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Review: Microsoft's Office 2011 for Mac

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Excel 2011

Like Word, the new Excel delivers stronger connections to features Windows Office users are familiar with, including “Sparklines” mini charts that fit into a single cell of the spreadsheet grid to help visualize data, enhanced Pivot Table reports, support for extended Excel functionality with the returned support of VBA, and support for the new Excel Web App for online editing.

Unlike Apple’s Numbers, Excel spreadsheets are still fixed to a single grid per sheet. Apple’s clever rethinking of how a spreadsheet should work is simply confusing to some people who have only experienced Excel, but it offers some tantalizing benefits to users who take the time to figure out how to layout documents with multiple spreadsheets per page.

Unfortunately, Apple hasn’t delivered many usable examples of how to tap this flexibility, leaving Numbers users to discover this on their own, or start with the rather limited use templates Apple has added.

Microsoft has beat Apple in the area of providing practical spreadsheet templates that can be easily extended to perform useful tasks. They’re not nearly as pretty as the templates in Numbers, but they seem easier to grasp and actually use.

Office 2011 review

As with Word, if you’re in a corporate environment or have sophisticated spreadsheet needs, Excel provides a number of features Numbers 09 still lacks. On the other hand, the cheaper and more Mac-like Numbers is still likely to be more attractive to users who just want an accessible, easy to use spreadsheet that isn’t bound to the 1970s VisiCalc grid and bloated toolbar buttons offering every imaginable feature at once.

On the other hand, if you’re an Excel junkie hoping to get your fix on the Mac, Microsoft has finally delivered a respectable modern version of its spreadsheet for Mac OS X. The speed of launching, calculations, and general performance are vastly improved, and nearly all features from the Windows side appear to have made it to the Mac intact.

PowerPoint 2011

Apple thoroughly humiliated PowerPoint with the release of Keynote in ways that Pages and Numbers haven’t quite done to Word and Excel. However, the latest version of PowerPoint has finally improved to the point where it can at least be take seriously.

Much of this has come from emulating Keynote features, such as providing much better (but still not quite Keynote quality) templates, better graphics and charting tools (albeit with oddball object controls for resizing and rotating), and a background removal tool (below) intended to perform the same task as Apple’s Alpha tool in Keynote.

Office 2011 review

On the other hand, PowerPoint delivers some features the Keynote doesn’t, including support for VBA automation and tools for advanced charting types. Overall however, the intuitive, powerful interface of Keynote still wins over PowerPoint’s cluttered, clumsy toolset hands down.

Unlike Word and Excel, even the most corporate savvy, Windows-integrated Mac users will likely prefer using Keynote to the new PowerPoint, despite the advancements Microsoft has made.

Outlook 2011

Anyone who uses Entourage will want to upgrade to the new Outlook of Office 2011, as Microsoft has finally released a version nearly on par with its Windows edition.

Additionally, Outlook now sports a Cocoa-based interface, so it acts and looks more like a standard Mac app than a legacy Carbon app like the rest of the Office suite. Of all the Office apps, only Outlook has a standard Mac OS X toolbar you can customize by dragging around icons.

Unfortunately, most of the useful toolbar controls are stuck in the non-customizable Ribbon, so this is a step forward and a step back rather than being a tremendous breakthrough by the Microsoft MacBU.

Oddly enough, this also results in having two large, prominent "Send/Receive" buttons in the default interface: one in the toolbar, and the other in the Ribbon. More oddly, you can't add Compose, Delete or Reply buttons to the toolbar, as these are only available in the Ribbon. That means you can't really hide the Ribbon and just use the standard toolbar.

Office 2011 review
Office 2011 review

Outlook also now dumps Microsoft’s penchant for putting all your emails into a huge database file (fated to suffer eventual, inevitable file corruption) and instead saves messages individually in the file system in a way that’s compatible with both Mac OS X’s Spotlight search and Time Machine backups. The new Outlook even supports Quick Look for previewing attached documents.

