Office 2010 Technical Preview: No 'Wow,' Just Solid Improvements

Now in Technical Preview, Office 2010 brings a number of welcome enhancements to Microsoft's productivity suite. But the Web and mobile versions of Office 2010 are not yet available.

Microsoft Office 2010, as revealed by the just-released Technical Preview, brings a set of important if incremental improvements to the market-leading office suite. Among them: making the Ribbon the default interface for all Office applications, adding a host of new features to individual applications such as video editing in PowerPoint and improved mail handling in Outlook and introducing a number of Office-wide productivity enhancers, including photo editing tools and a much-improved paste operation.

Missing from the Technical Preview is what will be the most important change to Office in years -- a Web-based version for both enterprises and consumers. Also missing from the preview is access to Office for mobile phones and other mobile clients. Those features will be introduced in later versions of the software; the final version is expected to ship in the first half of 2010.

This review will concentrate on what is present in the Technical Preview, not what is expected to arrive in future releases.

Global changes

Office 2007 introduced the Ribbon, a major change to Office's interface that replaced the old menus and submenus with a graphical system that groups buttons for common tasks together in tabs. But Microsoft didn't go whole hog with it back then; Outlook, among other applications, was not given the full Ribbon treatment.

The Ribbon takes center stage

In this version of Office, all applications now share the common Ribbon interface, including Outlook, OneNote and all other Office applications, and SharePoint. Love it or hate it, the Ribbon is here to stay.

In addition, the Ribbon has been tweaked. The Office button in the upper-left corner of the screen has been redesigned; it's now a small, unobtrusive rectangle rather than a large circle. Microsoft says that many people thought the circle was a branding icon, rather than a functional button that can be clicked on. The button has also been moved down slightly from its previous location at the very top of the screen.

Backstage View

When you click the Office button, it brings up what Microsoft calls Backstage View. Backstage is essentially one-stop shopping for information about documents and common tasks you can perform, such as saving and printing files. It builds on, but goes well beyond, a similar feature in Office 2007. Choosing Print from the menu on the left, for example, lets you preview your document before printing; you can also choose printer settings such as whether to print one-sided or collated, what margins to use, and so on.

In many instances, features in the Backstage View were present in Office 2007, but hard to get at. In Backstage View, they're brought to one location. The Info tab in Backstage is particularly useful, giving you important information about your current file, such as the author and last time it was modified, and letting you review previous versions.

Paste Preview

Backstage View and the presence of the Ribbon in all applications are the most noticeable of the global changes to Office, but there are also other important ones. One of them at first glance appears to be a minor change, but could prove to be one of the biggest productivity enhancers in Office 2010 -- an improvement to the humble copy-and-paste operation.

This simple task has become more difficult to use and confusing over the years because of the many different types of content you can now copy and paste into Office applications, including mixed text and graphics, tables and other complex content. Should you keep text only, for example, and should you keep the original formatting or the destination formatting, and which should be the default? With versions of Office before 2010, you'd make a decision, see the results, undo it and try another option.

In the new version of Office, such trial and error is a thing of the past, thanks to Paste Preview. When you paste in content, you can now preview how it will look depending on your paste choice, making it much less likely that you'll have to undo a paste operation. Hover your mouse over each option, and you'll see the effect that using that option will have on the operation. When you see the option you want, simply make that choice. Paste Preview lets you set a default paste option as well.

Photo editing tools

Also enhanced in Office 2010 are the photo editing tools, accessible via the Ribbon. Select a photo or picture you've placed in a document, and a Format tab will appear with tools for editing images in a variety of ways, including sharpening or softening, changing the contrast and color saturation, cropping, eliminating the background, and adding a variety of "artistic effects."

In Office 2007, the tools available for doing this were rudimentary. You could change the brightness and contrast, for example, but without the same degree of control and visual feedback, and you couldn't remove backgrounds or add other effects.

Communications, 64-bit version

Microsoft has also strengthened the links between Office and various Microsoft communication server products. If you use Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 R2 and Microsoft Office Communicator 2007 R2 with Office 2010, you'll be able to see the availability status of other people with whom you work and ways to contact them, such as e-mail and instant messaging. SharePoint is even more intimately tied to Office, and lets people collaborate on Office documents.

One final overall note: Office is now available in a 64-bit version as well.

A look at the new Outlook

If you live in e-mail (and who doesn't?), you'll most likely be pleased with the new version of Outlook, which adds a variety of features designed to help solve the most common productivity problem -- e-mail overload.

And, as noted above, the Outlook interface has changed radically, with the addition of the full-blown Ribbon. This puts most functions within easy reach -- functions that previously you might have had to navigate through several sets of menus to find. Ribbon-haters will not be pleased, although the rest of us will welcome it. Apart from the addition of the Ribbon, Outlook's overall interface remains the same, with the same paned layout.

Faster mail handling

One of the most useful new features is called Quick Steps, which speeds up mail handling considerably. Right-click on a message, and you can choose from a variety of actions to take on it -- moving the message to a specific folder, forwarding it to your manager, setting up a team meeting with its recipients, sending e-mail to an entire team and so on.

