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Despite the customisable ribbon, some key commands are still oddly located
Secondary apps like Publisher are still not harmonised with the rest of the suite
Some functionality requires Exchange 2010 and SharePoint 2010
Almost a year after the first Technical Preview rolled out, Microsoft has finally delivered the release version of Office 2010 — to businesses at least (consumers will have to wait until June to get their hands on the new productivity suite).
With new versions of all the main Office applications and the belated inclusion of OneNote as a first-class citizen, this would just be another refresh of Microsoft's longstanding cash cow — if it wasn't for Office's entry into the cloud computing age with Office Web Apps. It's also the long-awaited arrival of a 64-bit version of Office, which will take advantage of the capabilities of the latest hardware.
We've been working with Office 2010 since that first preview release, and it's been clear that, right from the start, Office 2010 has been suitable for everyday use, with few bugs and plenty of new features to explore. We've looked at many of them in our earlier Technical Preview and Beta reviews.
Across the suite
One of the most obvious changes between the beta and the final release is in the Backstage view, where the Share section has been renamed Save & Send. It's an important piece of Office, as it's here you can save files to SharePoint, or to Windows Live SkyDrive for use with the Office Web Apps. Backstage also makes printing easier, with print options readily available plus a clear page preview. If you're using Office 2010 with SharePoint 2010 you can also use the BackStage to link Office into business processes and workflows. If cross-platform sharing and archiving is important to you, there's improved support for ODF (Open Document Format) and an option to make the ODF the default file format.
Office 2007 introduced the Office Ribbon user interface, somewhat inconsistently. Now, in Office 2010, it's everywhere. However, the ribbon is a lot easier to customise, and it's a lot easier for third-party plug-ins to add their own tabs. You can create your own tabs, to bring together the commands you regularly use. There are also contextual tabs that appear to add relevant commands — for example, image editing, search or table layout.
It has always been frustrating to lose a document or a file you've been working on. Earlier versions of Office had a basic document recovery option that could retrieve the last version of a file (or at least an earlier saved version). If you enable AutoSave in Word, Excel or PowerPoint, you'll get access to the last five versions, from up to four days ago, of a file from the Backstage.
Features like Protected View make it safer to work with files you've been emailed or have downloaded. While a file is protected, it's read-only and you'll need to explicitly switch to Office's edit mode before you can work with the file. Security is two-way, and there are now simple methods to ensure privacy, with Backstage tools that strip out identifying information from the document's metadata.
Word remains one of Office's flagship applications. Adding new formatting tools, including a well-designed business graphics editor, Word 2010 becomes not just a tool for creating content, but also for design and delivery. Office 2010's graphics tools aren't Photoshop, but nor are they the simple clip-art tools of Offices past. Edit an image, and you can apply special effects and remove backgrounds.
If you're using the Office Web Apps to host collaborative editing in Word, you'll get the opportunity to merge changes every time you save your file.
If you're using Office 2010's co-authoring features, you can now see where colleagues are working in a document. You'll get a similar view in PowerPoint, and both give you an Outlook 2010-style contact pop-up so you can quickly get in touch via phone or IM to add context to the changes they're making.
Some of Word's new document-navigation tools are really useful, but others are annoying. It's easy to quickly move through a well-formatted document, quickly finding the content you need. The new Find tools, however, are possibly the most annoying piece of Office 2010 — all the more so as they're one of the tools you're likely to use the most. If you search a document for a piece of text, and then change one instance, you lose the entire search and have to start from scratch again, rather than the remaining instances of the search term staying visible.
Excel 2010 Excel 2010 may be the best reason to get the 64-bit version of Office — at least if you're using Office as a business intelligence tool. Features like the PowerPivot plug-in let you explore and analyse large amounts of data — and that's where lots of memory comes in handy, as working with in-memory data is a great deal faster than paging through large data sets, reading and writing from disk as you go. There's also improved handling for Excel's native pivot tables, with interactive controls for filtering PivotCharts and new slicer controls for quickly manipulating the contents of a pivot table. If you're not using pivot tables with large data sets, there's a built-in search tool to help you track down the needle of relevant data in the haystack of a massive spreadsheet.
Microsoft has made Excel the heart of its business analytics tools, using it to visualise SQL Server data. Pivot tables and slicers simplify exploring data, while sparklines give at-a-glance overviews.
There are also plenty of visualisation tools in Excel 2010, including support for Edward Tufte's concept of 'sparklines' — little in-line graphs to show trends quickly. There's also improved conditional formatting, with more icons and better support for graph bars and colour-coded gradient fills.
Although we've grown used to Outlook 2010's conversation view, it's not to everyone's taste. That's why the release version of Office 2010 makes it an option. Outlook is a very personal tool, and Microsoft' has made it easy to customise, with Quick Steps offering an instant macro-like approach to stringing together commands and functions that you might not want to turn into rules.
Outlook's Social Connector has proven a useful tool, one that helps you keep track of the context behind messages. The first plug-ins are now available, and the LinkedIn connector is particularly useful (it's not clear why MySpace has provided a connector, as your typical MySpace user is unlikely to be using Outlook).
