I can't recall ever being this genuinely excited about a Microsoft Office release. Office 2007 is one of those rare software releases that just nails it. This is the type of claim one typically hears about fun consumer electronics products from Apple Computer, not supposedly tired productivity applications from Microsoft. But Office 2007 is a home run, an absolutely stellar suite of tools that will benefit users of all types. Trust me on this one: Unless you have absolutely no need to be more productive, you want Office 2007. And thanks to a larger-than-ever portfolio of Office suites at a variety of price points, you almost have no excuse for not jumping on the bandwagon. This is productivity squared.

What has me so jazzed about this product? It starts with the radical and innovative new user interface, which completely refutes the notion that Microsoft's productivity applications were so mature that there was literally no way to improve them further. Sure, the new "ribbon"-based UI in Office 2007 is nice to look at. But Office 2007 isn't just a pretty face. The ribbonized user interface offers compelling and very real productivity enhancements to beginners and seasoned Office veterans alike, and that's something worth cheering. My only complaint, really, is that Microsoft was only able to ribbonize the core Office applications. Maybe the rest will come on board in a future release.

Office 2007 also features a number of other exciting advances. The graphics engine that powers such things as PowerPoint slides and Excel graphs has been extensively updated and modernized, and made common across all applications in the suite. Outlook 2007, dramatically improved in Office 2003, is improved in almost heady ways yet again, making this version another gotta-have-it release.

Yep, there's a lot to like in Office 2007. In this review, I'll examine the new user interface, each of the core applications, and the server components. It's time for an Office revolution. If you've never been excited by an Office release before--and really, who can blame you?--this one should make you sit up and take notice.

On the road to Office 2007

Office 2007 marks the first time in over a decade that Microsoft launched versions of Windows and Office simultaneously; the last was in 1995, when the company launched Office 95 alongside Windows 95. Since then, Microsoft has shipped four versions of its office productivity suite, Office 97, Office 2000, Office XP/2002, and Office 2003. That these releases have come at a satisfyingly steady pace is no mistake: The Office team, unlike that of Windows, has had little trouble setting realistic goals and then meeting deadlines.

To be fair, however, Office has never really changed in any radical way. Through Office 2003, each version of Office received various functional updates and minor UI tweaks (what Microsoft called "painting the pig," so that a user looking over the shoulder of an Office user could tell at a glance which version was being used). The problem is that as Office matured, it got more complex. With each version, more and more commands were added, bloating the over-used menu-and-toolbar-based UI. Office 2007, for the first time, addresses this problem in a major way.

On the server side, Microsoft has gradually improved its Office solutions with through the SharePoint product line, which was previously aligned with Windows Server. SharePoint has typically come in two variants: SharePoint Services, a Web-based document publishing and sharing solution, and SharePoint Portal Server (SPS), a high-end Web portal that offers such features as version control. In 2003, SPS moved from Windows to Office, and with Office 2007, the newly rechristened Office SharePoint Server (OSP) adds a number of useful new features, such as PowerPoint slide libraries, blog and Wiki support, and Excel Services, which puts the computational power of Excel on the server.

This time around, Microsoft has added several other Office 2007 servers as well, which we'll discuss below and in a future part of this review.

Office 2007 products

As noted in my Office 2007 FAQ, Microsoft offers a bewildering array of Office 2007 versions. Though the company has come under fire for a similar strategy with Windows Vista, credit for this product diversification should actually go to the Office team, which began increasing its offerings years ago. Looked at negatively, Microsoft is milking this product for all its worth. However, I must also admit that there is now an Office version for virtually any kind of user, including those on a budget.

Office Home and Student 2007

The new Office Home and Student 2007 replaces the old Student and Teacher Edition SKU. Like its predecessor, Home and Student 2007 is aimed at individuals such as, yes, students, teachers, and parents. But with this new version, Microsoft is actually licensing the product for use to any home user, and it's the one retail version of Office 2007 that can be legally installed on multiple PCs (up to three, in this case). Controversially, Office Home and Student 2007 does not include Outlook 2007. Instead, it provides Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. It's still an excellent value, and if you're an individual using Windows Vista, you can replace Outlook's scheduling features with Windows Calendar and use a free email solution like Windows Mail (not recommended) or Mozilla Thunderbird.

Office Home and Student 2007 will retail for $149 in the US, but the actually street price will likely be closer to $125. That's a bargain, though you should note that purchasing this product does not qualify you for upgrade pricing to other Office versions, now or in the future. The idea is that you will instead purchase a future Office Home and Student version or pay full price for a higher-end Office version, which, among other things, provides you with upgrading privileges going forward.

Office Basic 2007

New to the 2007 product line is Office Basic 2007, which will only be made available to users with new PC purchases. (That is, you cannot buy Office Basic at retail.) This version literally includes just the basics: Word, Excel, and Outlook, though that probably satisfies the needs of most individuals. Thus, it's a decent offering if you're getting a new PC anyway and don't need tools such as PowerPoint or OneNote (though you could always purchase them separately).

Office Standard 2007

This version is the lowest-end mainstream Office version. It includes Word, Excel, Outlook, and PowerPoint, and retails for $399, though the Upgrade version is available for $239.

Office Small Business 2007

A version of Office aimed at small businesses, Office Small Business 2007 offers Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook with Business Contact Manager, and Publisher, Microsoft's desktop publishing solution. It retails for $449, and the upgrade version is $279.

Office Professional 2007

The mainstream business offering, Office Professional 2007 includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, Access, and Publisher. Access, of course, is Microsoft's desktop-based database tool, and it's been extensively updated in this version for the first time in years. Office Professional will set you back $499, or $329 for the upgrade version.

Office Professional Plus 2007

A premium business offering, Office 2007 Professional Plus is available via volume licensing only and builds on Office Professional 2007. It offers Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, Access, Publisher, Office Communicator, InfoPath, and server-based content management, forms management, and information rights and policy capabilities. Office Communicator is Microsoft's new enterprise-class instant-messaging and real-time communications client and is new to this Office version. InfoPath is an updated version of Microsoft's electronic forms solution.

Office Ultimate 2007

Microsoft 's high-end retail offering, Office 2007 Ultimate includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook with Business Contact Manager, OneNote, Publisher, Access, Groove, and InfoPath. Groove is Microsoft's new peer-to-peer collaboration solution. It was previously sold by Groove Networks as Groove Virtual Office. (Groove founder Ray Ozzie is now Microsoft's CTO and Chief Software Architect.) Office Ultimate costs $679, or $539 for the upgrade version.

Office Enterprise 2007

A versatile Office version for businesses, Office Enterprise is also available only via volume licensing. This version of the suite includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, Access, Publisher, Office Communicator (instant messaging), InfoPath, OneNote, Groove, and server-based content management, forms management, and information rights and policy capabilities.

Other Office 2007 applications

In addition to the Office suites noted above, you can of course purchase Office 2007 applications individually. Microsoft also offers various Office-branded applications that are not made available as part of any Office suite, including Office Project Standard and Professional (project management), Office SharePoint Designer (a Web site designer and FrontPage replacement that focuses on SharePoint-based Web sites), and Visio Standard and Professional (business and technical diagramming). Check out my Office 2007 FAQ for complete pricing information.

Office 2007 servers

Microsoft's line of Office-based servers expands dramatically with this release. In addition to Office SharePoint Server 2007, SharePoint Server 2007 for Search, and Project Server 2007, which are all upgrades to previous versions, the company is offering three new servers: Office Forms Server 2007, Office Groove Server 2007, and Project Portfolio Server 2007. Each of these products is available only via volume licensing. Microsoft has also enhanced its Office server licensing. In addition to "base" Client Access Licenses, or CALs, the company now offers additive CALs that provide additional features. For example, the additive CAL for Office SharePoint Server provides access to spreadsheet publishing and reporting (among other things).

Office Live

In addition to the Office 2007 desktop and server products, Microsoft also offers a set of semi-related free and subscription-based services called Office Live (see my preview). Despite the branding, these services have little to do with Office 2007 and are not considered part of the Office 2007 product family.

Looking ahead

Like Windows Vista, Office 2007 is both broad and deep, with an amazing array of new functionality, especially when you consider the maturity of many of the products. But thanks to a new user interface, that functionality is easier to find and master than ever before. In the next part of this review, I'll examine this new user interface, and the other advances that are common across all of many of the applications that make up Office 2007.