Like many of you, I rely on Microsoft Office every single day. But like many of you, I've been eyeing the cloud and wondering if hosted office productivity solutions like Google Docs or the recently-completed first version of Office Web Apps can take the place of traditional, locally installed Office applications. That day may come, and is arguably inevitable. But that day is not today, not by a long shot.

Google Docs is laughably bad, but I won't harp on that here. No, Microsoft Office has much bigger competitors to worry about, most notably the previous two versions of the product, which are installed on several hundred million PCs around the world and used actively by an audience that dwarfs that of virtually all other software. Office isn't just crazy popular. It's arguably the most critical collection of end user software ever created.

So why even mention the so-called competition? There's a bit of history rewriting going on lately, with Google ever-poised to seize market share away from Microsoft Office. The thing is, it never seems to happen. But unlike some of the kids speculating about Docs' rise to fame and fortune, I've been around long enough to have seen this story play out before. Way, way back in 1995, I wondered how Microsoft Office could ever withstand the competitive onslaught of free, Linux-based office productivity suites. After all, they just had to be "good enough." Free would win, right?

That was 15 years ago. Since then, the free threat never materialized into anything significant. And traditional, commercial office productivity suites like WordPerfect and SmartSuite changed hands and became irrelevant. Today, there is Microsoft Office and there is everything else. And no offense to those who toil away on the competing solutions, but everything else stinks. Office won because it is better, and it continues to get better with each subsequent release.

 

So yes, the cloud is the future. But the future of office productivity will be cloud-based when Microsoft is ready, from what I can tell. And while the first steps toward that future are now being taken with the Office Web Apps--which I'll look at separately in this review--for this generation of products, Office 2010 is decidedly a traditional software suite first and foremost, and the cloud-based solutions are companion products, not replacements.

Looking at the traditional Office 2010 suites and standalone applications, we see a very mature product line. That makes sense, when you consider that some of these applications date back almost 30 years and that Office, as an integrated set of applications, is fully 20 years old. But Microsoft has almost always done a decent job of bringing Office forward and making it more and more valuable with each release. That tradition continues in Office 2010.

Office packaging

One of the big changes in Office 2010 is that Microsoft is now delivering this suite, and the individual applications, in new ways. Most people will continue to get Office with a new PC, and yes, you will be able to walk into a local Best Buy and purchase traditional, boxed copies of the software as before.

Office 2010 Review
Office 2010 retail packaging.

But with Office 2010, for the first time, you also have a range of electronic purchase options. You can buy electronic download versions of the suites and applications at Microsoft's online store (an option that was first made available with Office 2007). And you can purchase some Office suites (but not individual applications) in "product key card" format at participating retailers. If you're familiar with Best Buy-type gift cards, or those Microsoft Point/Xbox Live subscription cards, you get the idea: You purchase a small card at a retailer, bring it home, scratch off a product key, and then download the product online.

Why would you want to bother with such a thing? The product key card versions of Office 2010 are usually significantly less expensive than the retail versions, up to 30 percent off in some cases. These product key cards will work only with a single PC--you can't reuse the product key on multiple PCs, now or in the future. Once you've activated the product key on a PC, that copy of Office is locked to that one PC.

Office 2010 Review
Office 2010 product key cards.

While the key cards may seem like a good idea, I do not recommend them to those who are considering Office Home and Student 2010. That's because the retail version, which costs about $150, includes three Office installs, whereas the key card version, which costs $120, only includes a single install.

Speaking of Office product editions, Microsoft has only somewhat streamlined the product family for Office 2010, much as it did with Windows 7. Now, there are three Office 2010 editions aimed at home users and individuals, three aimed at businesses, and a single, PC-install-only version that most people should avoid if possible. The complete lineup is listed below:

Office Starter 2010. Bundled with low-end PCs only, Office Starter is new to Office 2010 and includes very basic versions of Word and Excel only. Like Windows 7 Starter, I do not recommend this version of Office to anyone. That said, it does include, on the disk, the entire Office 2010 suite, so you can use a key card to upgrade it to a better Office version and not need to download the code before installing.

