PRODUCT REVIEW

Microsoft Office 2008 for the Mac

Reviewed by Jeffrey Allen

I have used Microsoft Office for the Mac to run my law office for as long as the software has been available. I also have a reputation as something of an early adopter, so it should come as no surprise that I had Microsoft Office 2008 on my personal computers as soon as I could get my hands on it. Note that I said my “personal computers.” So that the record stays clear, by that I mean the ones that I personally use. The other computers in my office remained on Microsoft Office 2004 until I satisfied myself that the entire office would benefit from the upgrade. I reached that conclusion after using Office 2008 for about 60 days without any problems. During those 60 days I took the opportunity to learn some of the ins and outs of Office 2008 and put it through its paces, so to speak.

Installation and Setup

I installed Office 2008 and tested it on an iMac, a MacBook, and a MacBook Pro. Each of the testing units is less than a year old and represents the current iteration of its line, less one refresh. I had substantially identical results on all three computers: no problems in the installation or operation of the software. The software worked equally as efficiently and effectively on each of the computers, and I encountered no significant differences unique to any one computer (other than the fact that the much larger screen on my 24” iMac made it much easier to work with than on the laptops). Each of the computers had Parallels installed, and I ran the software both with and without Parallels opened and a virtual computer operational. In all cases I detected a slowdown in performance when I had a virtual computer open on my desktop, likely a function of the reduction of RAM resulting from the use of Parallels, which requires the allocation of actual RAM to the virtual computer it creates.

The installation process for Office on the Mac remains very easy, but it no longer includes a simple drag-and-drop option. The new iteration comes with an installer, and you must use the installer to get the program on your computer. Insert the disk and double-click to open it, then double-click on the installer and let it do its thing. It asks for your official serial number and once you get that in, the program finishes installing its files. The installer will locate older copies of Office software and offer the option of removal. Take the option and let it remove the older versions for you. You do not want them to get in the way of the new software.

During the installation and setup process, the software will give you the option of importing identities you have established in a prior version. If you have an identity in an earlier version and it has not given you any trouble, you may want to incorporate it into the new version. If your identity has had some difficulties and you have concerns about its stability, don’t take a chance of creating problems you do not need in the new version; simply create a new identity and go forward. (Note: If you store all your old e-mail in the original form rather than save what you need as a PDF file or in some other format, be sure to have a backup of your e-mail folder before deleting the old installation and its files and setting up a new identity for yourself.)

The first time you open any program in the Office suite, it will take longer than subsequent times to open up for you, as it needs to set itself up for use.

New for 2008

Many of us waited with somewhat baited breath for Microsoft to release a version of Office that ran native on the Intel processors. Microsoft made this version of the software Universal, meaning it operates as native both to the Power PC and to the Intel processors and the current Mac OS, so that the program does not need to run through Rosetta, Apple’s conversion program that allows software native to the Power PC chip (e.g., Microsoft Office 2004) to run on machines with Intel processors. One might think that if the software ran native to the Intel processor and did not need to go through a conversion program such as Rosetta, it would run much faster. I had hopes of seeing such a development. In truth, however, I did not notice any significant speed improvement.

Office 2008 comes in three flavors: the Special Media Edition ($499.95 full version, $299.95 update), Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac ($399.95 full version, $239.95 update), and the Home and Student Edition ($149.95 full version, no update available). All three versions contain the basic programs of the Office Suite: Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Entourage. The Special Media Edition also includes Microsoft’s digital asset management software. All versions support the new Open XML file architecture incorporated by Microsoft into its Office 2007 for Windows. Accordingly, Office 2008 for the Mac generates files compatible with Office 2007 and can read files generated by Office 2007 without the need for the separate software converter required by users of Office 2004 for the Mac (or by users of versions earlier than 2007 for Windows). For more details, see www.microsoft.com/mac/products/Office2008/default.mspx.

Microsoft has introduced a number of improvements and new features to the newest iteration of its Office suite for the Mac. When you first boot up the new software, you will notice a brand-new interface. The new interface looks cleaner and more modern than the interface in the 2004 version. It also looks different from the ribbon interface introduced in the Windows 2007 version. The new interface flows through all programs in the suite. The software also comes with a batch of new templates, new themes, and new and expanded graphics; I did not find most of the templates and themes useful from the perspective of running a law practice or the type of work I do with PowerPoint. To my way of thinking, they will appeal more to users other than professionals.