You can easily add new items to the Quick Steps menu by choosing from a set of predefined Quick Steps or by creating your own using a wizard-like interface. You can also delete existing items or edit the items.

Better message threading

This new version of Outlook also tackles one of Outlook's perennial problems -- how poorly it follows threads of messages. In previous versions, the interface for doing this was confusing, so much so that most people I know, including me, rarely used it.

In this version, following a thread is exceedingly easy. Right-click on an e-mail and select Find Related --> Messages in this Conversation, and you'll see a view of all messages in the conversation that can easily be followed, collapsed or expanded. You can also choose to arrange all your mail by conversations, using the Conversation View. The ability to follow threads may seem a small thing, but it's one of those small touches added in this version of Office that should pay big dividends in increased productivity.

There's a related feature that helps cut down on e-mail clutter -- the ability to "clean up" a conversation. When you do this, you delete all of the unnecessary quoted and previous text in long e-mail threads; only unduplicated versions remain. However, once you do that, all of the quoted and previous text and e-mails are actually deleted, not just hidden, so use this feature carefully. It would be more useful if you were given the option of hiding the text, not completely deleting it.

Also of note

Microsoft also says that Outlook now includes Mail Tips that warn you against sending out e-mails that you perhaps shouldn't send. So, for example, if you're sending a message to too large a group so that it seems as if its spam, or if you're sending mail to someone who is out of the office, or if you're sending an e-mail to external parties and doing so might compromise confidential information, you'll be warned. It works only with Exchange, so I could not test this feature.

There's one thing that didn't change in this version of Outlook that many people wish had -- the exclusive use of Word as your e-mail text editor. Before Outlook 2007, you had the choice of using Word or the Internet Explorer rendering engine for creating and displaying e-mails composed in HTML. In Outlook 2007, it became all Word all the time, and in Outlook 2010 that remains unchanged. Some people complain that Word doesn't handle HTML rendering as well as IE.

One important feature that this version of Outlook doesn't have that it should is integration with social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn. There is, however, a free, third-party Outlook 2003/2007 add-in called Xobni that grabs information from those sites about people with whom you correspond, so that you can get a great deal of information about people with whom you're communicating, right within Outlook. A Xobni representative said the add-on will be updated to work with Outlook 2010 by the time it ships next year. Don't be surprised if Microsoft adds a feature like this in a later version of Outlook.

Minor, but useful, changes to Word

Word hasn't received nearly as significant changes as has Outlook. But there are some tweaks.

Search has gotten a nice boost with a set of features that let you search charts, tables, footnotes and other content. The search interface has changed as well. It now opens as a left-hand pane, with options for narrowing the search. It also displays a navigable map of thumbnails of your document.

Those who like to pretty up documents will be pleased by a few new additions. You can now add special effects such as bevel, glow, reflect and shadow to text. There's also support for more sophisticated typography, such as using ligatures and small caps.

Also new is a tool that lets you take screenshots and insert them into Word documents. From the Insert tab, select Screenshot, and you'll see a list of screenshots you've already taken, even if they've been taken with a different program. You can then insert any of them into Word. In addition, you can select the Screen Clipping option, which allows you to take a screenshot anywhere in Windows and insert it into your document.

Document sharing has also been enhanced, with multiple people able to work on a document simultaneously online, although I was not able to test that feature. There are other, smaller enhancements as well. But overall, Word 2010 isn't much different from Word 2007.

Not much new in Excel

Excel hasn't been touched as much as the other major applications in Office 2010, but there have been some useful additions. The most important is called "Sparklines" -- small cell-sized charts that you can embed in a worksheet next to data to get a quick visual representation of the data. For example, if you had a worksheet that tracked the performance of several dozen stocks, you could create a Sparkline for each stock that graphed its performance over time, in a very compact way.

Conditional formatting -- the ability to apply a format to a range of cells, and then have the formatting change according to the value of the cell or formula -- has been improved as well, including the addition of more styles and icons.

As with other Office 2010 applications, Excel has new tools for sharing data with other people, including multiple people working on a document at a time.

For businesses, Microsoft is touting a Project Gemini add-on for Excel 2010 that can handle very large amounts of data -- even worksheets that include hundreds of millions of rows. It will ship as part of SQL Server 2008 R2 in the first half of 2010; a community technology preview will be available in the second half of 2009.

PowerPoint enters the video age

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth at least ten thousand, but up until now PowerPoint's video features have been rudimentary at best. PowerPoint 2010 introduces a slew of enhanced video features, although in the Technical Preview not all were working properly.

Key among the new features is a set of basic video editing tools built directly into PowerPoint. They're not as powerful as full-blown video editing software but work well for common tasks such as trimming and compressing videos and adding fade-ins and fade-outs. Highlight a video you've embedded in a presentation, and the tools appear in the Ribbon.

Also useful is a set of video controls you can use during the presentation to pause, rewind, fast-forward and so on -- something that the previous version of PowerPoint did not have.

One issue with video, though, is that PowerPoint does not play a wide variety of formats. It plays Audio Video Interleave (.avi) files as well as Windows Media (.wmv) files, but many other video formats require the installation of third-party codecs or add-in applications.

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