Review: Microsoft Office for Mac 2011

I’ve been trying out the different applications of Microsoft Office for Mac 2011 for two weeks now, and I still haven’t touched more than just the surface of Microsoft’s productivity software suite. This new version of Office for Mac must be the most important one in years. It’s on par with the Windows 2010 offering with regards to features, integration with enterprise systems, and exchange capabilities between the two platforms. The suite is made up of Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and Outlook. You can get a free Microsoft Skydrive account or integrate seamlessly with Sharepoint for collaboration purposes.

I’ll be releasing reviews of the Office components over the next few days, so stay tuned.

The Word 2011 review.
The Excel 2011 review.
The PowerPoint 2011 review.

The first comments I saw on Microsoft Office for Mac 2011 were related to the least important aspect of the software: the ribbon. Mac users have a tradition, or so it seems: everything that doesn’t comply with Apple’s interface guidelines is bad. The ribbon doesn’t, so it’s bad. The ribbon being a Microsoft ‘invention’ only makes matters worse. I braced myself for the first encounter with Office 2011’s interface, only to find the ribbon is actually a very comfortable interface element.

On Windows, the ribbon takes up quite a bit of screen real estate, but on the Mac, it’s actually relatively unobtrusive and it makes working with Office applications — at least in my opinion — very comfortable and efficient. One of the things the ribbon does, for example, is automatically change tabs depending on a selection you make. In Outlook, when I click inside the search field, the ribbon automatically switches to a context that allows me to choose the scope of my query.

If you really dislike the ribbon, it’s easy to get it out of the way.

The Office suite’s most obvious newcomer is Outlook. Outlook replaces Entourage in previous Office versions, and it is on par with the Windows version. That means you can tap into Microsoft Exchange, but also that you get all the advantages of Outlook on the Windows platform. Its database is file system based, so Spotlight can search through e-mail messages. Its junk mail filter can be set to any of five settings, with each one more strict than the former. Junk mail senders can be blocked — a much more effective feature than Apple Mail’s ‘Bounce’ option to get rid of junk mail in your Inbox.

All e-mail accounts can be consolidated into one Inbox, but you can also have separate Inboxes for your accounts. Security is tight and must be set by the user, which can prove to be a bit of a challenge when you’re used to working with Mail and its handling of certificates. In this area, I found Mail to be easier to work with, but once you get to know Outlook’s log in system, you have the additional benefit of knowing for certain you’re procedure is secure.

Outlook allows you to categorise messages. This enables you to link messages to Outlook’s Contacts database, calendar and task system. By default, the categorisation system is set up to represent different categories of people, but you can change the default settings and associated colour labels, and add categories of your own.

The threading system of Outlook is far superior to that of Mail. Here is one area where Microsoft’s enterprise know-how is obvious when compared to the way Apple Mail shows message threads. Outlook’s thread view system really shows you a conversation as it will collect all messages in a thread together and when new messages arrive, will promote the entire thread to the top of the message list (when you set the column sort order to listing the last message at the top).

Outlook has all the bells and whistles to compose wow-factor messages, just like Mail, and includes the integration with the Media browser that allows you to access iPhoto, iTunes, etc. Besides the eye-candy, Outlook has all the features to get organised, and I found myself — for the first time since iCal has been around — using the Outlook calendar to manage tasks, alerts, and appointments. A crucial component to manage busy days is “My Day”, a separate but small application (small as in small memory and CPU footprint; quite surprisingly if you consider their functionality, all Office applications have a small memory footprint).

My Day can be set to start up when logging into your Mac, and shows itself as a menu icon and a floating window. I was hoping for a HUD interface, but after using it for a while I quickly understood why a normal window was chosen instead. The My Day window can be closed completely, so that only the menu chiclet stays visible. When an alarm has been set, My Day will pop up and show you the task or appointment; it will also show you all current appointments and tasks, and your contact list if you wish.

Outlook lets you organise your messages, contacts and calendar events in multiple ways, including filtered views, which can be saved as Smart Folders — Filtered views are in fact somewhat complex search queries.

Outlook — as other Office 2011 components — comes with a list of pre-defined Automator actions.

In my opinion, it’s the most robust Mac mail client available. It’s as good if not better as its Windows counterpart (Office 2010) and better than Apple Mail. If there would be a thing that I’d like to criticise it’s the connect window: I would have liked that to be integrated into the main interface as in Apple’s Mail so that I can always see the progress of messages being received. Oddly enough, the progress of messages being sent is indeed shown that way.

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