Resouce Guides / Microsoft Office 2007

Microsoft Word 2007 Review

With Word 2007, Microsoft has made the broadest and probably the most constructive set of changes to Word - and Office - since tear-off toolbars came along. Word is one of the most widely-used pieces of consumer software ever devised, so it's inevitable that the sheer depth and breadth of the changes made to Word are going to spawn at least as many opponents as adherents.

Longtime users and people who are fond of bending and shaping Office to fit their work habits may be deeply frustrated, because some of the things they did before are simply no longer possible in the same forms. At the same time - and this cannot be dismissed out of hand - Word has introduced some genuinely useful new ways of doing things. If you're a new user, or you go to the program as if it were a completely new creation from the ground up, you may like what you see, and find some of your old work habits were worth abandoning after all.

word 2007 reworked interface

Coping With The Menu
The single biggest change, as you've probably heard by now, is the new menu system. The old drop-down menus and toolbars are now gone; in their place is the "ribbon," a tab-like interface with all the most commonly-used commands placed right up front. The keyboard equivalents are available as well - press the Alt key and all of the ribbon items are marked with their corresponding Alt key commands. The Alt commands are markedly different from what they were in 2003, but their Ctrl equivalents are still the same (Ctrl-F for Find and Replace, for instance).

The ribbon also changes with context: if you click on an image, for instance, a "Format" tab appears in the ribbon, and a context indicator appears above the ribbon. Switching focus to something else resets the tab. If you don't like seeing the whole ribbon all the time, you can set it to automatically minimize to something that resembles the old drop-down menu bar by double-clicking on it. The whole idea is to present the user with no more than there absolutely has to be at any given time, and in that sense the ribbon works beautifully.

There is, however, no "compatibility mode" or way to restore the old interface, and Microsoft has stood firm on this. Office gurus who loved to create their own toolbars and stick them anywhere they pleased will be incensed. The only concessions to the old toolbar system are a single customizable toolbar that's more or less locked to the top of the Word window, and a customizable status bar at the bottom. It's frustrating that I can't stick a toolbar with many of my most common commands (not the stuff Microsoft thinks is important) down at the bottom of the window where I can get to it with minimal mouse movements.

Perhaps in a future iteration Microsoft will back off a bit on this stance and allow a little more flexibility in how you can handle the Quick Access bar, but as it stands now it feels like an incentive to not use the whole toolbar metaphor in the first place. You can still assign custom to any command or macro, though - something most Office junkies, myself included, did habitually.

Over time, though, these frustrations came to feel less like deal-breakers than they seemed at first. I worked with Word for a solid week, writing not just this review but a number of other documents in it. I found over time I was paying less attention to the program and more attention to my work, and I think that was precisely the idea.

Getting Subtle
In fact, Word 2007 is far less habitually intrusive on the whole. Clippy and all such related annoyances are completely gone; instead, the program uses subtle cues rather than overt ones to attract your attention. If you highlight a block of text, for instance, a text-formatting hover menu appears, but it's heavily faded out; you only use it if you actually hover over it, and if you don't want it, it vanishes as soon as you shift focus to something else. I didn't use this menu much, but it was quite handy when I did need it, and the rest of the time it wasn't obtrusive at all.

Live Preview lets you immediately see the effects of certain Word functions on a document, such as adding a table.

Another genuinely useful new feature is "Live Preview," which allows people to see the results of a given action in real-time, such as changing the formatting of a table. Not everything works with Live Preview, though, so it's not always immediately obvious what will render with it and what won't. One element that uses Live Preview is "SmartArt" - pre-designed graphics that are used to convey information, such as hierarchy charts or Venn diagrams. When you insert a SmartArt object, any changes are reflected in real time. In the past I've resorted to a third-party program to design such things, but Word 2007 drastically cuts down on the need to do this, and the results are attractive and useful.

Earlier versions of Word introduced styles for paragraphs; Word 2007 takes the idea a step further with document themes, a collection of font, color and layout choices that can be applied to a document instantly. This is another Live Preview function, so you can open up the Theme browser (Word 2007 comes packaged with about 20) and see the results of applying a particular theme to the whole document by simply hovering the mouse over your choice.

The under-the-hood changes to Word are also intriguing. Microsoft's new .DOCX document format treats each document as a .ZIP archive containing multiple files: an XML file for the document itself, copies of attached objects, and so on. The format's compressed, so it takes less space than its binary predecessors, and you can always unpack it manually by renaming the .DOCX file extension to .ZIP and using any ZIP-compatible archiving tool (including the archive wizard in Explorer). Older Word files can be edited as is, but Word also has a built-in compatibility checker to alert you if a file might pose a conversion problem before you convert it.

Word 2003 had blogging functions available through an add-on, but they're now native to 2007 and have been refined a great deal. Said feature is essentially a version of the standalone Microsoft Live Writer application, so it also works as an impromptu generator for clean HTML. Most popular blogging services are directly supported - Windows Live Spaces, Blogger, TypePad, plus any blogging system that supports a number of popular discoverability protocols.

Microsoft's use of the XML format means that each document can be unpacked manually by using a ZIP-compatible archiving tool.

External add-ons from Microsoft let you save directly to PDF or the new XPS (XML Paper Specification) portable-document formats. And as far as I can tell, Word 2007 requires no more memory or CPU than Word 2003 did; it ran snappily enough on a 512MB Windows XP test machine and didn't give me any noticeable performance problems even when dealing with a document heavy with images or other objects.

In the end, I'm of two minds. I'm not happy that 2007 represents such a radical departure from the old ways, especially for someone who's spent so much time customizing Word over the years. I also can't ignore the fact that not having a whole clutter of toolbars and command options staring me in the face keeps my mind off Word itself, and back on the work I can do with it. That by itself is a huge step in the right direction for Word, and possibly for software as a whole.

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