Office 2008 (the somewhat delayed review, now post-SP1)


A good while back I picked up a copy of Office 2008 for the Mac and, like most people who had high expectations for it, went straight into Entourage and found it severely lacking.

Then a bunch of things happened – renovations, work, a kid, etc. But even after a couple of minor Office updates and getting it installed on the MacBook Pro at work, I found myself using it less and less.

Why? Well, I blame that solely on Entourage’s shortcomings, for relying as I do upon Outlook and with Citrix enabling ready access to the Windows suite, the natural thing was to use Office 2007 as a whole (plus, of course, all the benefits of having a “roaming” work environment I can access from anywhere).

But I never quite gave up on the idea of doing a complete Office review on an app-by-app basis, and I’ve had a few occasions to dip into the suite now and then – I’d find myself swamped with work and needing to tune out the corporate environment to finish a specific document, I’d be home and need to draw a quick diagram for some purpose or another knowing I’d have to share it with the Windows crowd, or I’d simply need to do some private stuff on my home MacBook.

And throughout the past few months, even before SP1 rolled in, I’ve come to the conclusion that despite quite a few flaws Office 2008 is still the best productivity suite for the Mac]. It is (now) fast, stable, very polished and much more powerful than iWork, and well worth having for anyone who has to live inside a Windows-centric organization during their entire workday.

PowerPoint

I am one of those people whom Edward Tufte has so aptly criticized – I create nearly one presentation a day, although I strive to relegate the slides to the role of supporting material and do my best to avoid getting trapped in the quagmire of corporate form (since the slides themselves are often the only written record of decision processes, and hence fall easily into the trap of bullet-points and boilerplate text).

So PowerPoint was the first Office application I strived to use after Entourage, and it has worked out fairly well for me so far.

In terms of file format compatibility, besides a slew of my old files (which I regularly scavenge for slide re-use) I had no trouble checking out some PowerPoint 2007 samples on the Microsoft Office Online site (at least before they committed the utterly asinine atrocity of requiring ActiveX validation for downloads).

Compatibility-wise, there is only one major issue for me that SP1 didn’t fix: PowerPoint 2008 does not support saving embedded TrueType fonts in your documents2, which can wreak no end of havoc when you’re picking up a presentation six months down the line (by which time I’m usually on another machine that lacks the original fonts).

Another thing that I found profoundly annoying (and that happens throughout Office 2008) are the modal save dialog boxes, which prevent you from doing anything with the application while it saves. Which is fine when you ask it to save, but which I found tremendously annoying when auto-saving, since it would occasionally pop up in mid-sentence or while drawing (breaking more than just my train of thought).

In the end, I switched off auto-saving as the lesser evil between putting up with the interruptions and risking losing data with an application crash (of which, so far, there have been mercifully few).

That said, when exchanging files with Windows users there are always a few minor layout differences, most of which I have to attribute to different defaults and text metrics. They are annoying (and require some realignment of stuff on complex slides), but they’re the kind of stuff you’d get if you changed slide masters or sizes, and they’re nowhere near the kind of content mangling I would get from, say, trying to export from OpenOffice or Keynote.

One example of these issues that I found particularly annoying (since it caught me several times on one of the standard presentation templates I use) was that PowerPoint 2008 does not seem to respect the “all caps” text formatting style – i.e., when I started typing into a text block that I had formatted as being all caps in Office 2007, PowerPoint 2008 inserted lower-case letters…

Still, there are pluses. And one that I wasn’t counting on is diagramming – even though Microsoft will probably never port Visio to other platforms, the Office drawing tools are now good enough to draw fairly complex diagrams that I would ordinarily have created in, say, OmniGraffle or a similar application3.

There was, however, a quirk that has kept me from doing large diagrams with it: every time I was drawing in zoomed mode and hit Cmd-D to duplicate an item, PowerPoint jumped to the top left corner of the slide (which is extremely annoying, to say the least).

This has been apparently fixed in SP1 (contrary to my initial appraisal), and I have been fooling around with it some more today to very good effect4. Expect a few more diagrams to pop up here within a few weeks.

Oddly enough, I have yet to actually deliver a presentation using PowerPoint 2008 – I tend to avoid carting the Pro to meetings and prefer to dump the presentation to a PDF file and present using that instead (since I avoid animations and fancy transitions and prefer keeping the audience’s attention on what I’m saying instead of what’s happening up on screen, that suits me just fine).

But on a couple of dry runs I got the impression that the presenter tools were a lot snappier than the ones in Windows (and maybe even Keynote, which I used once or twice in the past). So the potential is there, and I’m sure it will happen some day.

Excel

Excel is one of those things you either love or hate, and although I tend to love its number-crunching features, I tend to loathe doing charts with it – at least under Windows.

But somehow I’ve grown to like the Excel 2008 charting workflow – maybe it’s just that the defaults are more tasteful than on Office 2007, but I have a feeling that there is more to it than that – like, for instance, the instant tooltip feedback I get regarding whether or not the chart axis is directly under my mouse cursor. It’s just better in terms of usability.

