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Friday, November 04, 2005

The Microsoft Office 12 Pre Beta 1 Review

The Microsoft Office 12.0 pre-Beta 1 offers many ease-of-use interface tweaks, such as a slider bar in the bottom of each window for zooming in and out of page views. We hope that tabbed toolbar browsing, a welcome feature within Web browsers such as Firefox, will make navigating tasks and documents easier. Each task-oriented toolbar will have only the tools you need, with visual galleries of attributes and suggested layout to eliminate guesswork. You'll be able to make changes to attributes such as font style and watch your document transform in real time.

And rejoice if you've raged for eight years against Clippy. The dorky paper-clip cartoon is really dead; Office Assistant suggestions will no longer glibly interrupt your tasks. Unlike the late Clippy, a ghostly text-formatting toolbar hovers near your cursor; it fades or darkens in response to your mouse movements. Right-clicking a mouse will reveal the same task-specific menu choices as offered in the masthead banner.

Those wanting to put photos in documents will enjoy Word's new image-editing skills, allowing you to crop, alter brightness and even convert images into sepia tones. We're glad that Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Access will finally share similar interface features. Developers will get the freedom to add their own tabs, items to tabs and gallery items to Office 12.0; and companies can build their own toolbars from scratch, if needed. Old, familiar add-ins will also work in the new Office. Users of previous versions of Office will like that Office 12.0 files are backward compatible through Office 97.

Downside: If you've spent the past two years mastering Office 2003, prepare for Microsoft Office 12.0's potentially steep learning curve. You may moan to hear that the Alt keyboard shortcuts will change; luckily, shortcuts using the Ctrl button will stay the same.

While the more visual and tabbed layout may reduce mouse clicks, it eats up more screen real estate than Office 2003 does. Visually, Office 12.0 will look dramatically different, though just marginally more attractive than its predecessor. Icons and charts appear less flat, but our jaws didn't drop at first sight.

In the past, Microsoft has sabotaged itself by unrolling too many new features to Office too fast. We're keeping a look out for problems; after all, Office 12.0 was in its storyboard stages just a few months ago.

Outlook: Unlike prior updates to this productivity package, Microsoft Office 12.0 looks dramatically different from Office 2003. Although Vista and Office 12.0 are separate releases, Microsoft is working to impose a task-oriented paradigm across both that'll be new to everyone.

The tabbed layout of Word, Excel and PowerPoint may be a welcome change if your wrists ache from mouse-clicking through the myriad drop-down menus of aged versions of Office. Microsoft hopes that the new layout helps you discover previously hard-to-find features and will be more intuitive for newbies. But even well-intended software changes that seem graceful at first glance might reveal quirks or hassles during extended use. We'll withhold judgment on Office 12.0 until we start some real-world testing with the Beta 1 release, expected by the end of the year.


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