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A Whole New Office

Office 2010 a With most middle- and high schools teaching a computer apps curriculum built around Microsoft’s ubiquitous Office family, whenever a new version comes out, it is greeted with much interest, anxiety and questions. Will the lessons have to be changed to accommodate the new programs? Are the new features really helpful or just window dressing? Do we need to upgrade our fleet of PCs to the new software?

To get these answers and others, I decided to live with Office 2010, the latest incarnation of a line of software that dates back to Microsoft Word in 1983. Today, four out of five businesses use Office for everything from writing letters and reports to preparing presentations and spreadsheets. Learning how to get the most out of Office is an important digital skill and it makes the computer lab the equivalent of a wood or metal shop class two generations ago.

When Office 2010 made its debut in June, it raised a big question: A lot of schools were still using and teaching the 2003 (or earlier) version, so should the school upgrade to 2010, skipping the 2007 version. After all, you can easily download the Office Compatibility software so that older versions can handle the new file formats, saving a district with 500 PCs something like $100,000.

The answer is an unequivocal yes. The latest Office is the best yet, and at the cost of added complexity, it does more and can foster a spirit of collaboration among students. That said, it has so many features that many will never or occasionally used.

Inside is the most complete set of software for creating all sorts of documents from letters and tables to presentations and Web pages. The Professional version that I looked at includes the latest versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote Outlook, Access and Publisher and sells for $500.

Districts shouldn’t sweat the price. Microsoft has licensing programs that reduce the price significantly, and there’s an academic version that costs $100 per copy; students can get it for as little as $80 a copy. Alternatively, some new PCs come with Office Starter, a basic version that includes new versions of just Word and Excel.

Finally, to get the most out of the latest Office release, you’ll need PCs that have 500MHz or faster processors, 512MB or more of RAM and at least 3GB of disc space available for the program. It works fine on anything newer than Windows XP (with the Service Pack 3 upgrade), but it really wants a recent computer with Windows 7. I did my work with Office 2010 on a Toshiba Satellite L505 notebook with Windows Vista Home Premium and 4GB of RAM and it ran fine.

Office 2010 b An evolutionary development from the 2007 version, Office 2010 provides more than enough new ideas and work routines to make it worthwhile. In addition to doubling the number of included Themes to 40, Office’s Ribbon is front and center. The whole top of the interface is transformed with consistent formatting options across Office’s apps.

While you can now more easily customize what goes where, the Ribbon takes up roughly 15-percent of the screen. Everything needed to change the look of a document is front and center, and you can reduce it to a thinner ribbon to liberate more workspace.

A small step forward is Backstage, which replaces the traditional file menu structure for diving into the documents details and properties. Gone is the one click Orb area in the upper left corner that provided access to all file-related commands.  It all works well together, but expect to spend several frustrating hours looking for the old landmarks before you get used to the new ones.

Add to that office’s more powerful image editing and processing software and you have a hit for visual projects, like a PowerPoint slide tour of World War I battlefields. Images can be edited directly in any Office app, making it simpler and quicker. On top of cropping an image to a shape, you can alter the color palette and even get rid of a background. Plus it’s easier to embed videos in PowerPoint presentations, making a full-tilt multimedia show possible.

For those who want to make it look perfect, Office now uses OpenType scalable fonts in Word and Publisher. These can make the characters, particularly foreign language ones with odd accents and ligatures look perfect. It helps with writing complex math formulas as well.

One new idea that I really like allows the previewing of what adding data to a document will look like before you actually do it. Granted, it’s a small thing because older versions let you undo any pasting action if you didn’t like the result, but Live Paste Preview can help when moving complicated items between documents with the Office Clipboard.

Outlook is the least changed of the applications. Its overall look is roughly the same but it’s easier to get rid of old messages. The Ignore button is too easy to click and have the program delete all current emails from that source as well as future ones. It’s dangerous but can help with those deluged by spam. 

PowerPoint gets a facelift and the ability to arrange slides in sections that can make reorganizing a sequence easier. On top of the addition of new transitions and animation sequences, they now reside in the Ribbon for easy access.

Office 2010 c The Excel programmers have been working overtime, and the program now is a native 64-bit app. This means that if you have the hardware to support it, Excel can now work with up to 2GB documents, although files that big are a rarity.

I really like Excel’s new way of looking at data, which should immediately be integrated into math and science classes. You can now place tiny trend lines, called Sparklines, in a single cell next to text in a document. Plus, Excel’s PivotTable Slicer lets you dynamically filter raw data so you end up with what you want to graph quicker with less trial and error.

Access is Office’s least used, yet most powerful program. It has gotten even more complex in this iteration, but you can now build databases in a modular fashion. Think of it as like a factory for prefabricated houses with a series of pre-built components that need to be strung together to create a database and forms.

A modest security enhancement is Office’s Protected View mode, which opens emailed or downloaded documents as read-only if they appear to be suspect or failed the program’s validation. To override this, you need to click to Enable Editing.

There are now stripped-down Web-based Apps for Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint and OneNote, and can be used on systems that lack the hardware to run the native apps. They require a Windows Live account or a Microsoft SharePoint Server as well as a Web connection.

Collaboration is key to the new Office with the ability for several kids doing a report or teachers creating a curriculum document to simultaneously edit something. At the end, all the changes are presented on a single screen or sheet. It works with Word, OneNote and PowerPoint, but for Excel you’ll need to use Excel’s online Web app. You’ll need to use Microsoft SharePoint Foundation 2010 and each participant must have a Windows Live account.

In the final analysis, Office 2010 is a must-have program for schools that want to keep up and offer students the latest and greatest way to create documents. Its ability to create just about what you want is matched by its complexity in how to get there.

A

Microsoft Office 2010 Professional
$500

+ Evolutionary change from 2007 edition
+ Better handling of images
+ Collaboration
+ Excel mini graphs
+ Academic discounts

- Expensive
- Can be frustrating at first
- Ribbon can dominate screen

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