One is what the company calls the Galleries, which are drop-down menus that illustrate the various style options available. When you hover your cursor over one of the images, you can see what effect it will have on your document, without having to actually implement the change first.

For example, if you highlight some text and pull down the styles menu, you can immediately see how each style would look if applied to the highlighted area. Want to insert a table? Click on the Insert tab, choose the Table group, and you get a drop-down window with an image of a table. Pull the cursor across the image, and the cells highlight; simultaneously, a table appears in your document. Got the right number of cells? Click, and the table is part of your document.

Hover your cursor over a style to see how it will look in your document.
Click image to enlarge and launch image gallery.

Another addition is the Mini Toolbar -- a floating, ghostly toolbar that offers a number of common formatting commands. The toolbar pops up when you highlight text; move your cursor toward the toolbar and it solidifies, move away from it and it goes away. (This would have solved a lot of problems in most of the horror films I've seen.)

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