What a difference a few months makes. Back in May, Microsoft shipped the Beta 2 version of Office 2007 and made it available to the public. Since then, over three and a half million people downloaded and installed the beta. This proves a few things, primarily that there is a lot of interest in Microsoft's next office productivity suite. And that interest is based primarily around its innovative new user interface (see my review), of which I'm an unabashed fan.

3.5 million people don't go quietly into the night. Over the preceding several months, many of those people have provided Microsoft with feedback about the new UI and the new capabilities in the software suite formerly known as Microsoft Office (but now, annoyingly, called the 2007 Microsoft Office System). Given what I know about the folks working on this amazing product, I'm not surprised to discover that they've taken the feedback to heart. So today, on September 14, 2006, they're releasing an update for Beta 2 users, called the Beta 2 Technical Refresh (TR), that showcases the changes Microsoft has made since Beta 2. This release is, of course, the basis for this review.

Where we're at

Before heading into the changes in the TR, let's step back for a second and reflect on what's really happening here. In Office 2007, Microsoft is dramatically changing the user interface for what is arguably the most-often used software on the planet after Windows itself. It is, however, only changing the UI for some applications. While Word, Excel, Access, PowerPoint and, to a lesser extent, Outlook have been wonderfully retrofitted with the new ribbon-based user interface, other Office applications retain the older menu- and toolbar-based UI that everyone loves to hate.

There's been some concern that the new UI will turn off enterprises, particularly, because of possible high training costs. I can't claim to offer any kind of scientific data to refute that, but my own experience with Office 2007 (and the TR) suggests this won't be the huge issue that some think. Indeed, I consider myself both experienced with Office and pretty set in my ways, and I've had no major issues moving to the new software. If anything, the ribbon-based UI makes it easier to find functionality that was previously hidden. My only complaint is that this will lead to the modern equivalent of those "ransom note" documents that cropped up when Apple and Adobe first made desktop publishing possible. But instead of multi-font documents, we're going to see overly colorful charts and graphs.

Anyway, the state of Office 2007, in the Beta 2 timeframe, was already good. Presumably, it gets a lot better with the TR release.

Office 2007 Beta 2 TR: The mile-high view

From a purely aesthetic point of view, the TR is much, much nicer-looking than was Beta 2. The icons (Figure) and loading images (Figure) have all been updated, for starters, giving the whole thing a much-needed spit-shine.

The upper-left corner of the application windows has been cleaned up quite a bit, answering a number of complaints. The round Office Button, as it's called, can now be double-clicked to close the window, similar to the way a standard window button has worked in Windows applications for ages. And it's got a nice pop-up help window that show up when you mouse-over it (Figure).

The Quick Access Toolbar, to the right of the Office Button, has also been updated significantly. Thanks to a slightly redesigned UI, it looks more natural up there, but the big change is in its Customize menu, which offers more choices and handy ways to customize its appearance (Figure).

The big news, of course, is the ribbon. It's hard to argue that the ribbon isn't a better interface for the multitude of functionality offered by the various Office applications than was the old menu- and toolbar-based UI. But while the ribbon doesn't really take up that much more onscreen real estate than does a standard set of menus and toolbars in an equivalent Office 2003 application, there remains a strange feeling that, gee, that ribbon really does take up a lot of space.

So they've fixed it. No, they haven't just made it smaller, though it is indeed a bit smaller. What Microsoft has done, instead, is offered a way to hide the ribbon so that users can ensure that the truly important part of the application--the text editing area in Word, for example--is given the maximum amount of space. This is ingenious and, for people like me that live in Office, a wonderful change. It also has the side effect of completely obsoleting all of those outdate comedy routines depicting how one could fill an Office application's UI with toolbars, leaving just a tiny window of space in which to type. David Pogue, sorry, but you're going to have to try a bit harder in the future.

Here's how it works. If you'd like to give a ribbon-based Office application the maximum amount of editing space possible, simply double-click any of its tabs (or, open the Customize Quick Access Toolbar menu and choose Minimize the Ribbon). When you do, the application hides the ribbon, leaving a UI layout that is as simple as that of Notepad (Figure). Best of all, in this mode, you can temporarily bring the ribbon back by simply clicking any of the tabs once (Figure). In minimized mode, the ribbon appears floating over the document temporarily. It disappears when you make a selection in the ribbon or click anywhere in the document. It is, in many ways, perfect.

Microsoft has also added a third color scheme (sometimes erroneously called a theme) choice. So in addition to blue (XP style) and black (Vista style), Office 2007 Beta 2 TR now offers silver, which looks quite nice in tandem with XP's popular silver color scheme (Figure).

