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Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac


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Office 2004 for Mac: An Essential Upgrade

Now this is more like it. When the previous Mac version of Microsoft Office came out, we were happy to see that the entire suite had been rewritten to run under Mac OS X but dismayed that beyond that there were no compelling reasons to upgrade. Thankfully, Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac has all the reasons we could ask for. It is loaded with far more new features than will fit in this review, some of which bring it to up-to-date with the Windows version and others of which are Mac firsts.

The centerpiece of the suite is the new Project Center, an exclusive (for now) feature that helps you organize both large and small projects. The Project Center resides in Entourage (the suite's e-mail and calendaring app) but is accessible from Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Simply click the Project Center button and then click to create a new project. You can then name the project, assign a deadline, create tasks within it, and create links to all related notes, documents, and contacts.

When you're finished, everything relating to a project is stored in one central location. Projects can even be shared with coworkers. After weeks of using Project Center while we lived with the new suite, we think that it's a big advance—and enough to make users of Office for Windows jealous.

Entourage gains other useful improvements, such as better spam filtering, which works at least as well as Apple Mail's filtering, plus a simple archiving system for saving old messages or schedules. The app also gains a three-column view (as seen in Outlook 2003), with folders and shortcuts on the left, Inbox messages in the center, and the messages' contents on the right. We like the quick view and easy navigation this setup affords. On the plus side, the program's Exchange (2000 and later) support now uses WebDAV. All in all, Outlook 2003 still offers more features (such as the ability to place voting buttons in messages); Entourage offers the core Exchange functionality but not all the extras Outlook users get.

Entourage's main competition comes from Apple's own Mail, Address Book, and iCal apps, which are preloaded on every new Mac. While the price is right, Entourage's various utilities are so thorough and well integrated that it puts Apple's efforts a distant second in quality.

Word, the writer's staple, includes two notable improvements this time around. Students and other note-takers will love the new notebook layout view (a Mac first), which mimics the look of lined notebook paper and makes is easy to type in well-organized notes and outlines. Notebook layout view has its own simplified toolbar and offers a quick way to record audio notes, which are linked to the original Word document but can also be detached.

For business users, Microsoft has beefed-up Word's Track Changes feature, finally bringing it up to the level of the Windows version. One love-it-or-hate-it feature that comes over from the Windows version is the color-coded comment balloons, which announce who added which changes. Track Changes also now integrates with MSN Messenger, so that in the extremely rare case that everyone on a project uses Messenger, users can start IM sessions directly from the a Track Changes message.

It's the small usability improvements to Word that won us over, though. We love the way that the program now asks how it should format pasted-in content, so that you can instantly put additions in your text style of choice. Or the way that the Formatting Palette becomes transparent when not in use but springs back to life when you mouse over it.
Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac

PowerPoint, the giant among presentation tools, suffered an attack last year when Apple introduced Keynote, its own presentation app. Keynote married PowerPoint's efficiency with Apple's own slick graphics and effects to create presentations that were truly eye-catching. This is PowerPoint's first chance to respond to Keynote and reinvigorate its tired business graphics, but it doesn't rise to the challenge. Although PowerPoint boasts over 100 new templates and over 200 new animations, they look bland and businesslike. Keynote makes a far richer presentation.

On the other hand, PowerPoint's new presenter tools are much appreciated. Using them, the person giving a presentation can easily see prepared notes, thumbnails of the slides, and a clock counting the time. The presenter can also reorder and edit slides even while giving a presentation, without the audience knowing.

The Excel spreadsheet app contains another nifty Mac first: a page layout view that shows exactly how a spreadsheet will print out without your having to invoke the print preview. If you've ever found it a nuisance to switch back and forth between Excel's regular view and the print preview, then you'll appreciate the page layout view. It makes tweaking columns, margins, and everything else on the spreadsheet a breeze.

Two other suitewide Mac firsts help make this version of Office even more useful. Compatibility reports let you know if your documents will display properly in other versions of Office, which is a huge concern for Mac users in this Windows-centric world. Also, a new Scrapbook feature lets you store frequently used items and grab them quickly. This version still isn't the business tool that the Windows Office is, though: There's no Mac version of the Access database, for example, and the suite lacks the SharePoint collaboration tools.

In compatibility testing, the new Office for Mac performed flawlessly, even when we sent various documents back and forth between the Mac and Windows versions of the apps to see how they would display. More important, it's a pleasure to use. With a slew of useful improvements, this Office is a must-have for the vast majority of Mac owners and a must upgrade for current Office users.

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