MS ships Mac Office 2004

A few good mendings

Microsoft yesterday began shipping the Mac version of Office 2004, but with development of its VirtualPC x86 emulation software still incomplete, the software giant was forced to offer just two of three versions planned.

As with any major upgrade to an established personal productivity package, stand-out features are few. However, Microsoft's under-the-hood tinkering does appear to have yielded some big improvements. In particular, the component apps no longer hog CPU resources as they once did - even when supposedly idle in the background.

New features we were impressed with include a navigation pane that provides Acrobat-style thumbnails of each page in a Word document. With more of the app's rendering done using Mac OS X's Quartz engine, the navigation pane updates in real time as the component pages are edited.

Of course, adding clever Quartz features, such as translucency in Excel charts and smooth drop-shadows in Word and PowerPoint, to a document will cause problems when the file is sent to Windows users. Enter Office 2004's Toolbox panel with its handy compatibility checker. Document elements that will be lost in translation are highlighted, allowing you to fix them or ignore them, depending on who the file's recipient is going to be.

With Office's Outlook-style email and PIM package Entourage updated to provide basic project management, and with MSN Messenger links integrated into Word, etc., Office 2004 is geared to move beyond personal productivity into group productivity. Entourage's key tweak is separating mailbox contents and message contents side-by-side rather than one-over-the-other, allowing you to see a greater number of messages - and much more of the selected message.

Word now allows users to record audio, a feature which comes into its own when linked to the notebook view. Essentially the old outlining view with a notebook paper-like graphic, the new mode is designed for in-meeting note-taking. You can do this in Word in any case, but here you can timestamp audio, allowing you to quickly play back key moments during a meeting. Notes can be identified in any number of ways: who was speaking, what subject was discussed, whether the note contains a question or answer, for example.

Office now supports Mac OS X's long file names and can handle Unicode to render over 30 languages. Excel has a page-layout view which segments the spreadsheet into clear pages, allowing you to see what will print on page one and what will not.

What's missing, of course, is the promised VirtualPC 7, so Microsoft has opted to ship Office 2004 Professional Edition sometime in H2, when the code's done. Right now, Mac users can get their hands on the Student-Teacher Edition and the Standard Edition for $149/£120 and $399/£369, respectively. Upgrades from any previous version of Office or any of its components is $239/£219. Pro Edition pricing is $499/£TBA for the full version, $329/£TBA for the upgrade.

The Standard and Student-Teacher editions contain the same components - only the pricing differs. All three configurations require Mac OS X 10.2.8 or higher. ®

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