Office 2010: a deeper dive

Summary:I've spent the last six months immersed in Office 2010, using all the core programs day in and day out, digging in to see what's new, what works, and what's still annoying after all these years. In this post, I'll give you a wide-ranging overview of what's in Office 2010, so you can decide whether it matters to you.

In every sense of the word, Microsoft Office is huge. Hundreds of millions of people use at least one of the programs in the Office family every day—in enterprises, small and medium-size businesses, homes, and schools. When Microsoft released Office 2010 to manufacturing on April 15, it kicked off an upgrade cycle that will last for several years.

I’ve got a unique perspective on Office. I’ve written at least one book about every version of Office since 1994 (that’s eight releases and 10 books in 16 years, for those who are keeping score). I’ve also written countless magazine articles and blog posts, all of them based on extensive, hands-on experience with the individual Office products. This time around is no exception. I’ve spent the last six months immersed in Office 2010, using all the core programs day in and day out, digging in to see what’s new, what works, and what’s still annoying after all these years. In this post (first of a series), my goal is to give you a wide-ranging overview of what’s in Office 2010, so you can decide whether it matters to you.

Judging by the Talkback comments I’ve seen in various posts here and in quick-and-dirty reviews elsewhere, I know there’s a lot of misconception about what’s in Office 2010. I’ve read a few comments that dismissed the changes in this edition as superficial eye candy, hardly worth the upgrade. And I understand how easy it would be to come to that conclusion if you simply poke at Word and Outlook for a couple hours (or even a couple days), and then fire up the other Office apps for a quick lap around the track. With that sort of superficial look, it’s easy to pass judgment on Office as too big, too complicated, too expensive, too old. (Amusingly, most reviewers I’ve read find some pet feature that doesn’t work exactly as they would have designed it and then harp on that for the bulk of the review. It’s as predictable as the sunrise.)

Honestly, I wish Office 2010 was a minor upgrade. If it were, I would have been done with this book about six weeks ago and I’d be sitting on a tropical beach sipping mai tais right now. But the reality is different: Office 2010 is a surprisingly deep, thoughtfully designed, well-engineered collection of software programs. The more I dig, the more I like the small but useful touches that the Office design team has wrought. That’s not just my opinion, either. I’ve heard variations on that sentiment from dozens of correspondents, including a few who are Office skeptics.

It is true that the core programs in Office—Word, Excel, Outlook, and PowerPoint—are mature, as befits their age. There are only a handful of truly new features to be found, which I point out in the balance of this post. Much of the work in Office 2010 is cleanup and polishing, smoothing over rough edges, making common features work the same across apps, improving performance. In some striking ways, Office 2010 is to its predecessor as Windows 7 is to Windows Vista. And that’s not a bad thing.

Microsoft has made a substantial investment in online features for this edition. With Office Web Apps, it’s delivered a version 1.0 release of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote, with a common feature set that works on Windows Live SkyDrive for consumers (or will, in a few months when the retail version is released) and as part of SharePoint servers in big corporations. It’s not a competitor to Google Docs—and it might never be, because Microsoft is still in the business of selling shrink-wrapped software. But Office Web Apps offer a decent feature set and fairly significant promise. I’ll look at those web-based pieces in a follow-up post. Today I'm focusing exclusively on the desktop version of Office.

If you were hoping to see a simpler lineup of Office editions in 2010 than in its predecessors, I have only a little good news. The lineup is more logical and consistent, but the number of available combinations is still confusing, and the licensing story has, sadly, become more complex than ever. If you have questions about the details of what’s in each edition, what they’ll cost, and when they’ll be available for sale, see the last page in this package, Prices, packaging, dates, and other details.

As part of my research for this post, I fired up copies of Office 2003 and Office 2007 in virtual machines and used them alongside the new edition for a few days. If you’ve already deployed Office 2007, at least some of these features will be old news. But for anyone who has stuck with Office 2003 for all these years and still uses it heavily, the cumulative changes are overwhelmingly positive, and it’s hard to imagine an objective reason for not upgrading.

Here’s what I cover in this post:

Page 2: The Ribbon, finished Every program now has been ribbonized, including Outlook, OneNote, and Publisher. But that’s not the only interesting UI change.

Page 3: What’s new in Word, Excel, and Outlook? These are the programs everyone uses, in the office and at home. Are there any new killer features?