Other than the new interface, the most significant new suite-wide feature is the Elements Gallery. Think of the Elements Gallery as the power behind the new interface (or as the engine that runs it). You have the Elements Gallery in each of the programs in the suite; the options offered in the Gallery will differ from program to program, however. Once you become used to the Elements Gallery, it becomes a helpful tool—it allows you to easily locate features and make changes to your documents.

The Toolbox also appears in each of the programs. You can hide it or have it on the desktop. If you hide it, clicking “Toolbox” in the Menu bar will bring it to the front of your monitor. The Toolbox opens up a Formatting Palette that gives you immediate access to many features you will want to use in your document.

Word

In Word’s Menu bar, the tabs immediately below the first line of entries open up a series of Document Elements for your convenience. Clicking on the “Document Elements” tab (left side) causes the elements to appear on the screen or disappear, leaving only the tabs on the same line as the “Document Elements” tab.

It may seem daunting to have formatting and other features divided among a Menu bar, Document Elements tabs, and a Formatting Palette. Although it may take some time to learn where to find everything, the good news is that you can find the features you need and employ them through the various devices available to you.

I did not see other improvements or changes to the Microsoft Word application that I considered significant.

PowerPoint

PowerPoint benefits from the new interface and Document Elements as well as the new templates and graphics. Some will consider the new themes a significant benefit as well. Although I can see a number of them having value in a commercial setting or for education, I would not have a strong inclination to use most of them in conjunction with my law practice. The Object Palette, a part of the new Toolbox, comes in particularly handy in PowerPoint as it facilitates the handling and use of digital images, which is becoming more and more important in legal presentations.

Microsoft introduced the Presenter Tools in the 2004 version of PowerPoint. It keeps them in the 2008 version and improves them by giving you better control over timing of the presentation. One improvement will come in very handy for those of you who like to practice your presentations ahead of time: the ability to stop, start, and reset the timer whenever you wish. Another useful feature allows you to see fully rendered compressed views of slides so that you can compare them for consistency. PowerPoint 2008 also interfaces with iPhoto so that you can easily transfer your PowerPoint presentations to an iPod for viewing. The new iteration of the program also gives more freedom respecting the creation of slides through the use of custom layouts.

Excel

Excel also looks much slicker and works much easier owing to the use of the Document Elements feature and new and improved charting functions. Microsoft has introduced fully formatted ledger sheets in Excel 2008, complete with required operational formulas. This feature only exists on the Mac. Accessible from the Document Elements tab in Excel, the ledger sheets include pre-formatted and immediately usable worksheet forms for inventories, budgets, invoicing, payroll, and portfolios. The formula auto-complete feature will make it easier to complete formulas through the use of the menu. The graphics engine makes it easy to use Excel to convert data to aesthetically pleasing charts to facilitate comprehension and conveyance of information. I have never used Excel extensively, but some of the new features make it more likely that I will turn to that tool in the future.

Entourage

Entourage has received a major reworking. It introduces a stand-alone “My Day” feature that interfaces with your Entourage data and allows you to easily see your day and track your priorities. The new Entourage includes color-coded calendar categories and a flexible to-do list management.

For those of you who work in an environment that uses Exchange, the new Entourage plays nicely with Exchange and includes a relatively long list of new features to interact with Exchange, largely relating to updating of information on the Exchange server both from within the office and by remote from outside of the office using the Out-of-Office Assistant.

Conclusion

I recommend the upgrade. I had little difficulty adjusting to the new interface and, once having gone through that process, I found it better and easier to use than the interface in Office 2004. I also like the fact that Office 2008 comes as a Universal applications; in the long run, I believe that you will get better performance overall from an application that runs native to the Intel processor than you will from one that must go through a conversion process. Finally, some of the new features make the software better and easier to use than its predecessors. That always presents an advantage. The differences do not loom so large that you need to drop everything and run out this instant to get the upgrade. On the other hand, the sooner you get it, the sooner you can enjoy the advantages and the advances. Anticipate that, depending on how quickly you and your staff adapt, it will probably take several days (possibly longer) to fully adjust to the new interface and to find all the tools your office uses to produce documents. The learning process will affect your work flow. Consider that factor in your analysis of when and how to adopt the upgrade.

Jeffrey Allen is the principal in the Graves & Allen law firm in Oakland, California. A frequent speaker on technology topics, he is the special issue editor of GPSolo's Technology & Practice Guide and editor-in-chief of the Technology eReport. In addition to being licensed as an attorney in California, he has been admitted as a Solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales. He holds faculty positions at California State University of the East Bay and the University of Phoenix. He may be reached at jallenlawtek@aol.com. You may also get updated technology information from his blog: jallenlawtekblog.com.

Copyright 2008

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