Office Home and Student 2010 ($150). This retail version of Office 2010 includes Excel, OneNote, PowerPoint, and Word 2010 and can be installed on three different PCs, and used by three different people simultaneously, making this version an unusually good value. This is the version I recommend to home users, students, and other individuals.

Office Home and Business 2010 ($280). This retail version of Office 2010 includes all of the applications in Home and Student edition and adds Outlook 2010. If you purchase a retail copy of this version of Office--that is, you did not receive it with a new PC--you can install a second copy of the software on a secondary, portable PC in addition to the primary installation. However, it is licensed for use only by a single individual. (That is, it cannot be used by two different people, on two different PCs, at the same time.)

Office Professional Academic 2010 ($100). This retail version of the suite is sold only through authorized academic resellers to users with an *.edu email address. It includes everything from Home and Business plus Access and Publisher 2010.

Office Standard 2010. This volume license version of Office 2010 includes Excel, OneNote, Outlook, PowerPoint, Publisher, and Word 2010.

Office Professional 2010 ($500). This retail version of Office 2010 includes the same applications found in Office Professional Academic, but is licensed for use by individuals or businesses.

Office Professional Plus 2010. This volume license version of Office 2010 includes all of the applications found in Office Professional 2010 and adds Communicator, InfoPath, and SharePoint Workspace 2010. This is now the highest-end version of the Office 2010 suite. (Office 2007 included an Ultimate edition.)

Another change is that, with Office 2010, for the first time, most of the suites and applications are available in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions. (Retail versions include both with an option to choose one or the other during install.) This is considered a big deal with enthusiasts, but most users should skip the 64-bit version and go with the 32-bit version instead. That's because 64-bit versions of Office 2010 are incompatible with most of the existing Office add-ons out there, especially those for Outlook. Microsoft recommends--and I concur--that only those users who have crazy Excel requirements--like the ability to work with spreadsheets larger than 2GB--should even consider 64-bit Office. I am using the 32-bit version on all of my PCs.

What's new in Office 2010

Looking broadly at the suite of applications that comprises Office 2010, Microsoft has made a number of changes that affect all or many of those applications. The first and most obvious change is that Microsoft has finally implemented the desirable and innovative ribbon user interface across all of the Office applications, whereas in Office 2007 only a subset of applications included this interface, while others used the older and less useful menu and toolbar-based UI.

Office 2010 Review
The Word 2010 ribbon UI.

Simply implementing the ribbon across the various Office applications would have been a big deal. But in Office 2010, the ribbon is better than ever and it benefits from three years of feedback and the resulting improvements. There's a new color scheme, which is much nicer than the weird soft blue from Office 2007, but the big deal is that the ribbon is now completely customizable. So if you find yourself moving off of, say, the Home tab in Word in order to just access a single command, or a small number of commands on the Review tab, you can customize the ribbon so that those commands are right up front and center. You can create your own ribbon tabs and your own tab groups, and you can even hide tabs you don't want. Nice!

Office 2010 Review
Office 2010 offers an amazing level of ribbon customization, which puts this UI over the top.

Another huge change in Office 2010 is that the Office button from Office 2007 is gone, replaced by a more logical and obvious File button that works like the old File menu from older Office versions. But instead of opening a traditional File menu, you're greeted with the new Backstage view, which combines the functions from the old File menu--Open, Save, Print, and so on--with a wide range of useful application-wide options, including sharing options (for saving documents to SkyDrive or SharePoint, publishing a blog post, changing file types, or creating XPS or PDF documents) and traditional application options.

Office 2010 Review
The Backstage view provides a single place for application- and document-specific options.

