Three lonely months ago, when I started my review of Office 2007 Beta 2, I thought I would be able to rattle off the subsequent several parts to that review pretty quickly. And indeed, since that time, I've written a lot about the various client applications that make up Office 2007 Beta 2. The problem, of course, is that you haven't read them, at least not yet. I'm not trying to keep secrets here. It's just that, sometimes, these things take on a life of their own. They get overly long. And of course other things--like Windows Vista, primarily--get in the way too. It's been a busy time.

Another issue: One of the tough things about covering beta software is that you can walk a fine line between too little and too much information. If I write too much about Office 2007's new features during the beta, I won't have much to do when the products are finalized, and my final review of Office 2007 will be the size of a pamphlet. And when people come to the site to read the "Office 2007 review"--you know, the only one they'll care about by that point--there won't be much too it.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that it's time to get back on track. Rather than present a review of all of the Beta 2 applications in a single document, I'll cover them one at a time at first, and then round up the stragglers at the end. The first application I'll cover is Microsoft Word. There are two reasons for this: One, as a writer, I live in Microsoft Word, and I've been putting this one through its paces like no other Office 2007 applications. Two, it's the poster child for the new Office 2007 results-oriented user interface. It's the one that gets all the demo face-time. Let's jump in.

New features in Microsoft Word 2007 Beta 2

It's hard to understate how traumatic it is to migrate to a new version of an application with which you are intimately familiar. The trauma is all the more jarring when the application has been as thoroughly overhauled as has Word 2007. Gone are the familiar toolbars and my beloved Styles and Formatting task pane. In their place are useful but oh-so-unusual ribbons, ribbon groups, galleries, and the Mini Toolbar. It's an alien landscape, vaguely familiar and yet disturbingly different. And I love it. Oh God, do I love it. Here are my favorite new features in Word 2007.

New user interface

In part one of this review, I discussed the new user interface in depth, so there's no reason to beat it death here again. Suffice to say that it works, and it works well. One thing I was concerned about early on was that the new user interface would require a lot of training. But the reality is that I moved very naturally into the new way of doing things, while relying on certain legacy keyboard commands--love that, by the way--to get work done the way I'm accustomed to. For example, Word 2007--finally!--displays a live word count in the status bar as you type (see below), but it also supports all the classic Word keyboard combinations. So if I want to bring up the Word Count dialog, ALT + T + W still works. That's a nice concession to power users.

My feeling is that this new user interface is going to make Office experts out of a lot of people, since it's so easy to find what you need know. Better still, it's much, much easier to discover functionality you likely didn't know was in Office to begin with. I'm excited to see how people react to the new UI when Office 2007 finally ships publicly in early 2007.

Quick Styles

Lest anyone call me on this, I will give WordPerfect credit where it's due: They had this feature at least seven or eight years, and several product revisions, ago. But it's nice to see such a useful feature added to the word processor that basically everyone uses: Dubbed Quick Styles, this feature lets you preview how formatting changes will affect a document before you actually apply them. Let's say you wanted to change a line of text to a heading style of some sort, but you weren't sure which one to use.

In Word 2003, you would select the text, navigate to the Style drop-down in the Formatting toolbar (or, if you were me, enable the Styles and Formatting task pane) and select a heading that looks right. If the resulting change wasn't what you expected, you would have to re-do these steps over and over again until you were satisfied. It was sort of a hunt-and-peck approach to formatting. And if you weren't privy to the Undo functionality, it could be scary applying styles without knowing what was going to happen.

In Word 2007--and throughout other Office 2007 applications that adopt the new results-oriented user interface--this process is much simpler, and you get to preview styles before committing them to the underlying text. As with Word 2003, you select some text. But now, instead of diving into drop-down menus, you mouse over the Styles Gallery and see how each style affects the selected text: It changes on the fly. If you don't select anything, the text returns to its previous state. To apply a style, simply click it. Voila!

What's cool about this is that this process works for fonts, colors, margins, table formatting, and various other Word features. And if you have specific formatting needs, you can even make your own Quick Styles which, yes, can be added to the gallery and added just as easily when needed.

Live word count

If you're not a writer, you may not understand how important word count is, but in my world, word count (and page count, actually) is everything. In previous Word versions, word would track the page count in the status bar, but in order to get a word count for the document (or a block of selected text), you'd have to choose Word Count from the Tools menu (this the ALT + T + W keyboard shortcut I mentioned earlier). In Word 2007, word count appears in the status bar next to the page count, where it belongs. (And where, incidentally, it is in the Mac version of Word.) If you select a block of text, the word count of the selected text also appears in the status bar. Nice.

Contextual spell checking

I hate to admit this, but I've come to rely on the spelling and grammar checking features in Microsoft Word, often to my embarrassment. Fairly regularly, I'll get emails from people who discover a weird spelling or grammar issue, especially on the SuperSite, and virtually every time I can chalk it up to an odd-ball Word mistake. (OK, I know that sounds like I'm passing the buck. And maybe I am. But automatic spelling and grammar checking is addictive and so hopelessly useful that I couldn't possibly live without it at this point.)