Page 4: Prices, packaging, dates, and other details You’ve got questions, I’ve got the answers you’re looking for.

Next: The Ribbon gets some much-needed polish -->

 <-- Previous page

Page 2: The Ribbon, finished

In Office 2007, Microsoft delivered the most sweeping change to its user interface ever with the introduction of the Ribbon. Well, perhaps I should say partial introduction. In Office 2007, three major Office programs—Outlook, Publisher, and OneNote—stuck with the old-style menus and toolbars, giving Office 2007 a distinctly unfinished feeling.

That schizophrenic feeling is gone in Office 2010. All of the Office programs now fully support the Ribbon interface. The changes are especially welcome in Outlook, where many previously buried options are now much easier to discover.

Compared to the Office 2007 interface, this iteration is also cleaner. The ribbon menus are flatter, and overall there’s more white and less color, making everything a bit easier on the eyes. But the single biggest change is the return of the File menu. The design in Office 2007 took many functions that had been on the File menu in previous versions (Open and Save dialog boxes, Print functions, and so on) and buried them on the Office menu, which only appeared when you clicked the Office orb in the upper left corner. That was a usability gaffe, and it’s been fixed in Office 2010. At the far left edge of the ribbon menu in every Office app is a File option. It’s brightly colored, and unlike the other tab headings it opens a full-page informational display called Backstage view. Here are two examples, from Word 2010 and Outlook 2010.

When I first saw a demo of Backstage view last summer, I didn’t exactly yawn, but I also don’t remember being particularly impressed. In six months of daily usage, though, it’s really proven to be a smart design. Most of the actions that are now in Backstage view used to be on menus, which led to dialog boxes filled with tabs. (Office 2003 carried this design philosophy well past the breaking point.) Now, you can view information about the current file or e-mail message, manage a list of recent menus and recent places, convert documents, handle printing tasks, and more, without leaving the program window. Interface innovations from Office usually show up a few years later in Windows—ribbon menus, for example, are in many of the built-in apps in Windows 7. I will not be surprised to see some of the Backstage view concepts appear in Windows 8.

One of my biggest complaints about the Office 2007 Ribbon was its lack of customization options. Developers could build Add-in tabs, and a few enterprising third-party developers came up with tools that offered some minor tweakability options, but none of those options were particularly satisfying. By contrast, all Office 2010 apps include a complete set of customization tools for the Ribbon. Here’s the dialog box for Excel:

You can hide built-in tabs, move tabs and groups of commands up and down, rename tabs and groups, and create custom tabs with your own arrangement of favorite commands. You can also export those changes for use on a second PC. One nit: The export option creates a single file that includes changes for the ribbon and the Quick Access Toolbar. You can’t back up those elements separately, and you can’t merge changes between two Office installations. Maybe in Office 15.

The level of consistency between apps in the core Office programs is impressive, especially in terms of how each handles graphics and pictures. The nuts and bolts of creating and editing a particular type of graphic object—pictures, screenshots, SmartArt, charts, and so on—are remarkably similar in different programs. This is in sharp contrast to text-handling features, unfortunately, where the baggage of legacy features is particularly apparent. There are numerous trivial and pointless variations in the way similar text-editing tasks are handled, depending on which program you’re using. Keyboard shortcuts are filled with exceptions (especially in Outlook), and the path to common dialog boxes from different programs can be just different enough to be annoying.

Next: What's new in Word, Excel, and Outlook? -->

 <-- Previous page

Page 3: What’s new in Word, Excel, and Outlook?

The programs that most reviewers will look at are the big three of business: Word, Excel, and Outlook. Here’s a checklist of some of the new features you’ll see in each of these programs. Is any one of them a killer feature? You be the judge. (I’ll look at the rest of the Office family, including OneNote and PowerPoint, in the next installment. OneNote in particular deserves more space than a few paragraphs.)

Word 2010

One feature I’ve found absolutely indispensable while working on this book is Word’s new Navigation pane, which replaces the old Document Map from previous versions. It sits along the left side of the document (if you choose to make it visible), and shows one of three views, selectable via tabs at the top of the pane. The screenshot here shows the Word 2010 version on the left, with the Word 2007 version on the right (for the record, that Word 2007 view is almost identical to the Word 2003 version). Not only is the Word 2010 version easier to read, but the headings are live, which allows you to drag section headings up or down to rearrange the document quickly. You can’t do that in earlier versions of Word.

