Saturday, June 10, 2006

Microsoft Word 2007 Beta 2 Review

One of the most widely used, if not the most widely used, word processing applications is Microsoft Word. In Word 2007 Beta 2, Microsoft did not rest on their laurels, instead including several very useful new features and increasing Word’s overall usability considerably. Let’s look at some of the most useful new additions to Microsoft Word 2007 as it stands right now. Note that some of the features covered in this review may exist in previous versions of Word. However, I have never personally seen them. As an aside, I read that during the development of Office 2007, a user group was commissioned by Microsoft to determine the features most requested by potential users of the software. A majority of the features requested by the focus group already existed in the Office suite. This illustrates the difficulty most users face with traditional cascading menus and is probably one of the driving forces behind the innovative “Ribbon” interface present in most of the Office 2007 Beta 2 applications.

“On Demand Toolbar”

First, when a section of text is selected, a compact toolbar containing font and paragraph formatting commands appears just above the text selection. While this is nothing revolutionary, it certainly underscores the importance placed by Microsoft on usability in the new Office suite. One other nice touch Microsoft has added to this toolbar is that it fades in and out based on the location of the mouse pointer in relation to the text selection. In other words, the toolbar fades away as the mouse pointer moves away from the text and fades back into view when the mouse pointer moves back towards the selection. Nothing huge, but a nice little touch that will surely save more than a few trips up to the menu bar.


The next notable feature included in the beta is the “Styles” bucket. Styles may have actually existed in previous version of Word, but I have never seen them. Even if they had, Microsoft has added a simple, but powerful feature that will make this iteration much more useful than before. By default, the Styles bucket contains several options for formatting text selections, including: Normal, No Spacing, Heading 1, Heading 2, Title, Subtitle, Emphasis, Strong and many others. What stands out about this version of Word, and other office applications which share this feature, is the live, real-time preview of selected effects before commit. So, as you mouse over the different commands in the Styles bucket, the text selection changes dynamically to reflect the effect currently selected. In this way, users can quickly preview changes without having to play the “guess/commit/undo” that so many users have to play before finding an appropriate style that works. This feature, which is present across most of the applications in the Office suite, is going to save a lot of people a lot of time and will be a major reason people will enjoy using Office 2007 as much as they will.

Smart Art

The Insert tab allows users to insert the same charts, tables, shapes and clipart as they have been able to do in Word for some time. The major change in Word 2007, as well as Excel 2007 and Power Point 2007, is the aptly named “Smart Art”. Smart Art is really incredible, actually, and will be a favorite of those who may not be gifted graphic designers. Smart Art items are a collection of predesigned illustrations depicting processes, relationships, lists, cycles, hierarchies and many of the other diagrams business users frequently add to documents to explain certain concepts. So what’s so great about some illustrations? In and of themselves nothing, but where Smart Art gets its name is the intelligence built into their design. Once a selection is made from the Smart Art list, the chart is placed into the document, along with a hierarchal text input box beside the chart. If the chart calls for one text label for each object in the Smart Art, then the text box will contain three text input fields. As text is entered into each field, it’s rendered on the chart. If, for example, one of the shapes in the Smart Art is smaller than the others and the text being input in the corresponding text field will not fit on the shape reasonably, the text is automatically resized to fit in the object. Not only is the text for that particular object resized, but the text in the other object is resized as well. This will help users create consistent, well designed illustrations. The same styles with real-time previews that exist for text selections exist for Smart Art objects and colors and styles can be changed quickly and easily with the user getting to see any what any changes will look like before they are made. Smart Art objects can also be changed on the fly as well. Users can go from a three step gear illustration to a four piece pie chart instantly, with all of the existing text transferred to the new Smart Art object. As an artist, I know many users struggle with making consistent, well-designed illustrations. This will go a long way to helping average users create presentable charts, graphs and many other illustrations. I’m very excited about this addition to the Office suite and I’m sure many users will agree.


Themes take Styles to the next level by providing “templates” to pre-define various elements in the document. Themes apply to colors, fonts and effects. Using the same real-time preview found in various other Word and Office features, users can quickly browse through various themes and see how the entire Word document is affected by the theme. Users can also create their own themes to match corporate guidelines and other pre-defined templates they might use. As with Styles, this feature may have been present in previous versions of Word, but I never saw it.

Windows Button

The File menu has been replaced in most of the Office 2007 applications and replaced with the “Windows Button”, at least I think that’s what they’re calling it. The Windows Button presents users with familiar commands such as New, Open, Save, Save As, Print and Close. Several features have been added to account for variances from the simple create, save and print workflow.


The Finish command contains several sub-commands that existed in previous versions of Word, such as Inspect, Permissions, Signature and Compatibility commands. These are not new, but have been moved to the Windows menu, which now acts as sort of a workflow-driven menu.


The Send command contains two sub-commands: Email and Internet Fax. Again, both of these options exist in previous versions of Word, but have been moved to reflect their place in the typical workflow.


The Publish command gives users the option to publish their document to a document manager or workspace, such as Share Point. The new, and quite nifty, command is Publish to Blog. Yes, Word 2007 Beta 2 (I assume this feature will survive any feature cuts made by Microsoft, but you never know) can be used as an offline Blog post publishing tool. What better indicator of blogging’s mainstream acceptance than to see support for it in Microsoft Office. Just like Apple did with podcasting, Microsoft has a chance to push blogging to the top of the adoption curve with this feature.


Microsoft has made incredible strides to improve usability and functionality of Word 2007 and the same goes for all of the applications in the Office suite. Check the screencast for a better illustration to see Word 2007 Beta 2 in action and stay tuned for more reviews of most, if not all of the Office 2007 Beta 2 applications. I do not claim to be a Word power-user and, as such, probably missed many points in this and previous versions of Word. Please feel free to leave me a comment and let me know if I goofed on any of the features I touched on in this review.

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