Walt Mossberg

New Office for Macs Speeds Up Programs, Integrates Formats

Despite the fierce rivalry between Microsoft and Apple, there is one product on which the two companies work closely together: the Macintosh version of Microsoft Office. Microsoft makes a nice chunk of change from this software suite, which includes Mac versions of the famous Word, Excel and PowerPoint programs. Apple needs the Microsoft office suite so its Macintosh computers can live in harmony with the dominant Windows world.

On Jan. 15, Microsoft will be releasing its first new version of Office for the Mac in nearly four years. It is called Office 2008, and it has two big changes from the current version, Office 2004.

For one, it is the first edition of Mac Office designed specifically for the new Intel-based Macs that Apple began rolling out two years ago. While the old Office ran adequately on the new Macs, it was slow to launch and slow to perform certain operations.

Second, the new Mac Office now reads and writes a new set of file formats Microsoft introduced a year ago in the latest Windows version of Office, called Office 2007. Mac owners receiving files in these new formats had been forced to employ separate and clumsy file converter programs.

Now, once again, the Mac version of Office can handle all the same Word, Excel and PowerPoint files — in both old and new formats — created in Windows and vice versa. No translation or conversion is necessary. The files just open and save as they do in the Windows version.

I’ve been testing the new Mac Office on two different Intel-based Macs: an early MacBook Pro laptop and a new iMac desktop. On both machines, Office 2008 launched and ran far more rapidly and smoothly than Office 2004 did.

I also tested Office 2008 with a variety of documents created in the Windows version using the new file formats, which can be identified by four-letter file name extensions that end in the letter “x.” All opened rapidly and perfectly in the new Mac version.

As in the latest Windows version, the new Mac Office 2008 allows you to opt to continue to save automatically all your files in the old, familiar formats-DOC for Word, XLS for Excel and PPT for PowerPoint. But, if you want to switch to the new formats, or need to use a file you receive that was created in them, you can now do so with ease.

Like its predecessors, the new Mac Office differs in one major respect from its Windows cousin: It lacks Outlook, the famed, if bloated, program for handling email, calendar and contacts. Instead, Office 2008 has a new version of Microsoft’s Mac counterpart to Outlook, called Entourage, which performs the same tasks but doesn’t use Outlook’s file format. Like Outlook, Entourage can work with the Microsoft Exchange servers used by corporations, as well as with consumer email systems.

Office 2008 for the Mac has some new features, but it isn’t nearly as radical an overhaul as the latest Windows version was. While the latter junked all the menus and traditional toolbars in Word, Excel and PowerPoint, the new Mac version retains the familiar menus and toolbars. It doesn’t use the so-called Ribbon, a band of icons that is the signature feature of Windows Office 2007.

The new Mac Office, however, does include a new user-interface feature called the Elements Gallery, a narrow strip across the top of the document that lets you easily summon and insert canned features for laying out documents. For example, in Word, you can quickly insert a handsome cover page. In Excel, you can rapidly add a specific type of chart or a spreadsheet preconfigured, for instance, as an invoice. In PowerPoint, you can quickly add customized slide themes and layouts.

There is also a Publishing Layout View in Word that speeds the creation of things like newsletters, and a Ledger Sheet feature in Excel for creating home and small-business budgets.

In my tests, I ran into a few minor glitches. I had to edit my rules for sorting email in Entourage to get them to work and, at first, I was unable to add new spellings to my custom dictionary in Word, though that problem went away. But, generally, the program worked well.

The standard edition of the new Office costs $400, or $240 to upgrade your current version. There is a deluxe edition, which includes a professional media-management program, for $500, or an upgrade price of $300.

For most average users, however, I recommend the Home and Student edition for just $150 that can be legally installed on up to three different Macs. This inexpensive edition has full versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Entourage, but doesn’t work with Exchange servers.

Microsoft is also running a sale, through Jan. 14, under which anyone buying Office 2004 gets a coupon that allows them to receive the high-end version of Office 2008 for just a shipping and handling fee of $6.99.

Microsoft Office 2008 for the Mac is a solid program that I can recommend for anyone with a new Mac. It’s not revolutionary, but it does the job.

Email me at mossberg@wsj.com. Find all my columns and videos online, free, at the new All Things Digital Web site, http://walt.allthingsd.com.

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