I wish I could praise the Backstage view further, but like the ribbon in Office 2007, it's unfinished in Office 2010. Microsoft confirmed to me that it had intended to go much further with Backstage view but simply ran out of time. So what we get in this first version is a strange UI that sometimes occupies the entire application window (hiding the underlying document or other content), whereas clicking on certain options actually closes Backstage view and jarringly opens a floating pop-up window. This is going to change so that all of these items simply render onto the full application window, but not until the next Office version.

Office 2010 Review
Sadly, some Backstage items actually close the UI and open a separate, old-school window.

Most Office 2010 applications now support a handy Paste with Live Preview feature that takes the guesswork out of how content copied from one application will look when pasted into an Office 2010 application. It works via the Paste Options pop-up that debuted in Office 2007, or through the Paste button in the Clipboard tab group in the Home tab. As you move across the various paste options--like Keep Source Formatting, Merge Formatting, and Keep Text Only for textual data--the content will appear in the current document styled appropriately. And as you mouse over each paste option in turn, the content will change to match the effect. When you click one of the options, the content will be pasted in the manner you selected.

Office 2010 Review
Live Paste Preview lets you determine how content will look before you paste it into a document.

Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint and Publisher pick up some amazing photo editing capabilities in this release, part of a trend in Office 2010 around dramatically better support for rich media. So if you need to work with photos or other images in Office 2010, you'll get a number of interesting borders, effects, layouts, and styles. You can do things like remove the background, make color corrections, apply artistic effects, and more. It's all very powerful, but the point here is that it all works in Office, so you don't need to find, acquire and learn a third party application to make these changes, or switch in and out of Office while you're working.

Office 2010 Review
Office 2010 picks up some amazing picture editing functionality.

And of course there is the aforementioned 64-bit compatibility. Again, this isn't something that comes with any particular benefit beyond Excel, but if you do need to work with massive, memory-intensive datasets and gigabyte-sized spreadsheets, Office 2010 can handle it.

Changes in specific Office 2010 applications

Word replaces the old Document Map with a new Navigation pane, which has proven quite useful for the longer documents I create, especially for books. It provides three tabbed views, Headings (where the document is organized by the various sections as denoted by headings), Pages (with miniature thumbnails of each page in the document), and Search Results. That last bit is an exciting change: Finally, the old Find dialog box is gone, and when you search for information in a document, the Find dialog doesn't cover it up. The search results pane is particularly nice because it lists each instance of your search results, letting you click around and go quickly to each one. This is a wonderful change to Word, and something I've been asking for for years.

Office 2010 Review
Word's new Navigation pane is excellent for navigating through large, complex documents like this book chapter.

Office 2010 Review
Goodbye Find dialog: Word finally searches documents in a more elegant fashion.

Outlook has been significantly reworked in this version and if you use Outlook at all, the changes to this application will be reason enough to upgrade. Outlook picks up the ribbon, of course, something that was sorely missed in Outlook 2007, but it has also been upgraded in other major ways. Key among these changes is the new Conversation View, which is now turned off by default (it was enabled in the beta). It provides a way to bundle all of the messages in an email thread into a single collapsible and expandable entry in the inbox (or other mail folder), helping to de-clutter your email. It also works in tandem with other new Outlook features like Clean Up (remove repeated sections of an email thread) and Ignore Conversation (stop receiving updates to unwanted email threads), giving you further control over email craziness.

My favorite Outlook feature, however, is Quick Steps. This is essentially a way to perform multiple actions on an email message using a single click, and you can modify the existing Quick Steps, or create your own, fairly easily. For example, Outlook comes with Quick Steps like Move To, Team Email, Reply and Delete, and others. And I've created my own Quick Step, called Archive It, which marks the current email as read and moves it to an Archived folder on the server. There is one major limitation to Quick Steps, however, and I'm surprised no one else has latched onto this yet: Their email accounts specific if what you want to do (as I do with "Archive It") is move messages to a specific server folder. So if you are managing multiple email accounts in Outlook 2010, you may have to duplicate some Quick Steps buttons, even if the accounts all use the same server folder structure.

Office 2010 Review
Quick Steps let you perform multiple actions to an email message using a single click.

