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Tech 101 | Mac Focus

Microsoft Earns Points With Office 2001

October 26, 2000|JIM HEID | Jim Heid is a contributing editor of Macworld magazine. jim@jimheid.com

Say what you will about Microsoft--watch your language!--but the software giant has been good to the Macintosh lately. Earlier this year, Microsoft delivered the free Internet Explorer 5, arguably the best Web browser on any platform, and Outlook Express 5, a first-rate e-mail program.

Microsoft's hitting streak continues with Office 2001, available in full version for $499 or $299 as an upgrade. Office 2001 brings Word, Excel and PowerPoint into parity with their counterparts in Office 2000 for Windows. But Microsoft has also added an icing of Mac-only niceties to each program and tied them together with a new e-mail, calendar and contact-management program named Entourage.

To ease file swapping in this multi-platform world, all Office 2001 programs use file formats identical to their Windows brethren. Indeed, Office 2000 for Windows users would be right at home with Office 2001, though they may feel occasional pangs of jealousy over the Mac-only features that Microsoft has added.

Like what? For starters, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint each sport a new palette that puts most formatting commands a mouse click away. It's a highly functional alternative to the screen-hogging toolbars in previous versions. Each program also has its own Mac exclusives. Word 2001 can import Adobe Photoshop images, perform basic image tweaking and even apply Photoshop effects filters. Another new tool palette streamlines creation of custom form letters, mailing labels and other database-driven documents.

Excel 2001's Mac-only list manager makes it easy to store and sort simple databases. Excel can also import databases from the popular FileMaker database manager.

And PowerPoint 2001 taps Apple's QuickTime multimedia technology to enable attractive transition effects between slides. You can even save a presentation as a QuickTime movie that will play back on any QuickTime-equipped Mac or Windows computer.

Then there's Entourage. This new member of the Office family combines the e-mail features of Outlook Express 5 with a well-designed personal information manager, or PIM.

Like any good PIM, Entourage can store names, addresses and other contact information. It also tracks appointments and reminds you when a task or appointment is imminent. Entourage will even synchronize schedules and addresses with a Palm.

Unlike Outlook 2000 for Windows, however, Entourage can't access Microsoft Exchange servers to schedule meetings and manage other collaborative tasks. Microsoft is working on a separate program that will handle these work group chores.

But Entourage is on excellent terms with its Office 2001 co-workers. By choosing a single command in Word, Excel or PowerPoint, you can have Entourage remind you to follow up on the document that you're working on. You can also use entries from Entourage's address book to create form letters and mailing labels in Word. Microsoft says that its Mac customer base is changing, the iMac and iBook bringing more inexperienced users into the Office. Accordingly, Office 2001 has a task-oriented "project gallery" aimed at simplifying the creation of common types of documents.

That's swell, but it doesn't atone for Office 2001's biggest shortcoming: the lack of printed documentation. Office 98 included several manuals. Office 2001 comes with an installation pamphlet that hawks a Microsoft Press book. Office 2001 has thorough online help, but it's cumbersome and burdened by a cloyingly cute "assistant," an animated Mac that taps its feet and performs other distracting antics.

I'd gladly trade both the assistant and Office's stylish CD carrying case for a set of old-fashioned manuals.

And what of performance and reliability? In my informal tests, Office 2001 was generally as fast as Office 98 and sometimes a bit faster. As for glitches, Office 2001 doesn't get along with certain Norton Utilities 5 add-ons, nor is it on speaking terms with IBM's ViaVoice dictation software. And there are some odd bugs, such as PowerPoint's crashing when you add the justified-text button to its formatting toolbar. Expect Microsoft and other companies to release tweaks and patches over time, but by and large, Office 2001 is solid enough to use right now.

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