However, if you only use a small fraction of what Office offers or you felt that getting the hang of Office 2003 was painful enough, then you might want to leave Office 2007 on the shelf or try it free for two months first. We imagine that power users who have mastered the nooks and crannies of the older versions will curse the steep learning curve. But take heed: The new era of Office affects even those who don't upgrade, and a conversion tool is needed to let older Office versions open Office 2007's default, Open XML files.
Office 2007 does offer complex features that you can't yet find elsewhere. However, it also falls short in key areas. Integration among the applications isn't as thorough as we'd hoped, and there's no one-click way to collaborate with others on an edit without buying Microsoft's Groove online collaboration tool or working within a server setting. The advent of Office 2007 comes as a growing number of competing tools are simpler, cost less (if they aren't free), and handle the same core features. Oddly, despite its bevy of Windows Live and Office Live services, Microsoft chose not to build a bridge to the Web for all Office users.
We reviewed Microsoft Office Standard 2007, which costs a substantial $399, or $239 to upgrade. This suite includes Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and Outlook in addition to Office Tools that manage language settings and pictures and include a diagnostics tool for use in the event of a crash. Households that don't need desktop e-mail should opt for Office Home & Student at $149 (no upgrade option), a new suite roughly equivalent to Office Student and Teacher 2003 but with OneNote instead of Outlook. The Basic package, with Word, Excel, and Outlook, only comes pre-installed on computers sold by manufacturers that have Microsoft software licensing agreements. At $449 ($279 upgrade), Microsoft Office Small Business 2007 costs $50 less than the Professional edition that includes the Access database program. Only the Enterprise and the $679 ($539 upgrade) Ultimate editions include the new Groove tool. And oddly both the Enterprise and Professional Plus editions lack the Business Contact Manager component of Outlook, which corporate users might want for their marketing efforts.
Breezing through the options, our fastest installation of Microsoft Office Standard 2007 took no more than 20 minutes on a Windows XP computer. However, settle into your chair if you're curious about the fine print. We spent 40 minutes just skimming the 10,379-word End User License Agreement and stopped before we could understand it all. Here are some of the highlights: You're allowed to install Office 2007 software on two computers; you must agree to download updates whenever Microsoft decides you need them; and Microsoft may verify your license key at any time to make sure that you're not using pirated software. We wished that Microsoft better explained the Internet-based services Office 2007 can connect to.
When we chose to Customize the installation on another PC, the process was more involved. It's too bad that while this process lets you handpick which items to install, it doesn't explain what you'll miss if you reject, say, Office Tools. And while Microsoft displays your available hard drive space as well as how much of that is needed by your selected set of applications, there's no indication of the size of each individual application and you're left to your subtraction skills here. In the end, we installed everything available.
From that point on, loading the Office suite onto our hard drive took 15 minutes flat. Office Standard 2007 is smaller than its predecessors, at about 3GB. Unlike the Windows Vista operating system, the new Office does not demand the newest hardware. Office 2007 is supposed to work the same whether running on Windows XP, Windows Server 2003, or Windows Vista. At a minimum, you'll need to have Windows Server 2003 with Service Pack 1 or Windows XP SP2 on a 500MHz processor with 256MB of RAM (512MB or more for Outlook with Business Contact Manager, which comes in the Small Business, Professional, and Ultimate editions). However, of course, this rules out those still using older versions of Windows.
Although the terms of the EULA were less than transparent, we were pleased that Microsoft offered the least intrusive installation settings by default. For example, Privacy Options leaves it up to users to hook up to online Help automatically, as well as to download a file that continually tracks system problems. No Office 2007 shortcuts appeared on our desktop or in our system tray, either. The Office Shortcut Bar--a feature that disappeared in the 2003 version--is back, located within the Office Tools menu.
Once you open each Office 2007 application, you'll see a radically different, blue interface that's brighter than in the past. Word, Excel, and PowerPoint arrange features within a tabbed Ribbon toolbar that largely replaces the gray drop-down menus and dialog boxes from a quarter-century of Office software. The Office logo menu, docked in the upper left corner, bundles many commands from the old File and Edit menus. Outlook lacks the logo button and adopts the Ribbon only within its message composition and scheduling windows. There's a core set of always-on tabs, as well as contextual tabs that hide until the software detects that you need them. For instance, the Picture Tools Format tab only shows up when you click on an image. We were stumped at first about how to format images, tables, and charts until we got used to clicking on them first.
The Office 2007 programs, which share a new graphics engine, strongly emphasize ways to decorate documents. Pull-down Style Galleries let you preview how new fonts, color themes, chart styles, images and such appear before you apply the change. This is great for selecting from menus of fonts or page templates. At the same time, however, the "intelligent" shape-shifting may bewilder those who don't realize that they must click a style to apply a formatting change. In most cases, the preformatted styles only present colors within the same range already used by your document. And sometimes the pull-down galleries jut into the document and obscure the charts or images you're trying to change, and you can't turn them off.
Nor do the dynamic previews apply to all style elements. For example, from the Page Layout tab of Word, PowerPoint, and Excel, you can preview Themes of colors and templates by mousing over them. But the Page Borders option takes you to an unhelpful, old-school pop-up box without dynamic previews.
On the one hand, newbies to Office software, particularly young, visual learners, may find the 2007 interface easier to master than Office 2003. Icons label most of the commands, and many expand into pull-down menus. There are inconsistencies, though, such as buttons that open older dialog boxes. And many items have moved to places that we don't find intuitive. For instance, the dictionary and thesaurus in Word are under the Review tab, not References near the footnote and bibliography buttons. And the Insert Rows command in Excel 2007 is located beneath the Home tab, not the Insert tab. Likewise, PowerPoint's New Slide button is under Home instead of Insert. Notice a pattern? Although the Home tab houses many frequently used features, it's not the first place we look for them.
After more than a year of alternating between Office 2003 and test versions of Office 2007, we still found it hard to break old habits. Microsoft advertises the Ribbon's ability to help you "browse, pick, and click." If you're upgrading, though, you could get stuck in the "browse" stage longer than you'd like, slowing your work.
Rather than piling on more features--Word 2003 alone had some 1,500 commands--Microsoft attempted to better show off functions that already existed. To some extent, the Ribbon meets this goal, as it's easier to find Conditional Formatting in Excel, among other sophisticated tools. And the View tab in Word and Excel better provides options for viewing two or three open documents at once.