Walt Mossberg

Mac Users Are Getting New Outlook From Rival

A new, faster, better version of Microsoft Office is coming out Oct. 26. But it isn’t for Microsoft’s own Windows operating system. It is for the Macintosh computers made by the software giant’s archrival, Apple. And, among other things, it will bestow upon the Mac a benefit heretofore available only on Windows: Outlook. The popular email, calendar and contacts program is finally arriving on the Mac in a version that looks and works very much like the Windows version.

The advent of a robust, full-featured Outlook for the Mac isn’t all that’s new in Office for Mac 2011, but it’s a big deal, especially for Mac users, or those wishing to switch to the Mac, who work in companies where Outlook is the standard. These folks already have been able to use the Windows version of Outlook on their machines, using special software that lets the Mac run Windows. But now, they can use a native Mac version of the program that can import data directly from Windows Outlook.

I’ve been testing this new version of Mac Office—in fact, I’m writing this column in its new edition of Word—and I like it a lot. While it isn’t an exact clone of Office for Windows, I found in my tests that each of its key components—Word, Excel and PowerPoint—has been significantly improved and made more compatible with its Windows sibling.

So, even Mac Office users who don’t use Outlook will be pleased by the changes. And, while there are some features in the Windows version still missing in the Mac edition, there are also some new Mac-only features. In general, there’s now more parity between the two.

Like the prior Mac version, Office 2008, released nearly three years ago, the new Office 2011 uses the same file formats as the Windows version. It can read and write Office files without any conversion or translation, so a document produced in, say, Word for the Mac, can be read by a user of Windows Word without the latter even knowing it was created on a Mac—and vice versa.

Unlike the 2008 version, the new Mac Office can seamlessly interact with Microsoft’s new stripped-down, free, online version of Office, called Office Web Apps. And it can save to, and open documents from, Microsoft’s free online SkyDrive file repository, or its SharePoint online service for businesses.

The first thing Mac Office users will notice about the new 2011 version is its speed. While the 2008 version was faster than its predecessors, this latest version is dramatically snappier. In my tests, all the components launched much, much faster than their 2008 counterparts, and opened even large documents much more quickly.

PTECH

A new full screen view in Word shows just a single line of minimal tools.
High Fidelity

Another big plus is fidelity with Windows documents. Because the Windows and Mac operating systems are different, fidelity isn’t perfect, but, in my tests, it was much better in this new version. For instance, some fancy Word layouts and font treatments created in Windows that formerly looked wrong when opened on a Mac now look the same. This is especially noticeable in Excel, where charts and layouts on complex spreadsheets sometimes didn’t carry over. In my tests, I found that many of these incompatibles have been banished.

These fidelity improvements, however, are much better with documents created in the latest Windows version, called Office 2010, and are weaker with those created in older Windows versions. Also, the new Mac version has restored the same macro system present in the Windows version, so automated actions created by power users and companies in Windows documents can now be used in the Mac version.

There still are some things the Windows version does that the Mac version doesn’t. These include pivot charts in Excel, full video editing in PowerPoint, and the new “backstage” feature that presents printing and other options in a large, easier-to-use mode. But there also are some Mac-only features, including the ability to dynamically reorder PowerPoint slides in a 3-D view, plus a new Full Screen view in Word that allows reading and editing documents with no toolbars, or with just a single line of minimal tools.

The radically different Ribbon toolbar that appeared in Windows Office several years ago—a series of tabs organized by function—is also in this new Mac version. But, unlike in the Windows version, the new Mac Office retains the familiar menus and toolbar icons, and the Ribbon can be turned off completely, except in Outlook. However, unlike in the latest Windows version, you can’t add custom tabs to the Ribbon.

Outlook replaces a Microsoft (MSFT) email, contacts and calendar program in Mac Office called Entourage, which itself succeeded an old, very limited version of Outlook for the Mac produced years ago. Many users found Entourage clunky and complicated, and it couldn’t directly import data from Outlook on Windows.

Microsoft strove hard to make the new Outlook look and work like the one on Windows. There still are some Windows Outlook features the Mac version lacks, such as side-by-side calendars and task status reports, but, overall, I found it worked well.

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Microsoft strove hard to make the new Outlook look and work very much like the one on Windows.
The Sync Situation

I was able to import a nearly 3-gigabyte Windows Outlook data file with no problems. And I was able to easily and perfectly import all my messages and settings from Apple’s own built-in Mail program and to sync with Apple’s (AAPL) built-in Mac address book. But Microsoft is still working on syncing with Apple’s iCal calendar program, and the Outlook calendar can’t sync with Google Calendar. Also, while the new Mac Outlook can import Windows Outlook data, it can’t export its data to Windows yet. Microsoft says it is also working on that.

In general, Outlook on the Mac proved fast and capable in my tests. It doesn’t work exactly like its Windows counterpart, but Windows users will find it very similar. And it has some Mac-specific features. For instance, its contents can be easily searched by the Mac’s built-in universal search feature, Spotlight, and can be backed up by the Mac’s Time Machine backup system.

Office for Mac 2011 will be available in two versions for average consumers: a $199 Home and Business edition, and a Home and Student version, which costs $119, but lacks Outlook, whereas Entourage was included in the $149 similarly named 2008 package. Prices on both new editions are higher if you want to install them on multiple machines. There is also a $99 special academic edition, mostly aimed at college stores, that includes Outlook, but has no option for multiple installations.

Microsoft’s new Mac Office is by far the best Mac version of the suite I’ve used, and I can recommend it.

Find Walt’s columns and videos at the All Things Digital website, http://walt.allthingsd.com.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at walt.mossberg@wsj.com


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