The new Outlook for Mac also imports .PST files from Windows, making it easier for users to transition to a Mac, and includes Windows’ “conversations” view for browsing emails by thread rather than by date sent.

There are some minor features missing from Outlook for Windows, but the Mac version also improves upon the Windows version by adding a unified mailbox for merging multiple email accounts into a single view.

On the other hand, because it uses Microsoft’s latest technology for syncing with Exchange Server, it will only work with modern versions of Exchange from 2007 or newer. Older servers use legacy protocols that the new Outlook doesn’t support, similar to Apple’s latest Exchange-savvy versions of Mail, iCal and Address Book.

If you like Outlook, there’s finally a Mac version that actually works for Mac OS X, and serves as a rather decent Mac app as well. It uses Microsoft’s rather excessive Ribbon interface of oversized buttons, but the performance seems to be very responsive and the general design of the app is very good, particularly compared to the weaker parts of the Office 2011 suite.

Outlook doesn’t sync with iCal (perhaps a “coming soon” feature), but it does connect with Sync Services to merge your Address Book and MobileMe contacts. It also doesn’t support common authentication types used by non-Exchange email accounts (such as Apple’s MobileMe mail).

Outlook is likely what you’ll want to use if you’re in a company running Exchange. Integrated support for calendaring, company wide contacts, tasks and notes all offer a very credible alternative to Apple’s own free Mail, iCal and Address Book.

Office 2011 in review

If you’re an Office user already, the new Office 2011 is a no-brainer upgrade. It’s wildly faster, looks and feels much better, and delivers strong advancements in every app, particularly the vastly improved experience of the new Outlook over the pitiful Entourage.

If you’re shopping around for a productivity suite on the Mac, the new Office 2011 delivers a much nicer experience than the rather quirky but free OpenOffice, and offers the advantages of a real desktop app over a web based suite like Google Docs.

At around $120 retail for the Outlook-free individual version (you can install on one machine) or $150 for the family pack (which can be installed on up to three machines), the “Home and Student” Office 2001 for Mac suite is now affordable enough to compete against weaker free alternatives, and might attract some users eyeing Apple’s cheaper iWork package.

However, Office 2011 for Mac—despite a sharp discount over previous editions—is still about the same price as Apple’s “Box Set” deal that includes a copy of Mac OS X Snow Leopard and iLife together with the full version of iWork.

The full “Home and Business” edition of Office 2011 (which includes Outlook) is available to education users in a single install version for $99, while other users will pay $199 for a single install or $279 for a multi-user pack that includes two installs on separate machines.

The Outlook-free version can be upgraded after purchase to obtain a download of Outlook for an additional fee.

Unlike Apple’s iWork, Microsoft hasn’t delivered a mobile version of Office capable of running on the iPad, and doesn’t seemly likely to do this anytime soon. Mac users who stay mobile with an iPad (and soon iPhone and iPod touch users), might find iWork a preferred alternative to Office for that reason.

The strength of iWork’s Keynote is reason enough for Mac users to add iWork even if they prefer to use Office in other respects, such as if they need to use Office to work with Windows-using colleagues.


4 Stars

Much faster performance
Improved interface
Better Windows & Exchange compatibility

Some quirky, non-Mac aspects
Busy Ribbon interface

Where to Buy

Office 2011 for Mac

Office Mac 2011 is currently available for pre-order from, which is offering free release-date (tomorrow) delivery. The Home and Student edition is $110 while the Home and Business edition is priced at $175.

Home and Student edition - $110
Home and Student edition - Family Pack (3 Licenses) - $130
Home and Business edition - $175.
Home and Business edition - 2 License Pack - $240

Apple authorized reseller Mac Mall is also offering the same pricing and free Tuesday (tomorrow) overnight delivery. To get the free overnight shipping from MacMall, you must choose "FedEx Standard Overnight" as your shipping method. The offers expire at midnight.