The release version also fixes a bug in the Technical Preview and the Beta that increased message sizes when saving them.
PowerPoint 2010 PowerPoint 2010 has had the biggest makeover of any of the Office 2010 applications. Not only does it now use GPU acceleration to add new transition effects, but it also allows you to embed — and edit — video directly in your presentations. You're not limited to your own video either: you can also use YouTube and other online sources.
The Office Web Apps give PowerPoint 2010 tools for collaborating on presentations, but they're not the only cloud service available to PowerPoint users. Online meetings can be complex to set up and services expensive to use, so PowerPoint's new Broadcast SlideShow feature, which delivers presentations to any web browser (just make a phone call to add your voice), could come in useful. Presentations can also be recorded as videos, with voice-overs, ready for sharing online.
It's probably not fair to describe OneNote as the Marmite of the Office family, but it's one of those applications you either love or hate. A freeform note-taking, outlining and organisation tool, OneNote is the electronic equivalent of an engineer's notebook — a single repository for information and ideas.
OneNote 2010 has finally graduated to be part of every Office SKU. It's also gained a lot more integration with the rest of the Office suite. Notes can be linked to Word and PowerPoint documents, or to pages found in Internet Explorer (or to other browsers, where cut-and-pasted content includes the URL of the original source page). OneNote 2010 can also be docked to the edge of a screen, so you can quickly drop research materials into a notebook.
We're most impressed with the co-authoring features in OneNote 2010. Notebooks can be hosted using Office Web Apps, and shared with colleagues. A single project notebook can be used to collate information needed for a report, and two or more authors can use OneNote as a freeform note-taking platform.
Office 2010 also includes a new tool, based on Groove, for working with SharePoint. SharePoint Workspace 2010 lets you take SharePoint libraries with you ion the road, keeping an offline copy. It'll also help manage any conflicts when you return to the office.
Based on the old favourite, Groove, SharePoint Workspace takes SharePoint libraries offline, giving you a local copy and tools for synchronising content back and forth.
Access 2010 gains the same conditional formatting tools as Excel, giving your reports tools for quickly showing just what an individual piece of data means. There are also tools for adding data bars, giving Access 2010 the integrated business analysis features it's needed for a long time.
Like Word 2010, Publisher 2010 gets access to the additional formatting capabilities of OpenType fonts. These give you access to additional style options, as well as improved kerning. Style sets are a new option that let you explore more complex typographic effects, with a drop-down providing a preview of the effects before you apply them.
There are also new versions of Office's XML-based form designer InfoPath 2010. Separate Designer and Filer applications make it easier to lock down and distribute forms, while a web-based publisher converts form designs into HTML, ready for the web.
Although you'll get a lot from Office 2010 as a set of standalone products, you'll get a lot more when you use it with other Microsoft products. The obvious pairing is Outlook and Exchange, and there's certainly a lot of synergy between the 2010 versions of both products. While Exchange 2008 works just fine, many of Outlook 2010's additional features (like the Out Of Office warning) really need Exchange 2010. There are also many places where Office Communications Server 2010 comes in handy, for managing internal instant messaging around Office Web Apps collaboration (though you can also use Live Messenger). Similarly SharePoint 2010 provides a document management and workflow framework that integrates Office 2010 applications with line-of-business applications, including ERP and CRM packages. It's also the host for private versions of the Office Web Apps.
So now the final release is here, is it worth upgrading? If you're using Windows 7, then you'll find its many integration points with the new OS well worth using. Jump Lists simplify working with recent documents and common templates, as well as giving quick access to key functions and regular tasks. There are also nice touches in the way Outlook 2010 takes advantage of Windows 7's enhanced taskbar. Vista and XP users get plenty of new features too, with the Backstage giving full-screen access to things that were previously crowded menus.
But there's one real reason to upgrade, no matter what version of Windows you're using. The Office Web Apps give Office 2010 an effective framework for collaboration — one that really does make it a lot easier to work with colleagues. We had been disappointed with some of Office 2010's collaboration features in the Beta version, so we're pleased to see that Microsoft has addressed many of the issues we'd encountered, making it clearer to both see what a colleague is doing in a shared document — and making it easier to communicate with them via instant messaging.
Initially we thought this version of Office was merely an evolution of earlier versions, carrying design trends forward, and adding a few new features. However, as the Office Web Apps have matured and have become the basis of Office 2010's collaboration tools, it's turned out to be a more revolutionary release. Microsoft has talked about 'software + services' for a long time now, and with Office 2010 is finally delivering on its vision. Web-hosted collaboration will allow both formal and ad hoc co-authoring. Informal collaboration tools let teams develop their own processes, adapting the tool to fit their needs rather than vice-versa.
It's that flexibility that makes Office 2010 an important, perhaps essential, upgrade. Certainly it's a release that deserves close scrutiny.
There are three retail versions of Office 2010 available for preorder: Home & Student (£109.99 inc. VAT); Home & Business (£239.99); and Professional (£439.99). Two further editions are available under volume licensing agreements: Standard and Professional Plus.