Office XP: introduction

Released to the public at the beginning of June, Office XP comes in a variety of configurations, starting with the basic Office XP Standard -- which includes the new versions of Word 2002, Excel 2002, PowerPoint 2002 and Outlook 2002 -- through to Office XP Developer, which throws in Access 2002, Front Page 2002, Publisher 2002 and a collection of Office Development Tools (see feature table for more details).

Released to the public at the beginning of June, Office XP comes in a variety of configurations, starting with the basic Office XP Standard -- which includes the new versions of Word 2002, Excel 2002, PowerPoint 2002 and Outlook 2002 -- through to Office XP Developer, which throws in Access 2002, Front Page 2002, Publisher 2002 and a collection of Office Development Tools (see feature table for more details).

It's clear that Microsoft has taken steps to improve the functionality of the various Office components -- although changes are less apparent in some applications than in others -- and several innovations are now available. Like the addition of the scroll wheel to a mouse's left and right buttons, many of these features may not appear wholly beneficial at first; but given some time to get used to them, you'll find that it's difficult to return to the previous technology.

Perhaps the most obvious improvements are the Task Panes and Smart Tags, and we'll be covering these in more detail elsewhere. But deeper within the suite are equally important changes such as document review and collaboration tools, data recovery, speech and handwriting recognition, as well as XML support and integration into SharePoint Team Services. Several common functions, such as cut and paste, are more accessible and capable than previously, while refinements to previous tools, such as AutoCorrect, are very welcome.

As well as these broader changes to the infrastructure of the Office XP suite, each application has been enhanced, as well as demonstrating the flatter, more colourful interface that will also feature in Windows XP when it's released later this year. Excel's Web Query feature has been updated, and Outlook 2002 now includes support for Instant Messaging and 'buddy lists'.

However, just as music albums always contain a track or two that you don't really like, so Office XP has its faults. Although it's entirely understandable that Microsoft wants to protect its property from software piracy, some may find the forced online registration for each installation a little hard to swallow -- particularly if you need to negotiate further installations with Microsoft due to system failures and reinstalls. Some parts of the suite are well intended, but ineffective (such as the speech recognition and translation tools) and, if you only have a small (15in. or 17in.) monitor, then you may find that things get a little cluttered.

Generally speaking, though, there are more than enough improvements here to justify an upgrade if you're a collaborative/workgroup user. It's a little harder to rationalise the cost if you're a small office or home user, but Office XP is still worthy of consideration. To find out which upgrade would be most suitable for you, read on.

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