Fortunately, spell checking has improved dramatically in Word 2007, though I can't vouch for grammar checking and suspect that we're still going to be seeing unintentionally hilarious word rearranging thanks to Microsoft. That said, Word 2007 is at least better about examining the context of words, so, for example, you'll see fewer problems with words like "there" and "their."

Document Comparison

While much of the work I do is solo--that is, documents I create for the Web such as this one--I do a lot of collaborative work when it comes to articles for the print magazine and, more frequently, the various books I work on. In such cases, it's often advantageous to load up two copies of the same document, side by side, to compare them. Now, I use a massive widescreen monitor, so it's not really that difficult to set this kind of thing up manually. But Word 2007 includes an excellent Document Comparison feature that divides a single Word window into a three pane workspace. This makes it much easier to see what the differences are between each version of the document. And since I'm such a scatterbrain, my guess is I'll be using this one a lot this year.

PDF and XPS export support

Adobe's PDF format is, perhaps, the best example ever of a de facto standard: Used by hundreds of millions of people worldwide, PDF's only problem, perhaps, is that Adobe doesn't ship a free PDF editor for some reason. (The company does make an inexpensive Adobe Acrobat Elements product, but only ships it to users via PC makers.)

Curiously, Microsoft has decided to basically reimplement the most basic parts of PDF using an XML-based technology called the XML Paper Specification (XPS). XPS will form the basis of the print engine in Windows Vista, and can be used to create documents that, visually, are almost identical to PDF documents. That is, they both provide a paper-based representation of the online document that is virtually perfect.

Saving as PDF is hugely useful. It's something that Apple has supplied in Mac OS X for years, and I have to admit I'm surprised that Microsoft added support for this competing technology to one of its own products. XPS support is not surprising and, frankly, not interesting at all. Both features are accessed the same way in Beta 2: Choose Save As from the Word 2007 menu and then select PDF or XPS.

Note: Since writing this section of the review, Microsoft has announced changes in the way it will deliver these features. My understanding is that PDF support will be delivered as a free Web download, while XPS support will still be natively included in Office 2007. In addition, Microsoft is shipping another free Web download, for the open source Open Document format, so that Office 2007 users can export Word documents to this format. I have not tried this tool.

Enhanced Read Mode

When I first heard about Read Mode back in Office 2003, I thought it was kind of a hokey feature. After all, Word is all about documents. Why would you need a special mode just for reading?

As it turns out, I've since used Read Mode more than I care to admit. The reason is that I end up consuming a lot of documentation in electronic form these days, rather than via printed handouts. And when you view a document in Read Mode, most of the Word UI gets out of the way, and the document is formatted on the fly for readability (the changes are not permanent).

In Word 2007, Read Mode has been enhanced so that even less of the user interface is visible (and, of course, there's no traditional menu system in Word 2007 anyway). Now, you can access controls for things like view settings, navigation, research, and reviewing but not much else. It's surprisingly nice, and given my about-turn on this feature in Word 2003, I think I can safely say I'll be using this a lot and liking it.

Problems with Word 2007

For the most part, I really like the changes that Microsoft made to Word 2007. But no, it isn't perfect. Word 2007 has a few hugely annoying issues that I'd like to see addressed by the final release. I also have a feature request that I'd like to see implemented throughout Office as well as all of the bundled applications in Windows, go figure.

I hate DOCX format

By default, Word 2007 saves document in the new XML-based .docx format instead of the proprietary .doc format used by previous Word versions. I guess I understand why this is the default. And certainly, Word is at least smart enough to display different document icons for documents stored in either format. That said, I've sent .docx files, by mistake to one too many coworkers in the past month, despite the fact that I've configured Word 2007 Beta 2 to use .doc as the default. If you're not running Word 2007 Beta 2--and let's face it, virtually no one is--a .docx document is jibberish and completely useless.

I want my old styles back

While I really like the new ribbon and the Styles ribbon group, what's up with the awful default styles for things like Heading 1, Heading 2, and Heading 3? Why are these different from previous Office versions? And why can't I tell this darned thing to use the old styles? I want my old styles back. In fact, it's so bad, I've started storing a document that has one example of each heading type that I can use as a template of sorts for new documents. I shouldn't have to do that.

Inline search

With the incredible emphasis on instant search in Windows Vista and Office 2007, I'm surprised that Microsoft hasn't done more work to make search less intrusive. If you run a search from within the Word application--or, for that matter, from within Vista applications like Notepad and Wordpad, you get an intrusive Find dialog that pops up in front of the very text you're searching. Why doesn't Word--and those other non-Office applications--have inline search, such as the feature in Mozilla Firefox. It's never in the way, and its keyboard friendly. That's the right way to do search, especially in an application where you're dealing primarily with text.

Conclusions

Overall, Word 2007 Beta 2 is highly usable, though I have run into stability issues under Windows Vista Beta 2. (Many readers, conversely, have not had these issues.) After a few months of use, I'm happy to see that the new user interface appears to have held up quite nicely, and going back to Word 2003 is sort of like moving to OpenOffice.org now: It works, sort of, but it's not as attractive, and I don't feel as productive anymore. As the poster child for the new Office 2007 user interface, Word 2007 feels the most fleshed out and mature of the new applications. I have to imagine that Microsoft moved nervously to change the UI for such an often-used application. No fears, folks: The new version is a winner.