Outlook 2010 supports multiple Exchange accounts--a common request--MailTips for helping to ensure that certain impertinent emails aren't sent by mistake (this one requires Exchange 2010) and a new Social Connector that lets you view and contribute to social network services like Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, and Windows Live, all from the familiar and always-open Outlook interface.

Excel picks up some interesting new visualizations in this release, including sparklines, which are essentially single-cell mini graphs. They're particularly good for showing trends graphically. Excel 2010 also supports conditional, rules-based cell formatting. This formatting is graphical, too, so you can very easily highlight negative values or other information using gradient background fills, borders, data bars, or icons. The biggest change in Excel, however, may be the addition of interactivity to PivotCharts, which lets you filter the information used to create charts in real-time.

PowerPoint gains stunning video capabilities in this release, making the application a viable video editing package in addition to its other skills. The depth of this functionality is astonishing, and if you're working with video at all, you'll appreciate that, as with the photo and pictures capabilities mentioned above, it can all happen directly in Office, without having to buy, learn and use a third party solution. And this is full-featured video editing, folks: You can trim video, add effects, change the poster frame (the image that represents the video when it's not playing), play video in the background, compress the video, and more. And for all you people using PowerPoint to share photos with others (you know you're out there), PowerPoint can now export to video, so you can turn a PowerPoint-based photo slideshow into a high-quality video that can be shared via YouTube or wherever. This is powerful, exciting stuff.

Office 2010 Review
PowerPoint's video editing features are exceptional.

Even better is a new feature called PowerPoint Broadcast that should be of interest to all PowerPoint jockeys: Now you can broadcast your presentations over the web to remote viewers, for free, using a Windows Live (or, within a corporation, with SharePoint).

For you OneNote fans out there, you're about to be joined by a much bigger crowd of people: Microsoft expects OneNote to join the ranks of Word and Excel atop the Office usage chart, and to make that happen, it's ensured that OneNote now has as much visibility as possible. So it's available in every single mainstream Office edition (i.e. not Starter) and is one of only four Office applications that have been ported to the web as part of Office Web Apps. As such, OneNote users can now share notebooks via the web, and that should prove hugely popular with school classes and other groups.

Buying advice

With any major software release, there are going to be discussions around the value of upgrading, but with Office 2010, the issue is somewhat complicated. Consumers tend to upgrade to new versions when they receive a new PC, and so few people had purchased retail Upgrade versions of Office in the past that Microsoft doesn't make them anymore. Businesses, meanwhile, upgrade even less frequently, and today some 70 percent of Office users overall are still on Office 2003, a version of the suite that is now several years old. My advice to those people is to upgrade, and quickly: Between the many, many improvements that occurred over both Office 2007 and 2010, it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to stick with such an antiquated version of the suite.

For Office 2007 users, the upgrade picture is a bit murkier. Unless you need very specific Office 2010 features, or upgraded to Office 2007 as soon as was possible, you may want to wait before paying for another Office version. There is one exception to this advice, however: Outlook users should upgrade to Office 2010 (or at least Outlook 2010) as quickly as possible. This application has been thoroughly overhauled this time around and includes numerous, major new features.

For myself, the value of any upgrade can be seen by moving back to a previous version of the software and noting the differences. And sure enough, using this barometer as a guide, Office 2010 is a major and important upgrade, and one that I will not do without. I've upgraded all of my work PCs to Office 2010, and I have a copy of Office 2010 Home and Student on order for my kids.

Ultimately, Office 2010 is much like Windows 7, a welcome refinement of what came before and a stellar upgrade of a product that, quite frankly, was already pretty great to begin with. Office 2010 is highly recommended for all users, and is the most feature-complete and fully-integrated office productivity suite available from any vendor at any price.

Next: I'll examine the Office Web Apps to see whether they are a viable alternative to Google Docs in the cloud. More important, perhaps: Can Office Web Apps be used as a free Office alternative? I'll let you know what I've discovered soon.

Next: A look at the Office Web Apps