Application improvements

In addition to the broad changes that affect all ribbon-enabled applications, Microsoft has also made a number of improvements to specific applications in the TR. Let's take a look.

Word

One of the things I really disliked about Word 2007 back in Beta 2 (see my review) was that the new default formatting styles were horrible, quite different from the previous Word version defaults, and impossible to change back to the old style. In Beta 2 TR, this has been largely fixed: You can now go into the Change Styles and change the Style Set to "Classic" and get something that is almost (but not quite) identical to that used in previous versions (Figure). And, get this, you can make it the default. Thank you for that, Microsoft.

The big problem with the new style set (called Default in Word 2007) is the paragraph spacing for the Normal style (well, that and the silly colored headings). This hasn't been fixed, per se, in the TR, but with the Classic style set, all is well from a spacing perspective. It's enough.

Word's blogging functionality--itself a handy if almost hidden feature--has been updated with enhanced picture support that doesn't require FTP access to the server hosting your blog. If your blogging service offer picture uploading, Word will handle it natively now. Well, sort of: It works with Wordpress and Typepad, at least, but not Blogger (the new Blogger Beta is, however, supported).

Outlook

Outlook 2007 is a huge and excellent update over Office 2003 (see my Beta 2 review) and it's gotten even better in the TR (Figure). The anti-phishing and anti-spam filters have been updated significantly. And it requires a new, more powerful, version of Windows Desktop Search (WDS) for its integrated search feature. On Windows XP, you must download this component before integrated search will work. On Vista, it's just built-in. I did have some issues with one install of Vista, in which Outlook 2007 Beta 2 TR was unable to find email fairly regularly, but this issue wasn't happening in XP, so I'll need to test that more before declaring it broken. I'm curious, however, if anyone else has those issues.

Excel

Excel 2007 (Figure) gets a number of stability and performance enhancements in the TR, so that charts work both better and faster. Chart styles, available from the Insert tab, are much better organized than before.

PowerPoint

PowerPoint's Home tab has been significantly redesigned in the TR (Figure). Now, you can access commonly-needed drawing and formatting tools from the Home tab, while less-commonly-needed functionality, like Word Art, has been moved to the Insert tab. The end result, according to Office 2007 design guru Jensen Harris, is something that "feels way more natural and efficient to work with. You have a stable Home tab from which to do most of your slide authoring: adding slides, typing and formatting text, and adding, arranging, and formatting shapes." I have to agree. (Though I still humorously refer to PowerPoint as child abuse. Kidding, folks. It's a great way to communicate. Seriously.)

OneNote

Allow me to wax romantically about my love for Microsoft OneNote. Actually, just read my Beta 2 review and understand that this is one of the great unheralded successes in Microsoft Office. In the TR, OneNote has been updated with a new "Blog This" right-click option that lets you publish any note page or page section to your blog (Figure). This feature integrates with the blog publishing functionality in Word, of course, so you'll be redirected to Word 2007 during the process.

Like Outlook 2007, OneNote now integrates with the new version of Windows Desktop Search (WDS). This has two results: First, searches are returned quite quickly. Second, you can search OneNote notes from within Windows. Score!

Availability

The Microsoft Office 2007 Beta 2 Technical Refresh is available as a whopping 495 MB download from the Microsoft Web site. Note that this download is an update only. You need to have downloaded and installed Office 2007 Beta 2 first. Thankfully, that download is still available as well. Office 2007 Beta 2 TR requires Windows XP with Service Pack 2, Windows Vista RC1, or Windows Server 2003 with SP1.

Office 2007 Beta 2 - Download

Office 2007 Beta 2 Tech Refresh - Download

Final thoughts

I'm often unfairly labeled as a Microsoft fan boy, which is ridiculous when you consider the number of times I've called the software giant to task for its anti-competitive behavior and various product-related mistakes. But when it comes to Office 2007, I lapse completely into the stereotype: This is a major upgrade of a venerable software suite that literally no one thought needed updating, and it's generating a deserved buzz online by those who are using the beta. If you haven't downloaded Office 2007 Beta 2 for some reason, do so now and grab the Tech Refresh update. You'll be amazed at how nicely this suite has come along. If you're already using Beta 2 (and no doubt dreading having to return to a previous Office version), the TR release is a no-brainer. Grab it now, and start smiling. Rarely have I been able to associate the word "innovative" with "Microsoft Office," but Office 2007 is the most exciting product the software maker has in the works this year. And Office 2007 Beta 2 Technical Refresh is the best version yet. Highly recommended.