The lowdown on Office 2007

New interface designed to provide users with all features in an uncluttered workspace

Simplify, simplify, simplify. The challenge for Microsoft in revamping Office was to better organize all the options available without negatively impacting productivity. For new users that's a particularly important goal, since the menus and toolbars in current versions may appear to be a mishmash.

The overriding design goal for the new user interface, Microsoft says, is to make it easier for users "to find and use the full range of features these applications provide" while preserving "an uncluttered workspace that reduces distraction for users so they can spend more time and energy focused on their work." The redesign makes most Office 2007 applications look completely fresh, clean, and new -- and more colorful. From Ribbons that offer clearly labeled buttons to thumbnail previews of most graphic features, the applications bear only a slight resemblance to their former selves.

You'll probably get used to the new interface within a few hours; whether you like it, however, is a different story. New users will benefit most, since they won't have to change existing habits. For advanced and power users, the adjustment may be a bit more disconcerting, at least initially.

We've put the Technical Refresh of Office 2007 Beta 2 through its paces, exploring new features, both Office-wide and in specific apps, and taking a particularly close look at the new SharePoint Server 2007. We expect only a few changes (to root out the last bugs and performance bottlenecks) before the final version ships later this year (to business) and early next year (to consumers).

A new look, starring the Ribbon

In Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, and most areas of Outlook, the menus and toolbars of previous versions are history. In their place is the Ribbon, a tabbed, horizontal bar divided into groups of icons and buttons organized by task.

The Home Ribbon in Word contains groups related to the Clipboard (cut, copy, paste, and for some odd reason, the Format Painter), Fonts (font style and size, plus formatting characteristics such as bold, italic, and subscript), Paragraph (for bullets, indenting text, sorting paragraphs, alignment, line spacing, and shading), Styles (displayed as a thumbnail gallery), plus Editing (find, replace, and text/object selection).

The Home Ribbon covers about 90 percent of everything you'll need for simple text editing -- the remaining features are dispersed throughout the interface: spell check is on the Review tab, while headers and footers have been moved to the Insert tab (from the View menu in earlier versions). The core formatting features appear on yet another pop-up menu when you select text.

If you want to add a little more spice to a document, the Insert Ribbon has groups for creating and inserting tables, images, links, and special text (one group for boxes, WordArt, and drop caps, another for equations and symbols). Other Ribbons are provided for controlling page layouts, performing reviews, and defining the current view.

Excel's Ribbons are similar: Home (for worksheet editing, formatting, and sorting tasks), Insert (to add charts and graphs, hyperlinks, and headers/footers), Page Layout (for controlling cell size, gridlines, and backgrounds), Formulas (including a new Name Manager for handling named ranges), Data (for import/export, removing duplicates, and grouping data), Review (for comments and data protection), and View (freezing panes, adding page breaks, and more). At the bottom of some groups is a tiny arrow button that, when clicked, opens a familiar dialog box. Most dialog boxes are unchanged from previous versions of Office -- still dull gray, but at least the options are where you expect them to be.

These "standard" Ribbons are supplemented with contextual ribbons that appear when you're working with a particular object -- a table in Word, an Excel chart, a diagram in PowerPoint -- then disappear when you click away from that object.

Microsoft says the Ribbon doesn't occupy more space than the standard toolbars of previous versions, though it feels larger. Fortunately, Ribbons can be hidden (Ctrl + F1 is the secret toggle), giving you more document workspace.

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