We take a first look at Office 2010

After the huge overhaul that was Office 2007, it was difficult to see where Microsoft could really go next. If you’d asked us three years ago, our money would have been on tinkering changes to the way the suite worked with backend tools such as SharePoint.

We were half right, most the changes are of the fine-tuning sort. But to our surprise, there’s a lot more to the new suite than just backend bodges. Clearly spurred into action by the rise of social media and competition from Google, Microsoft has actually managed to deliver some nifty – if understated – new features.

Just get the job done
Productivity software should be as close to invisible as possible. The more time you spend wondering where to find the right tool or menu option, the less productive you’re actually being. That’s why Office 2007 ditched menus, with their hundreds of options, in favour of browser-style tabs.

Office 2010 takes this approach even further. In all the suite’s applications, the BackStage tab can be found on the far left of the interface – to the left of the default Home tab. It contains all the admin and production tools - for instance the tools that allow you to prepare a document for publication - that used to be found on the File menu. Finding what you need on the Backstage tab is much easier than it was on the Office Button, which won’t be missed.

Other improvements across the suite include an improved Ribbon. You can now create and customise your own tabs, allowing you to put all your most frequently-used tools in one place. The context menu includes a preview function, so you can see what pasted text will look like with and without its formatting – then choose which you prefer. And an improved auto-save version gives you access to the last five auto-saved versions of your document. All the Office programs now include native support for PDF documents too: no more separate plugins to download and install.

Moving from the suite a whole to specific programs, Microsoft Word has an improved search function. The new Navigation Pane allows you to view thumbnails of your document’s pages (in a way that looks a lot like the navigation side panel in Adobe Reader) and when you search for a word, all the instances of that word are highlighted in your document and appear, neatly displayed, in the Navigation Pane itself.

Word’s search function feels as if it’s finally been dragged into this century. Meanwhile, Outlook now has customisable Quick Steps, which allow you to perform previously multi-click operations – for instancing moving mail to a specific subfolder – in a single click. It feels very much as if Microsoft has actually listened to its users and tidied up a lot of the little things that until now have made life frustrating and slowed users down. If you’re prepared to spend a little time and effort finding out how the new features work, they should help you get the job done quicker.

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Word 2010 opens documents from unreliable sources, for instance the internet, in protected mode. This prevents Macros and other hidden code from running unless you unprotect the document but it also does away with annoying warnings, “Are you sure you want to open this document?”.

Don’t be dull
One of the big changes in Office 2007 was the new emphasis on design and aesthetics. The addition of themes and text styles made is possible for users without a design background to create interesting and polished-looking documents. Office 2010 continues in the same vein, with new text effects in Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

Using these, you can add reflections, shadows and other artistic touches to text that, unlike WordArt in previous versions, remains editable. Word and Publisher now support OpenType type, so font-fetishists can now add ligatures and other fancy features to their typography.

New features in Excel include Sparklines: tiny graphs that sit in the cell next to important data, giving a visual summary of what that data means. Conditional formatting has also been improved to provide a greater range of visual effects, making it possible to easily visualise many different variables and outcomes for a data-set. Another exciting new feature in Excel is the Slicer. This allows you to easily and visually call out certain categories of data within a pivot table, allowing you see at a click how much of a product you’ve exported to a particular market, for instance.

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Another big addition across the suite is the ability to edit photos within Office. In Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook and Publisher you can carry out basic photo-editing, correcting colour and contrast, adding artistic effects and even using a smart tool to remove the background of an image to create a cutout. You’re not going to want to ditch Photoshop, but this is a very quick and nifty way of lifting a document without having to faff around in third-party programs to do it.

Another major addition is the ability to embed video in PowerPoint. Video-editing is also included, if fairly basic. You can do basic image corrections, choose a still and format the video frame in various ways. Along with improved animation handling, this is a welcome step towards making PowerPoint less static.

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You can now insert video into PowerPoint and edit it within the program. The editing functions are basic, but it’s still a welcome addition.

Let’s get sociable
One of the big changes of the last three years has been the rise of social networks such as MySpace and Facebook. Microsoft has responded to this with something called the Outlook Social Connector. By plugging into your social networks, this allows you to view your contacts’ status updates within Outlook and displays their contact details as a subset of your Outlook contacts.

We love it, but there’s only one snag: currently it only works with LinkedIn. This is disappointing as Microsoft and Facebook are already working together on Docs for Facebook and, anyway, startup Xobni (whose product is very similar to the Outlook Social Connector) have had Facebook integration for ages. So, great feature – but it would be nice to actually be able to do something with it.

Another web-friendly feature is the ability to save documents directly to a Windows Live SkyDrive (part of the free Windows Live service). This works, it’s easy and it’s a simple way to share documents across the web. Eventually, Windows Live members will also be able to edit their documents in online versions of Microsoft Office apps.

Clearly an answer to Google Docs, Office Web Apps are fully functional online versions of Office programs that will run in any mainstream browser. They’ll be available in the second half of this year.

Other improvements in collaboration include the integration of the Presence icon in most Office applications. This allows you to see which of your co-workers and collaborators are online using Microsoft Communicator or Windows Live Messenger, and to contact them with a single click (though this won’t feel that radical to anyone used to working with SharePoint).

With a few nips and tucks, Microsoft has improved the collaboration features in Office. On the other hand, the new features would have been a lot more interesting if they’d been properly finished on time. And whether they will convince cloud computing enthusiast to stick with traditional desktop software remains to be seen.

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The Outlook social connector plugs in to social networks like… erm, LinkedIn. Support for Facebook, MySpace and others should be coming later in the year. But why couldn’t it support Windows Live from the start (not that we use it but, you know, in principle).

Improved data handling
Along with web-integration and improved design, another strand of the 2010 redesign has been improved sharing of information across the suite. This is most evident in the new Linked Notes feature in OneNote. When you’re using Word, Excel, Outlook or even Internet Explorer, you can create notes within those programs but save those notes to OneNote.

This feels like an answer to programs such as Evernote, which felt more closely integrated with the web and with the user’s normal activities than previous versions of OneNote. It’s simple and easy to use, though OneNote’s new docked mode felt rather irritatingly and intrusive. There must be a better way of managing this feature than simply having the program jam itself to the side of the desktop without resizing the content.

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One way in which both presentation and data handling have been improved is with the Excel Slicer. This handy tool makes it easier to quickly and visually pull specific data from large pivot tables.

Conclusion
This isn’t a radical revamp like the last version of Office, but Microsoft has taken steps to respond to the challenges that last few years have thrown up. The interface is cleaner, it’s easier to create good-looking documents (even for non-designers) and there are some nifty new data-sharing and handling features.

You can see Microsoft's launch presentations on Office 2010 here.