Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac OS X is prettier than its predecessors. Fortunately, the upgrade is more than skin deep. While many parts of...

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Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac OS X is prettier than its predecessors. Fortunately, the upgrade is more than skin deep.

While many parts of the suite’s component programs — Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Entourage — appear the same or are identical, new and reorganized features increase the suite’s utility. Notably, Word has graduated from word processing to true page layout on the Mac after decades of meager attempts.

Office for Mac had to be rewritten between its last revision in 2004 and this January release, which was previewed in 2007. In the interim, Apple moved from IBM/Freescale PowerPC chips to Intel’s lineup, and Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Word and other large applications couldn’t simply have a switch thrown to perform at their best.

Rooting out the old

Microsoft clearly took this opportunity to root out crusty programming. For instance, I’ve been reporting to Microsoft since at least 1996 a problem in Excel and have mentioned it in many meetings with product managers. When setting up a graphical chart, you can’t paste into the fields that specify which ranges of cells are being used.

Seems minor, right? And I’d agree. I used this complaint partly to see how long bugs lingered; major code changes should result in fixed bugs — as well as new ones. In Excel 2008, I can paste in chart-selection fields to my heart’s content. A lot of other small annoyances seem to have disappeared, too, alongside a modest speed bump on Intel systems.

The only disruptive change in 2008 is the removal of a programming language common between the Windows and Mac versions of Office: Visual Basic for Applications (VBA). Among its simpler purposes, VBA was used to write macros that could format documents automatically or insert complicated elements. The use of AppleScript as a replacement isn’t a reasonable transition for power users or those who need it for cross-platform use.

The biggest difference between Apple’s iWork suite — now including Pages, Numbers and Keynote — and Microsoft Office used to be that it took serious work in an Apple program to create something that looked bad. Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint had typically awful templates, and it required disproportionate effort to make something appear acceptably uncluttered and crisp.

Suite far richer

Conversely, you used to scratch the surface of Apple’s products and find little depth: a lack of subtle options for tools, and missing features.

Apple made its suite far richer through its iWork ’08 release (Numbers first appeared with this version), and Microsoft has achieved the converse in Office 2008 by revamping templates and controls. I find it no effort at all to create a document in minutes that pairs images, headlines and good typography in Word. That’s a giant step forward.

Two of the biggest interface changes you’ll find across Word, Excel and PowerPoint are a toolbar that is now part of a document rather than a separate floating item, and a host of separate features (and some new ones) that have been stuffed into a floating palette. These additions may seem minor, but better access can save serious users many minutes. I use both features perhaps thousands of times a day.

Toolbars still can be undocked from a window if you want them to be free-floating, but I find that with two monitors and different tasks, I may have some toolbars connected to one window and a slightly different set attached to another. It reduces mouse time and keeps me tracking to the same spot in a window each time, no matter where on the screen it is, to find the icon I need.

The palette reorganization should bring hidden tools to the fore. I had long ago forgotten, for instance, that a dictionary and other tools were built into Word 2004. Word 2008 makes it a single click to reach a thesaurus, while adding a host of Internet-connected search results. Type a word and find its definition, its entry in the Encarta Encyclopedia, and matching Web pages.

An object tab within the palette also makes it tremendously more straightforward to add clip art provided by Microsoft (quite nice-looking art, too), special characters or photos stored in iPhoto, across all three productivity applications.

Smart Objects are found in the three central programs, too, letting you create flow charts and other linked graphics that show a process. You can move elements of these graphics around and the connections between the elements are retained and recalculated.

Word was never designed as a page-layout program, although people have done their darnedest to stick its square peg into a round hole. Word 2008 will no longer require a lot of hammering, having become a real layout tool.

Word 2008’s Publishing Layout mode allows you to place images precisely, rotate them and use transparency; create linked text boxes to flow text across a document; and add charts dynamically linked to Excel spreadsheets.

Entourage may have had the fewest changes made, mostly in its interface, bringing it more in line with other Mac OS X software and the rest of the suite. A new My Day feature lets you have a floating, free-standing program that shows all your events and to-do items for the day.

You can add more tasks from the palette, which can float above all programs or layer among them, depending on your choice. You also can click a printer icon to get a quick sheet of your day’s details. It’s a nice dashboard for Entourage.

The flaw in Entourage relates to backups. Microsoft chose years ago to stick every contact, e-mail, calendar entry and note in a single database file. Any changes to any item result in a large, modified file. Backup software like Leopard’s Time Machine and EMC Retrospect can’t just archive the difference between an old and new version.

Microsoft has made it cheaper to move to this new version, extending its cheapest pricing to home users as well as students, educators and parents of students: $149.95 gets you the whole suite. An “office” version, with support for Microsoft’s corporate Exchange server, is $399.95, and one with the Expression Media multimedia file manager runs $499.95.

If you’re happy with Office 2004, Word’s page-layout mode may be the only truly compelling reason to upgrade. If you’re using an Intel-based Mac, you may want the speed and reliability, along with the new features.

For me, I find that easy on the eyes correlates with easy on the mind and fingers, saving me time and frustration.

Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to gfleishman@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists