First Hands On: Microsoft Office for Mac 2008

There's no better sign of Microsoft's increasing acceptance of the Mac population than the latest version of Office for Mac 2008, the first Office with native support for Intel-based Macs. Like its Mac-side predecessors, this Office has its own interface and tools, many of which aren't found on the PC. But whatever you use to create your PowerPoint presentation or Word doc, it will be 100% compatible with the 2007 PC Office edition. We've known it was coming for a while but now it's officially en route, hitting most retail outfits on January 15th at three key prices starting at $400 for suits and $150 for students and home use. We've been playing with the beta for a few weeks, too, and so far it's a smooth ride.

All editions include Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Entourage. The $400 "standard" edition also has Microsoft Server Exchange support and Automator actions. The $500 Special Media edition has all of that plus Microsoft Expression Media, formerly iView, a program for managing and processing vast batches of 100 different media types.

If you're a cheapskate with a conscience like me, though, you'll be happy to hear that the former "Students and Teachers" edition has been renamed "Home and Student" edition. That means you can pay just the $150 for the four key programs without making up some excuse that you're going back to school for some sort of "adult education."

The biggest advantage of the new Office is that it runs great on the MacBook Pro. After experiencing some crashiness with the old Microsoft Word, I decided to make iWork my default word processor, but compatibility still takes an extra step (you have to Export to Word). My wife is an Office for Mac veteran, and while she hasn't experienced too many stability issues with Word, she finds instability when working in the old PowerPoint, especially with Excel data. She's committed to Office for the long haul, never gonna touch iWork, and I like Office features, like that damn style paintbrush, which comes in handy when you're doing a lot of cut-and-paste. So in my house, a new Office arrival is good news indeed. Needless to say, this Office suite, even in beta, has been nice and stable to date.

My favorite new feature, one of those Mac-only treats, is My Day, which goes with Entourage but is a free-floating purplish-blue standalone app. It is what it sounds like, a little calendar that show you what's on tap. But you can add To-Do's directly to it, and check them off as you go through your day, almost like it was scratch paper. I can use all the to-do I can get, and this has been a big help.

I have to say that when Office 2007 for Windows came out last year, I was a little miffed by the tab interface. I was happy to see that Office 2008 for Mac doesn't follow suit. As you can see from the Word screenshot above, you still have all the familiar ways of finding things, as well as new animated tabs for adding graphics, tables and all sorts of other stuff.

PowerPoint users like my wife will be happy about compatibility with Apple Remote and a "send to iPhoto" feature that save slideshows directly to iPhoto for auto-syncing with an iPod.

Excel nerds get their patience rewarded with more than 1 million rows and 16,000 columns, equal to that of Windows Office 2007. Also, there's a new Formula Builder for people like me who need a little help inserting calculators and stuff. (Usually I just call my wife, who's a total Excel freak.)

As one of the last living humans who uses Hotmail, I was glad to see that the new Messenger for Mac 6 was integrated into the suite. I don't use the messenger (the Mac version doesn't really pack much in the way of multimedia messaging) but I like having the rapid-fire new-mail notifications.

I wish I could say the same for Hotmail support in Entourage. It's sad, but when I loaded up my account info, it downloaded 474 of my oldest emails and refused to go any further, leaving something like 30,000 messages stranded on the server. I inquired about this, as part of my zeal for the new Office was having a pleasant way to manage Hotmail on the Mac. All I got was the cold hard fact that nobody in Redmond cares about Hotmail anymore. The official word: "Improved Hotmail functionality in Entourage was not a main focus for the new version." Don't worry, Hotmail team—wherever you are in that nest of cubicles, fire off a flair and we'll send someone to rescue you.

First Hands On: Microsoft Office for Mac 2008

Office is a massive suite, and I haven't had the time to explore every nook and cranny yet. I can say that I will be using it going forward, and will investigate any issues that arise. I know many of you already have the beta. Well, now that you're free to talk about it (trust me, you are), I'd like to encourage you to share your comments below—maybe you've discovered some dark underbelly that we haven't found yet. [Mac Office 2008; The Three Editions]