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Review: Microsoft's Office 2011 for Mac

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The Ugly

Microsoft is clearly working to make Office 2011 for Mac look more like its Windows version rather than follow the lead of Apple’s own iWork productivity apps on the Mac platform.

This is good for corporate customers who want to exchange documents (and application familiarity) with their Windows-using colleagues, but a step backward (or at least a step across, considering how backward Office already was) for Mac users in general who don’t need an interface familiar to Windows users.

Rather than sporting a context-sensitive Format Bar that displays tools appropriate for your currently selected content (as Apple’s iWork apps do), Office for Mac displays an inch-high “Ribbon” cluttered with buttons that offer to do both useful things you might only need to access on rare occasions (such as creating an complex, multilevel list outline) and fanciful tasks you’re unlikely to ever need at your fingertips (such as adding a glow and reflection to the text in your document).

Office 2011 review

The Ribbon offers such an overload of feature-bloat clutter that it requires seven tabs of options to pack in every feature Microsoft has ever invented into the main toolbar area of every active window, virtually forcing users to hide and unhide the menu as they work unless they have vast screen real estate to work with.

This issue is exacerbated by the fact that Microsoft displays Ribbon group titles (words describing the sections of buttons) by default in Office 2011, which adds another level of text labels to the button-overload underneath the already excessive tabs of Ribbons. There are options to turn some of this label-heavy user interface bloat off, but the “all on by default” display seems to be a poor design decision.

Use of the Ribbon in Office seems to largely be an arbitrary effort by Microsoft to shake the copycat OpenOffice off its coattails rather than a way to make useful, contextually relevant tools available to the user, making its inclusion into the Mac suite even more unwelcome than were it an actual attempt at improving the user interface.

Word 2011

Microsoft appears to borrow from and extend some of the features of Apple’s Pages app from iWork, including a revised Word Document Gallery that opens at launch with a variety of professionally designed templates to start from, as well as presenting an organized, visual, and searchable file browser for your existing documents.

There’s also a full screen mode similar to the one introduced by Pages, which is intended to let you enter text (or read from your document) without all the extraneous clutter of the desktop, menu bar and window controls.

Office 2011 review

There’s also a Pages-inspired Publishing Layout View, which merges most of the features of Microsoft’s Publisher app (only available on Windows) into Word. Rather than creating documents with a custom file type, Word’s layout mode creates standard Word documents.

There’s also a new Word Web App that provides online access to light editing features, for situations where you want to edit your Word documents but don’t have Word available. Apple was criticized for not building a similar service for iWork when it unveiled as a way to share documents online. It will be interesting to see how much utility users find in this online editor.

Microsoft has also added support to Mac Office 2011 for Windows Live SkyDrive and SharePoint 2010, both of which enable users to edit and share their files online and participate in group editing, a new feature Microsoft calls “co-editing.”

A Notebook Layout view designed to facilitate sophisticated note taking, “scribble” drawing features, and audio recording is unique to Word. Along with more sophisticated support for style formatting and multiuser track changes features, these features keep Microsoft’s new word processor a comfortable distance ahead of Apple’s last version of Pages, particularly for users with sophisticated needs in a corporate environment.

Office 2011 review

At the same time, Apple nearly gives Pages away in its iWork suite, so for home and small business users who don’t need every bell and whistle in Word, and who lack any extensive requirements for integrating with corporate server products or Windows-using colleagues, Pages continues to offer a simpler, less cluttered, and more approachable experience that feels a lot more Mac-like.

On page 3 of 3: Excel 2011, PowerPoint 2011, Outlook 2011, Office 2011 in review, Rating, and Where to Buy