The third tab in the Navigation pane actually incorporates most of the search functions that previously required opening the Find dialog box. When you type a word or phrase in the Search box, every match is highlighted in the document itself, and snippets from around each match are displayed in the Navigation pane. Instead of having to page through the document or click the Next button repeatedly to find the reference you’re looking for, you can scan quickly through the list. This is one of many features where a subtle design change actually makes a huge difference in productivity.

Excel 2010

Most of what’s new in Excel is strictly for numbers geeks. One thing I was surprised to discover when I dug deeply into Excel was the very long list of old functions that have been completely rewritten, reportedly to be faster and more accurate. There are 38 functions in all on this list, and you can find them in the Function Library, under the Compatibility category, where they remain for use with Excel 2007 and earlier. Most are engineering and statistical functions and have been replaced with functions that have slightly different names (T.TEST instead of TTEST, for example).

For anyone who works with very large data sets from external databases—millions of rows, which is more than will fit in an Excel worksheet—the new PowerPivot add-in is essential. It pulls data (from multiple sources, if necessary) into Excel, where it can be analyzed quickly. A sexier new feature for non-math geeks is the Sparklines feature, which allows you to add miniature visualizations directly into a table to show trends, as shown here.

Outlook 2010

The Ribbon makes an enormous difference in the usability of Outlook and is certainly the most obvious change. I want to highlight two interesting new features here. The first is a quick-and-easy macro-building tool called Quick Steps. The idea behind a Quick Step is that you string together a group of commands (picking them from a list) and apply the finished product to a button on the Home tab and, optionally, to a keyboard shortcut. You can then apply that entire sequence of commands with a single click. The screenshot here shows details of a Quick Step. This one is a classic “tickler file” macro, ideal for any message that demands follow-up in a week or a month. The Defer Till Next Month command I created appears on the Home tab; clicking it moves the selected message to a folder I created called Follow Up, and then applies a follow-up flag to the message with a reminder date of the end of next month.

Outlook also has many performance improvements, offers support for multiple Exchange accounts, and optionally groups messages into conversations. The latter is a good idea, but in practice it has one flaw that makes it less than perfect and even a little dangerous. Conversation grouping in Outlook 2010 is based on the message subject. There’s a very welcome Ignore option that automatically sends the selected conversation and all future messages to the Deleted Items folder automatically—it’s tailor-made for scenarios where you’ve been cc’d on a long message thread that you’re not the least bit interested in. Everything works fine when the subject is detailed and unique, but if your correspondents send messages with more generic subjects, you could end up with a new, important message being automatically deleted because it had the same subject as a conversation you ignored weeks or months ago. Oops!

Next: Prices, packaging, and other details -->

 <--Previous page

Page 4: Prices, packaging, dates, and other details

You’ve got Office questions, I’ve got answers.

What’s in each Office edition?

Consumers have three choices, and so do businesses. You can see the official lineup here. I also wrote about this subject when the versions were announced last year. For Office 2010, Microsoft has cut the Ultimate and Enterprise editions as well as the OEM-only Basic edition.

All editions include Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote and are available in 32-bit and 64-bit versions. Some editions include additional apps beyond the four core programs, as I’ve noted in the list below.

The home editions:

  • Microsoft Office Home and Student 2010 The full retail version can be installed on up to three PCs in a single home. It includes the four core apps only, and the license agreement specifically prohibits its use “in any commercial, nonprofit or revenue-generating activities, or by any government organization.”
  • Microsoft Office Home and Business 2010 Targeted at small businesses and power users, it adds Outlook to the core apps.
  • Microsoft Office Professional Academic 2010 Adds Outlook, Publisher, and Access. Available to anyone with an address, it is sold only through authorized academic resellers.

The business editions:

  • Microsoft Office Standard 2010 Adds Outlook and Publisher to the core apps. Available via volume licensing only.
  • Microsoft Office Professional 2010 Adds Outlook, Publisher, and Access. Sold through Retail channels only.
  • Microsoft Office Professional Plus 2010 Includes Outlook, Publisher, Access, SharePoint Workspace (formerly Groove), Communicate, and InfoPath. Available via volume licensing only.

What are the system requirements?