One thing I’d dearly love to see fixed is that for some reason the default in Mac OS X is for it to open in page layout view rather than the normal view, which I personally dislike. Sure, you can change that in the preferences, but it’s one of those attrition points that people who constantly switch between environments would rather do without – i.e., I’d rather have Excel behave as much as possible as it does on Windows, and niceties be buggered.

Page layout is pretty useless for me anyway, since most of the worksheets I work with or create are far too large to ever be printed in any useful fashion (which is, by the way, one of my main criticisms of Numbers – it feels more like a table-oriented DTP app than a spreadsheet).

One of the questions people asked me most often (especially people considering The Big Switch) was whether Excel used the same keyboard shortcuts (or at least similar ones) as the Windows version.

Since things like hitting F2 to edit a cell and F4 to toggle absolute references are an intrinsic part of the muscle memory of anyone who uses Excel to do serious work, allow me to tell you the harsh truth, straight up:

You will spend many frustrating moments hitting key combinations that Excel 2008 doesn’t care about for years to come.

Sure, it’s understandable that there ought to be quite a few differences due to the Mac environment, but the only reason I’m not having a pretty rough time getting used to Ctrl+U and Cmd+T instead of F2 and F4 is that I have been using Office on the Mac for many years, and as such I learned some of those key combos along the way.

Word

Word is kind of the grey horse of the suite if you ignore its fancier 2008-era enhancements, and although I decided to draft this review in Word, I must say that my initial impression of it (despite years of using Word on Macs since System 6 was all the rage) was not very good.

Initial performance was sluggish (although it was markedly improved after installing SP1), I had trouble formatting a couple of tables on another document, and when I tried saving this draft as HTML to see whether it would be suitable for direct publishing, I ran across something that I personally found somewhat irksome and which pretty much set the tone from there on:

For some reason, the default encoding with which Office exports to web formats is (wait for it…)

MacRoman.

Yes, you read that right. In this day and age of Unicode and UTF-8, saving something to HTML format from within Word will result into a content-type of text/html; charset="macintosh".

This can (and should) be changed in the Preferences dialog or in Web Options when saving, but I found it an unforgivable anachronism, a leftover from bygone years when generating platform-agnostic output was needlessly complicated.

The HTML itself is moderately clean – which is to say that it uses CSS rather than the hideous FrontPage-isms of yesteryear and can be tweaked with relative ease, but I can see no real reason (no, not even backwards compatibility) for anyone to have that as a default encoding when exporting to HTML these days.

That said, Word is… well, Word. I have the good fortune to not have to write very extensive documents too often these days, but the bane of having to review mammoth specifications sent by other people and copiously annotate them using Track Changes – which I was able to do without much trouble, except that at least on one occasion things went a bit awry5 and some of the formatting I included was detrimental to the end result (something I could attribute to minor glitches in font selections or idiosyncrasies of the .doc format).

There are some things I’m starting to like, though, like the new, clean notebook view, which actually think is a better way to go about taking notes than OneNote – I find that feels too freeform to be of any practical use.

I like my notes to be directly transferable to a “proper” format instead of being squirreled away somewhere, and it’s trivial to take meeting notes in notebook view, switch to print layout and instantly have a presentable document to send around.

Stuff I’ve yet to explore includes the Publishing Layout view (where I think Word starts trying to be all things to all people) and digging up some truly ancient documents and seeing what Word can do with them.

I’m especially concerned (and this is something I think applies to all Office apps) about old images, Windows metafiles (especially “enhanced” ones directly pasted in to docs) and, of course, OLE-embedded stuff – a mainstay of fundamentally computer-illiterate IT staffers who think the best way to give you the full spec is to drag and drop the old specs into a new document.

But I digress. There is surely a lot more that could be written about Office 2008, and I’m pretty sure that I will eventually squirrel in further notes during the next few months. But it is, without any question, far better than iWork and OpenOffice put together.

It’s a shame about Entourage, though – it sticks out like a sore thumb, and is the only thing keeping Office from being a truly 5-star package.

1 With the exception of Entourage, which I have come to consider an unmitigated waste of disk space – not just on my hard disk, but also until I excluded its horrid monolithic database from “Time Machine”:Time_Machine

2 This caused me considerable grief when trying to meet a deadline, to the extent where I gave up and fired up Citrix to finish my presentation in Office 2007.

3 You can see some examples in this post. I have done quite a few more in this style, and it’s pretty easy to go for different looks with the built-in styles.

4 It bears mentioning, however, that if you’re like me and like to use Ctrl+arrows to tweak the positioning of graphical elements, that will play havoc with the default key bindings for Leopard’s Spaces feature (so you’ll jump to the next virtual desktop instead of tweaking that text box).

5 Prior to SP1. I haven’t yet fired up Word to do more than draft a few meeting notes and convert a document to PDF format since then, so this may have been fixed already.