Suite spot: Microsoft Office for Mac 2004

Microsoft Office for Mac is a product that even diehard Apple fans enthuse over. Here's why

Ask any Mac user about Microsoft and while they may act all superior about respective operating systems, you’ll find few that won’t sing Seattle’s praises when it comes to Office for the Mac. Office for the Mac 2004 is no exception to that tradition of suite excellence.

If dealing with a flood of email messages and the many details of your life seem to be getting harder every day, you may be craving a powerful tool to help you keep your head above water. Entourage 2004 tries to fulfill that role by becoming the centre of all your informational needs, from email, to your contacts and calendar, to tracking your projects. With its improved message views, better junk mail filtering, and practical project-management tools, it mostly succeeds.

The marquee addition to Entourage is Project Centre, which allows you to create and organise projects that can include information from inside and outside Entourage. In Project Centre, there are seven tabs along the top of the main window that cover the project's calendar and tasks; associated email messages; files (of any type — you're not limited to Office files); contacts from Entourage's Address Book; clippings from the Office Scrapbook; Entourage Notes; and an Overview tab that shows you the current week, upcoming tasks, and recent project messages and files. Project Centre allows you to jump to any information associated with a project in a single click, whether it resides in Entourage, elsewhere on your hard drive, or on networked file servers.

If you still use a spiral notebook for taking notes, this version of Word may herald your time to digitize. The Notebook Layout view resembles a notebook, with its lined-paper look and divider tabs. The Note Levels feature lets you drag and drop notes hierarchically. There are also disclosure triangles for expanding and collapsing subordinate points, and clear markers for moving or selecting individual note points.

In addition to letting you type text into your document, Word 2004 supports Apple’s ink technology in Panther and Jaguar, so you can write on a graphics tablet and watch your letters turn into text. Alternatively you can use the new Audio Notes feature — just click on the Record button to start recording. If you're recording and taking minimal notes concurrently, Word will associate sections of the recording with each new bullet point.

The first thing you'll notice in Excel 2004 is the default Page Layout view — it looks nothing like the views in prior versions of Excel. The active page is white, while the others are grayed out until clicked on. If you're an advanced Excel user, you may find this view takes some getting used to — your 36-column-wide report, for instance, will now have visible page-break gaps. Luckily, the old Normal view is available in the View menu. If you can get accustomed to it, though, the Page Layout view shows you exactly how your spreadsheet will print out.

Like Word and PowerPoint 2004, Excel 2004 puts Add Objects in the Formatting Palette, making it easy to insert charts, symbols, shapes, lines, and text shapes. Choose one of the objects, and Excel places it on the worksheet. Finally, the Page Setup section of the palette includes a new Orientation area with buttons that you can use to easily toggle between Portrait and Landscape mode. The Print Scaling options in this section give you full control over your spreadsheet's print layout.

Apart from adopting the Aqua interface and a handful of other new features, PowerPoint X didn't sport many compelling changes when it debuted over two years ago. PowerPoint 2004 however, is an excellent upgrade that delivers helpful tools for presenters, crisper graphics, and an improved workflow.

Whether you're a PowerPoint newbie or a seasoned pro, you'll love the new Presenter Tools feature. While your audience watches your presentation on a projector or other secondary display, you see three resizable panes on your monitor. The pane on the left shows numbered thumbnails of all your slides. A handy clock at the top displays the elapsed time to keep you from going over your allotted time.

Presenter Tools' Audience view shows you exactly what the audience members see. The cursor appears on their display whenever you mouse over the live view on your monitor, so you can get by without a separate laser pointer. The area immediately below contains your notes; you can read them from there, or even edit them during your presentation — a practical way to note that half your audience fell asleep during the 28th slide.

Overall Microsoft Office for Mac 2004 is a worthy successor. Features common across the suite’s applications, such as Smart Buttons that speed common operations and palettes that fade to semi-transparent when not in use make working in Office 2004 faster and less cluttered.

The introduction of project organisation is a natural evolution for Entourage, consolidating its data to put all the pieces of your projects within easy reach. The email improvements, especially the spam filtering, make it easier than ever to handle your email load.

Although Excel 2004 lacks a single groundbreaking "gotta have it!" new feature, the overall benefit of the other enhancements adds up to a winning package, while the new version of Word has some big new features that will motivate many Office users to upgrade. The Notebook Layout view will be enough for many people who don't need a more involved program designed specifically for this task.

It's a safe bet that PowerPoint 2004 wouldn't be nearly as good as it is if Apple hadn't released Keynote when it did. PowerPoint still lags behind in producing tantalising eye candy, but not by much — for some speakers, PowerPoint 2004's Presenter Tools and its more comprehensive animation options will more than compensate for the difference.

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