Office 2007 on test…

With its imminent launch and having had a quick at one of its beta releases, I decided to give Office 2007 a longer look after it reached its final guise. This is courtesy of the demonstration version that can be downloaded from Microsoft’s website; I snagged Office Standard which contains Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook. Very generously, the trial version that I am using gives me until the end of March to come to my final decision.

And what are my impressions? Outlook, the application from the suite that I most use, has changed dramatically since Outlook 2002, the version that I have been using. Unless you open up an email in full screen mode, the ribbon interface so prevalent in other members of the Office family doesn’t make much of an appearance here. The three-paned interface taken forward from Outlook 2003 is easy to get around. I especially like the ability to collapse/expand a list of emails from a particular sender: it really cuts down on clutter. The ZoneAlarm anti-spam plug-in on my system was accepted without any complaint as were all of my PST files. One thing that needed redoing was the IMAP connection to my FastMail webmail account but that was driven more by Outlook warning messages than by necessity from a user experience point of view. I have still to get my Hotmail account going but I lost that connection when still using Outlook 2002 and after I upgraded to IE7.

What do I make of the ribbon interface? As I have said above, Outlook is not pervaded by the new interface paradigm until you open up an email. Nevertheless, I have had a short encounter with Word 2007 and am convinced that the new interface works well. It didn’t take me long to find my way around at all. In fact, I think that they have made a great job of the new main menu triggered by the Office Button (as Microsoft call it) and got all sorts of things in there; the list includes Word options, expanded options for saving files (including the new docx file format, of course, but the doc format has not been discarded either) and a publishing capability that includes popular blogs (, for instance) together with document management servers. Additionally, the new zoom control on the bottom right-hand corner is much nicer than the old drop down menu. As regards the “ribbon”, this is an extension of the tabbed interfaces seen in other applications like Adobe HomeSite and Adobe Dreamweaver, the difference being that the tabs are only place where any function is found because there is no menu back up. There is an Add-ins tab that captures plug-ins to things like Adobe Distiller for PDF creation. Macromedia in its pre-Adobe days offered FlashPaper for doing the same thing and this seems to function without a hitch in Word 2007. Right-clicking on any word in your document not only gives you suggested corrections to misspellings but also synonyms (no more Shift-F7 for the thesaurus, though it is still there is you need it) and enhanced on-the-spot formatting options. A miniature formatting menu even appears beside the expected context menu; I must admit that I found that a little annoying at the beginning but I suppose that I will learn to get used to it.

My use of Outlook and Word will continue, the latter’s blogging feature is very nice, but I haven’t had reason to look at Excel or PowerPoint in detail thus far. From what I have seen, the ribbon interface pervades in those applications too. Even so, my impressions the latest Office are very favourable. The interface overhaul may be radical but it does work. Their changing the file formats is a more subtle change but it does mean that users of previous Office versions will need the converter tool in order for document sharing to continue. Office 97 was the last time when we had to cope with that and it didn’t seem to cause the world to grind to a halt.

Will I upgrade? I have to say that it is very likely given what is available in Office Home and Student edition. That version misses out on having Outlook but the prices mean that even buying Outlook standalone to compliment what it offers remains a sensible financial option. Taking a look at the retail prices on confirms the point:

Office Home and Student Edition: £94.61

Office Standard Edition: £285.50

Office Standard Edition Upgrade: £175.96

Outlook 2007: £77.98

Having full version software for the price of an upgrade sounds good to me and it is likely to be the route that I take, if I replace the Office XP Standard Edition installation that has been my mainstay over the last few years. Having been on a Windows 95 > Windows 98 > Windows 98 SE > Windows ME upgrade treadmill and endured the hell raised when reinstallation becomes unavoidable, the full product approach to getting the latest software appeals to me over the upgrade pathway. In fact, I bought Windows XP Professional as the full product in order to start afresh after moving on from Windows 9x.

Hard drive partitioning

It has to be said that hard drive partitioning isn’t something that most people do very often, if at all in these days of cheap storage and system virtualisation. I must admit to having several disks in my main machine and can vouch for the virtues of virtualisation: VMware allows me to run multiple operating systems on the same machine, a very useful asset so long as enough memory is available. We can expect to hear more about virtualisation with the likes of Intel and AMD looking at hypervisor solutions for this.

Partitioning does give you what appear to be multiple drives from just the one and that is very useful when you only have a single hard drive in your PC. This was very much the case in my early computing days when catastrophic Windows 9x crashes (some self-inflicted…) often resulted in the pain of a complete re-installation of everything that had been on there. The independence offered by partitions certainly offered me peace of mind back then but 100MB Iomega Zip disks were a very useful defence in depth.

Without partitioning, my curiosity regarding the world of Linux would not have been sated though an approach involving multiple hard drives certainly came into play later on. Having been a Sun Solaris user at university, Linux certainly aroused much interest in me and I have to say that it has come a long, long way since my first ventures into its world.

While the Windows tool FDISK could partition hard drives for you, it wasn’t non-destructive: you had be prepared to restore all of your files from a backup and do a complete software re-installation following its use. It was designed for setting things up at the outset and not changing them later and that thinking seems to have pervaded the design of the Disk Management console found in XP.

For more flexible and non-destructive partitioning, Powerquest’s Partition Magic became the tool of choice, though I did have a dalliance with a package called Partition It before taking the plunge. Partition Magic is now in the Symantec stable and not a lot seems to be heard of it. Version 7, the last from Powerquest before its takeover, has been my staple but 983 errors have been thrown by the application at times and one partitioning operation went awry, forcing me to depend on my backups. Version 8 still throws 983 errors so I started to look beyond Partition Magic altogether. In my search, I happened on version 10 of Acronis Disk Director Suite. It got a strong recommendation from reviewer Davey Winder in PC Pro magazine (backup software True Image 10 from the same company also got a thumbs up from a different PC Pro reviewer) which gave some reassurance and I have to say that I agree. An operation refused by Partition Magic was completed successfully and safely so I know where my vote goes.

Adding a new hard drive

Having during the week obtained a new 320 GB hard drive, today I am adding it to my system after yesterdays scare with the PSU. As with any such item, you need to format and configure it to work with your operating system, be it Windows, Linux or whatever. Good old Partition Magic can help with this (I have version 7 from the Powerquest days) but Windows XP (Professional, anyway) does offer its own tool for the job: the Disk Management console. Unfortunately, it’s a bit hard to find. The easiest way to get to it is to type diskmgmt.msc into the Run command box. Otherwise, it is a matter of setting your Start Menu to show the Administrative Tools group (Taskbar and Start Menu properties> Start Menu tab > Customise > Advanced tab) and accessing through the computer Management console for which there is a shortcut in this group. Of course, you need to have administrator access to your PC in order to to do any of this.

Technet Plus subscription

I have a free subscription to Microsoft‘s Technet but with the onset of Vista and the latest issue dangles a carrot in front of me: the idea of a Technet Plus subscription. Trouble is that it is £283 per annum in the UK, not cheap. Nevertheless, that does rather neatly compare to the price of Windows Vista and that comes as part of the package. I think that I’ll revisit the idea when upgrading time comes and that will be a while after the Vista launch date of 30/1/2007. Given the security changes in the latest Windows incarnation, I’ll wait to ensure that I will not be put out too much before making the jump.