Microsoft Office 2010 Boosts Core Features: Review

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Microsoft’s desktop suite comes packed enhancements to core Office capabilities, while breaking significant new ground with rich, web-based versions

After an Office 2007 release packed with file format and interface overhauls that many users and organisations found challenging to digest, Microsoft returns to a smaller, more familiar-size release with Office 2010, which became available earlier this month for volume license customers, and is set to hit retail next week.

As with most other Office releases, the 2010 version introduces plenty of enticements for upgraders: new features for producing slick-looking documents, spreadsheets and presentations; interface tweaks for surfacing and, in some places, tamping down the slicker-output features from previous releases; and more hooks into SharePoint Server 2010, which shipped alongside Office 2010, for more tightly knitting knowledge workers.

For instance, the biggest interface tweak in Office 2010 is probably the addition of a “backstage area” to replace what had been the “File” menu drop-down in earlier versions of Office. In each application in the suite, these backstage areas house “meta document” options, such as those for saving, opening, printing or exporting. In Outlook, the backstage area contains account and folder settings, alongside import and export options. In PowerPoint, I visited the backstage area of a presentation with embedded video to shrink the size of my video for different sorts of distribution.

Another relatively mundane but useful set of enhancements in Office 2010 revolve around cutting and pasting. In response to research that indicated that the most common action that users take after pasting a chunk of content into an Office document is hitting the undo button, the team added new pre- and post-paste features, housed in context-sensitive Smart Tags, for reducing the need to hit undo. For instance, in Excel, I entered the number 1 in the first cell of a spreadsheet column, grabbed the corner of the cell with my mouse, and dragged down 30 or so rows. Excel filled each cell in the set with a 1, and spawned a Smart Tag to ask if I’d intended to fill the cells with a series of numbers—1, 2, 3 and so on.

Expanding Office onto new platforms

Modest enhancements and interface tweaks aside, Office 2010 is a major release, if not for the way it churns up existing components than for the way it expands Office onto new platforms and devices. Office 2010 marks the debut of a slate of web-based Office applications that are available in hosted, on premises or free, ad-supported forms. What’s more, these applications boast uncharacteristically broad support for non-Microsoft products—the apps support Mozilla’s Firefox, Apple’s Safari and Google’s Chrome web browsers nearly as well as Microsoft’s own Internet Explorer.

As they stand now, the web apps are much thinner in terms of features and extensibility that the better-established web app offerings from Google and Zoho. Feature limitations aside, at sites that store documents on a SharePoint 2010 server, I can imagine the Office Web Apps seeing frequent use for previewing documents and carrying out minor edits. Even if broadened web access options and more SharePoint-orchestrated collaboration choices aren’t the driver for upgrading to 2010, I imagine that most Office users will find items out of those handsome and handy categories to like in the new release.

Moving forward, I’ll be interested to see how Microsoft adds new features and improvements to its Web Apps. In particular, I’ll be paying attention to how well the company handles the challenge of rolling out improvement not only on the Web Apps instances Microsoft hosts itself, but also on the various on-premises installations of its Office and SharePoint customers.

Office 2010 will be available at retail in a number of different editions, including Home and Student, Home and Business, and Professional editions, priced at between $150 (£103)  and $500 (£344). Microsoft has done away with the upgrade pricing discounts that were available for Office 2007 and previous versions of the suite. For volume license customers, Office 2010 is available in Standard and Professional Plus editions. The Standard edition includes Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, OneNote, and Publisher, as well as access to Office Web Apps. The Professional Plus edition adds SharePoint Workspace (formerly known as Groove), InfoPath and Microsoft Communicator. For more information on Office 2010 editions and pricing, see: http://office2010.microsoft.com/en-us/buy/office-2010-pricing-information-HA101810737.aspx.

I conducted most of my Office 2010 tests on virtual machines with between 1 and 2 GB of RAM running the 64-bit version of Windows 7, or the 32-bit version of Windows XP SP3. Office 2010 ran happily on every configuration I tested. I tested the Office Web Apps from Internet Explorer 8 running on Windows 7 and Windows XP SP3, as well as from Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox running on the Ubuntu 10.04 and Fedora 13 Linux distributions. I tested the Office Web Apps hosted from a SharePoint Server 2010 instance running in our lab, and from a beta version of Microsoft’s Office Live service.

Office 2010 is the first version of the suite to be available in 64-bit, as well as 32-bit versions. The suite installs its 32-bit version by default, whether or not you’re running a 64-bit operating system. I didn’t test the 64-bit versions of the applications.

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