Office 2010 runs on Windows XP (SP3 required), Windows Vista with SP1 or later (32-bit or 64-bit), Windows 7 (32-bit or 64-bit), Windows Server 2003 R2 (32-bit or 64-bit) with MSXML 6.0 installed, Windows Server 2008 (32-bit or 64-bit), and Windows Server 2008 R2. As for hardware requirements, you’ll need at least 3 GB of hard disk space; beyond that, any modern PC will work acceptably. The official list from Microsoft is here.

Are there any notable changes in licensing terms?

As always, every version of Office is licensed for installation on one PC. In the case of retail versions, the license says, “You may install another copy of the software on a portable device for use by the single primary user of the licensed device.” That extra installation is not provided with OEM copies, which are sold with new PCs.

Update: As in previous versions, the Home and Student edition is licensed for installation on three PCs in a single household and may not be used for commercial purposes. If you purchase this edition using a product key card, however, you get only one installation.

How much will each edition cost?

Microsoft has abandoned upgrade pricing for Office 2010. For retail full packaged products, the estimated retail prices (typically discounted by resellers) are as follows:

  • Office Home and Student: $149
  • Office Home and Business: $279
  • Office Professional: $499
  • Office Professional Academic: $99

For volume licensing editions, you’ll have to talk to a reseller.

Didn’t you leave out Office 2010 Starter Edition?

Yes, deliberately. On new PCs, OEMs have the option to install Office 2010 Starter edition. You cannot buy it at retail outlets. It’s not a trial copy, and it has no “time bomb” that causes it to stop working after a few months. It includes only two programs, Word Starter and Excel Starter, both of which allow you to create, edit, and save documents but lack access to advanced features. Because Starter Edition also contains the full installation code for all three retail editions, it can be converted to a full version by purchasing a product key card.

How do Office product key cards work?

For the first time, Microsoft is selling Office in a “product key card” format. That package, which is discounted approximately 20-30% compared to a full retail packaged copy, has the following restrictions:

  • It includes the 25-character product key only and does not include installation media.
  • It is designed to activate Office on a single PC preloaded with Office 2010. (After Office 2010 is available for retail sale, Microsoft promises to offer downloads of the software “for a limited time.”)
  • This product is licensed for a single installation on a single PC. It does not include the right to install the software on a second, portable device.
  • The license cannot be transferred to another PC.

Estimated retail prices for product key cards are as follows: Office Home and Student: $119; Office Home and Business: $199; Office Professional: $349

If I am running a 64-bit Windows version, should I install 64-bit Office?

The short answer is, probably not. I know that sounds counterintuitive. In the great tradition of Spinal Tap, 64 is bigger than 32, so it must be better. Right? The problem is that for most people there’s no compelling advantage to a 64-bit Office version unless you want to open spreadsheets or database files bigger than 2GB in size. If you do install a 64-bit Office edition, you’ll find that most add-ins don’t work, because they were written for a 32-bit environment. Even Microsoft cautions against blindly answering yes to the 64-bit question:

Microsoft Office 2010 introduces native 64-bit versions of Microsoft Office products to take advantage of this larger capacity. For example, this additional capacity is needed only by those Microsoft Excel users who require Excel spreadsheets that are larger than 2 gigabytes (GB). The 32-bit version of Office 2010 provides the same functionality and is also compatible with 32-bit add-ins. Therefore, the 32-bit version of Office 2010 is installed by default.

Are there any changes to file formats?

If you’re currently using Office 2003, the answer is yes, across the board. Office 2010 uses the XML-based default formats introduced in Office 2007, which makes the upgrade from Office 2007 much easier. The only noteworthy format that is unique to Office 2010 is the new format for OneNote, which supports backups and a built-in Recycle Bin. If you use the Office 2007 OneNote format, you lose those new features but can share notebooks with PCs running OneNote 2007.

When will Office 2010 be available for sale?

Microsoft TechNet and MSDN subscribers can download the product now. The official launch event for businesses is May 12. Consumers will be able to buy shrink-wrapped product in June; Microsoft is still being coy about the specific date.

Topics: Collaboration, Microsoft, Software


Ed Bott is an award-winning technology writer with more than two decades' experience writing for mainstream media outlets and online publications. He has served as editor of the U.S. edition of PC Computing and managing editor of PC World; both publications had monthly paid circulation in excess of 1 million during his tenure. He is the a... Full Bio

zdnet_core.socialButton.googleLabel Contact Disclosure

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.