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Word 2011 brings ribbons, clouds, and full-screen mode

TUAW dives into Microsoft Office 2011 with reviews of the apps that make up the suite. First up: the pans and praises of Word 2011.

It's been a stalwart on the Mac platform since before we said things like "the Mac platform." Turning 25 this year, Microsoft Word is the anchor app for the Office 2011 suite and the one most home, student and many business users will spend the most time in. There's no upgrade pricing for the suite, and the licensing is now locked to an individual machine -- so is it worth it to the average Word user to make the leap? Let's discuss.

"Holy toolbars, Batman!" was the first thing I said after launching Word 2011 for the first time. This is the fabled "ribbon" that Microsoft added to the Windows version of Office. I'm told that I'll get used to it. Some even claim to like it after a while. I'm not sure how long that is supposed to take, but it's apparently more than a few days.

These are the facts: the ribbon does show a number of different functions, including just about everything a normal person would want to do. Although it is crowded with a bunch of icons (including six different icons that prominently display the letter "A" in one close cluster), the options and settings you might want are all "right there" and easy to discover. Microsoft did a great job making it so that it dynamically resizes as you resize the window. If I made my window the full width of my 24" iMac, the toolbar expanded, reflowed, and the Styles section expanded. If I shrunk it down, it reflowed again; it did this all very naturally while showing a lot of attention to detail.

Don't like the ribbon? You can change it, collapse it, tell it not to open automatically with new documents, or disable it entirely. Those settings are easy to find, too, as there's a shortcut to the Preferences window right from the ribbon itself. That's an important point: these are separate preferences. If you are familiar enough with the Mac to go into the regular Word menu to open the preferences, you'll find the Ribbon preferences right there. If you aren't, there's a gear icon on the ribbon itself that will offer to open it for you. Rather than divide up the preferences into two different places, there are two different ways to get to the same place. It's a slight (but important) difference.

microsoft word ribbon and toolbars

Full Screen Mode

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Word has a really nice full-screen mode that covers everything up, including the menu bar. A formatting palette appears at the top, but it automatically hides when not in use. You can select a background image from a variety of "textured" patterns or go with a simple black. It's really quite nice. There's also a full-screen reading format, which will be especially good if you need to read documents on-screen. On my 24" iMac, I was able to see two nice, clear pages side-by-side. This is my favorite feature in the new version of Word, and it will alleviate the need to use other writing tools to start documents that I know will eventually end up in Word anyway.

word full screen mode

Project Gallery

The Project Gallery that greets you when you launch Word has also been upgraded. It looks much better and lets you "page" through the templates to see beyond the cover page. iWork's Pages has a similar dialog, and I use it all the time. Word's is now much better than the new doc gallery in Pages, especially with the inclusion of "Online Templates." (Tip: to expand the Online Templates you have to click the arrow on the left. Usability note to the Office design team: it would be a lot easier if you could click anywhere on that line to get it to expand/collapse.) There are a number of nice templates available – and some terrible looking ones – which will give people a better sense of what they can do beyond dragging some clip art into the standard memo format. Also included are several different resume and CV formats and samples.

word gallery

Notebook Layout View

The biggest reason to own Word for Mac is, in my estimation, the Notebook Layout view. This allows you to take notes which can be (if you wish) organized into different tabs, but the real power is the fact that it can record audio, and that audio is linked to your typed notes. There is a now a playback rate slider that will let you speed up or slow down the audio you have recorded, which can be a real boon when trying to find a particular spot or trying to transcribe a particular part of a lecture accurately. I have used Notebook view to take notes in classrooms and meetings, and I have not found any application that can duplicate its ease of use and the usefulness of the end result. [If you're looking for an iPad app with a similar synchronized audio/text feature, check out the popular Soundnote. –Ed.]

word notebook mode

Microsoft Word: now with Cloud

There are, of course, some new marquee features of Word. The new release includes the ability to share and edit files through Microsoft's Live.com sharing service, which they've named "SkyDrive." The Office Web apps are reasonably good low-end versions of the native apps; we'll be covering them separately. You can also collaborate directly and simultaneously on a single file with other Word 2011 or Word 2010 users once the file is shared. For enterprise users, MS naturally includes support for storing and sharing files on the company's SharePoint platform.

SkyDrive requires a Windows Live ID, which either means breaking out that old Hotmail address or linking your regular email address to a Windows Live ID. I did the latter, and it worked smoothly, sending me a simple email confirmation to create the account. I saved a file to SkyDrive easily enough.

