Review: Office 2010 beta debuts major features

Review: Office 2010 beta debuts major features

Online integration is a key aim of the beta

I found that little, if anything, changed in the Excel and PowerPoint Web Apps between the Technical Preview and beta, and Microsoft says that both apps are now feature complete. That's a surprise, given how underpowered both are compared to their client versions. In Excel, for example, you can't add charts to your documents, although if you've added a chart in the client version, the chart will display and you can edit it. And in PowerPoint, you can't add backgrounds to presentations or animations between slides. Given that Microsoft needs to fend off Google Docs, it's hard to understand why the company left out these basic and important features.

The beta does show how compelling Office Web Apps can be when paired with SharePoint. SharePoint displays all shared documents of a team, workgroup or organization, and lets you lock documents so that only one person can work on them at a time, or allow multiple people to work on them together. It also lets you build workflows for individual documents -- for collecting feedback, automatically routing them to approvers and so on. It's not clear, though, whether in the public beta these features will be available to anyone beyond those who have access to a site created by Microsoft, as I did.

As with the Technical Preview, something very important is missing in the beta: automatic synchronization of files between the Web-based version of Office and the client version. When you work on the Web version, those files live on the Web, not your local PC. When you work on the client version, they live on your local PC, not the Web. You can save files between the versions -- for example, when you have a file open on your local PC, you can save it to the Web, and when you have a file open on the Web, you can save it to your local PC.

But unlike in Google Docs, there is no automatic synchronization of files. This can potentially be very confusing, because you can end up with different versions of the same document in different locations, and so you might overwrite newer documents with older ones, or simply not know which is the latest version. Microsoft already has the technology to do automatic synchronization built into its free Live Mesh and Live Sync products. So it's baffling that the company didn't include that feature in Office, especially because its biggest competitor, Google, includes it in Google Docs.

Other additions and cleanups

The Office 2010 beta has a few other additions and changes as well. There have been some menu and small interface tweaks, such as changes to some icons. In addition, the client version of Excel has been beefed up somewhat with the addition of "slicers," which are tools that help you display and filter data visually. For instance, you can use slicers to create dashboards that make it easier to see information displayed as a series of graphs and charts.

There's one intriguing feature in Office 2010 that I didn't get a chance to test because it wasn't available at the time of testing -- Click to Run. Essentially, it's a more streamlined way to install and use Office via download. It creates a local virtual environment on your PC, runs in that environment, and takes up less hard disk space than installing the traditional way. However, Microsoft warns that some add-ins may not work properly or at all. Until I get my hands on it, there's not much more to report.

Is it worth the download?

Anyone interested in Office should get a copy of this beta and run it on a test machine. When I worked with it, it was solid and performed well without crashing once. I experienced none of the slowness that you sometimes do with betas. Features new to Office 2010 -- such as better paste and a standardized, Office-wide reliance on the Ribbon -- will most likely improve most people's productivity.

Unfortunately, some of the most intriguing new features of Office 2010 are not ready to be publicly tested. The Outlook Social Connector is only partially functional at this point -- there are no connectors available for social networking sites. And the public, consumer version of Office Web Apps is not part of the beta, either.

Still, any Office user interested seeing the next generation of Office should download the suite, with the usual precautions about not using it for production purposes.

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