HOUSTON -- It has been more than four years since Microsoft released a new version of its Office productivity suite for Macintosh computers. A lot has happened in those four years.
Apple has switched to using Intel processors in its new Macs, dropping the PowerPC chip. The company also has gotten aggressive about its own productivity suite, iWork. And Microsoft has released two versions of Office for Windows in that time frame, the latest completely revamping the familiar Office interface.
With that kind of a landscape, you'd expect Office 2008 for Macintosh to be as radical a reworking of the program as Office 2007 was for Windows, but no. Microsoft has taken a relatively cautious road, creating a product that won't confound existing Office 2004 for Mac users, but won't bowl them over with innovation, either.
In fact, the most important new feature is under the hood. Office 2008 is now designed to work on both Intel and PowerPC chips - Office 2004 used emulation to run on the newer Intel-based Macs, and it was notoriously slow. While I wouldn't call Office 2008 a speed demon, it's noticeably faster than its predecessor.
The downside: Users of older versions of the Mac OS are left out in the cold. It only works with Tiger or Leopard - version 10.4.9 and up.
There are three flavors of Office 2008:
The Home and Student Edition has a $150 list price and comes with Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Entourage (the e-mail client similar to Outlook).
The standard edition, dubbed simply, Office 2008 for Mac, with a list of $400 and an upgrade price of $240. It has the same programs as the Home and Student Edition, but Entourage works with corporate Exchange e-mail servers, and the suite supports the Mac OS' feature for automating tasks.
The Special Media Edition costs $500, or $300 to upgrade. It has everything in the other two editions, plus a media management program aimed at graphics and video professionals called Expression Media.
Most home users will be more than happy with the Home and Student Edition, which makes this suite a bargain compared to the pricier versions. But the budget-conscious may be more interested in Apple's iWork, which costs only $80, or NeoOffice, a free Mac suite based on OpenOffice.org (www.neooffice.org).
Office 2008 now uses the same Open XML file format used in Office 2007 for Windows, and it's the default format when you save a file. That means, if you're sharing a document with someone using older versions of Office for either Mac or Windows, you'll want to do a File/Save As so they can read it.
While the general layout of the menus and toolbars remains the same, they've gotten a minor facelift. The design more closely matches the streamlined Leopard look, which is a bit more Spartan, but you won't have to poke around for often-used features.
But there is one very interesting interface tweak. Word, Excel and PowerPoint each contain the Elements Gallery, which is as close to Office 2007's Ribbon as the Mac version gets. It presents visual templates for a variety of tasks - creating tables, picking out design themes, generating a table, creating a chart - that can be done with just a few clicks. The process of creating sophisticated-looking documents is made easier simply by the fact that you don't have to go hunting for the commands to start working. I used this for a PowerPoint presentation, and it halved the time it took to build it.
I spend most of my time in Word, and one of the most useful new features there is the Publishing Layout View, which increases the program's desktop publishing features. It simplifies tasks such as flowing text around images, creating columns and shaping text. There's no version of Microsoft Publisher for the Mac, so this is the next best thing.
Entourage also has some intriguing new features, most notably My Day, a small window designed to look like a PDA. It floats on your desktop and shows the latest items from your calendar and to-do list. It also runs independent of Entourage, which makes it handy if you don't have a big screen, such as on a notebook.
There are some things that have been left out of Office 2008 that have given some business users pause. It no longer supports Microsoft's Visual Basic for Applications scripting, which let you create mini-programs to handle tasks. Instead, it relies on the Automator, a similar feature introduced in Tiger and included in Leopard. Those who have built a library of Visual Basic scripts will likely be frustrated at having to convert to this system.
Another bummer: Entourage still can't import the .PST and .OST files generated by Outlook, making it difficult in mixed Mac-and-PC offices to be truly cross-platform. And the way Entourage stores its data makes it difficult to restore using Leopard's new Time Machine backup program.
Overall, this upgrade reminds me a little bit of Windows Vista - it's got some interesting features, but for many users it may not be compelling enough to make them run out and buy it. The one exception: Those using Intel-based Macs. The speed boost alone is worth the price of admission.