As an aside: you have to hand it to Microsoft. With everyone talking about moving documents to "the cloud," they chose a name for their document sharing system that's just one letter off from the word for jumping out of an airplane and hurtling towards Earth. I'm no branding expert, but I wouldn't think "risky adrenaline rush" would be the association you'd want people to make with your Web-based file system. Perhaps "RipCard" and "BungiJump" weren't available.

Forward compatibility or Backwards compatibility: Pick one

As with Word 2008, the first thing I did was go into Preferences to tell Word to save my documents as the more common .doc format rather than .docx. I did this mostly because I've never been clear what advantages .docx was supposed to give me. [They're better suited to handling complex files with a lot of media content like large images. –Ed.]

You can share .doc files via SkyDrive, but if you want to edit them in the Web apps, they have to be converted to the .docx format. So now you have a clear reason to choose one over the other, depending on which direction of compatibility you want. I left mine on .doc, because I don't see myself using SkyDrive all that often.

My one attempt to edit a document through the Web app was a bit of a disaster. After creating a Live ID and then downloading the new Silverlight plug-in (after being told that "Documents load faster and text looks clearer when Silverlight is installed"), I saved a local file to the SkyDrive service. I logged into Live.com, clicked on the link for my documents, and was impressed with the nice clean interface ... until an ad with a shirtless guy selling GNC products popped up. Oh, Microsoft, really? You couldn't find better ad partners than that? I edited the file in the browser, but the changes did not seem to be reflected back in my local copy. I clicked the "Open in Word" button in the Office Web App, and Safari "quit unexpectedly while using the SharePointWebKitPlugin." OK then.

Collaborative editing is a feature that I don't need much personally, but I could see how it would be useful. That being said, if I wanted to share files with someone, I'd use Dropbox. If I had files I needed to edit with someone else, I'd use Google Documents for the editing stage and then figure out which one of us would take care of the final formatting when I was all finished (although Word and Google Docs deal differently with simultaneous editing; if you have a friend to try the collaborative edits with, give it a go). If those tools are not available to you because your IT department mandates All Things Office, then I'm sure these features will be a welcome addition.

If you are upgrading from Office 2008

Note that Office 2008 is left behind when you install 2011; I believe this is a change from Office 2004, which was removed if you installed Office 2008. This is helpful, because there are both technical and licensing changes in 2011 that prevent some users from installing/using Outlook; they may need to stick with Entourage 2008 (more on that in a moment). My Office files (.doc, .ppt, etc.) were updated to open with the newer version of their respective apps. If you don't need or want the old version of Office, you can remove it using the Remove Office tool, which is usually found here:

/Applications/Microsoft Office 2008/Additional Tools/Remove Office/Remove Office.app

Before you do that, be sure that you understand the new licensing restrictions of Office 2011. Rob Griffiths did a great write-up and explanation of the changes over at Macworld (which are long and complicated enough that I won't repeat them all here). The short version is this: each installation of Office is activated and "locked" to a single computer, and the Multi-Pack (which used to support three simultaneous users) only covers two computers; Home & Student multi-pack still covers three. Also, the Home version of Office 2011 does not include Outlook, and Outlook does not connect to Exchange servers older than late service packs of Exchange 2007 -- all of which we'll take up in our Outlook review.

Should you buy Office 2011?

If you routinely use Office 2010 on Windows, the answer is probably yes. Switching back and forth between versions will be much easier. Obviously if you want to take advantage of the newer features, Office 2011 is the way to go. Personally, I've found that I can do what I need to with Apple's Pages. That won't be true for everyone, but if all you need to do is exchange Word files with people, and especially if you are happy with Office 2008, I don't find many compelling reasons to upgrade. I suspect that many people who buy Office 2011 will do so for Outlook.

Word 2011 is a capable upgrade with some nice features. After the initial sensory overload, the ribbon can be helpful for those who aren't used to exploring menus. If you prefer the menus, you can easily disable the ribbon and use them.

Keep in mind that the 'floating license' discount for multi-Mac households no longer applies with Office 2011, so your upgrade may be a good deal more expensive than you think. If you are looking to buy Office and can afford to wait a few weeks, Microsoft has had some good Black Friday deals available on its website in the past. I don't know if they will again this year, but it's only a few weeks away. Also, many large enterprises or government institutions that license Office for business use get access to the Software Assurance Home Use Program, which provides extremely affordable purchase options for Office installs on home machines. If you think you might be covered there, check with your HR or IT folk. You might save a bundle.

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