Inside Office 2003

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Word 2003 and Excel 2003: Ho-Hum

Next to e-mail, word processing and spreadsheets dominate many people's work. Office 2003 will not fundamentally change the way most folks use Word and Excel--particularly users who aren't part of a workgroup. Neither application has received anything like the overhaul that Outlook 2003 enjoys; but then again, they didn't need extensive retooling the way Outlook did.

Word 2003 sports one change that users who spend hours glued to their monitors will appreciate: The new Reading Layout option displays your document in side-by-side "pages" so that it resembles a book (see FIGURE 3

FIGURE 3: Reading long documents is more natural with the two-page look available in Word 2003's new Reading Layout view.
). ClearType technology makes the text easy to read in this mode, and you can quickly increase or decrease the size of the text via toolbar buttons without goofing up the document's fonts or formatting. With large text, the Reading Layout definitely pleases the eyes. As a bonus, the Reading Layout clears out some toolbar clutter.

In the beta version of Office that we tested, "flipping" to the next page in the Reading Layout advances the document one page at a time: The page on the right moves to the left, and the next page appears on the right. Microsoft states that the shipping version will flip directly to the next pair of pages (truly like turning the page of a book) rather than "turning" one page at a time.

Word 2003 can display thumbnails along the left side of the screen, too, with icons representing each page in a document. This arrangement reduces your reading real estate, but it could be useful for navigating through a long report, for example.

Another new feature you'll see in the 2003 versions of Word and Excel, as well as in Outlook 2003, is the Research Task Pane, which enables you to find a word's definition, use the built-in thesaurus, translate to and from a foreign language, or do a Web search--all without leaving your document (see FIGURE 4

FIGURE 4: Search the Web in Office 2003's Research pane without opening your browser.

Microsoft sees a day when media companies, market research firms, and other partners will provide specialized content keyed to your research. As time passes, we'll see how that plays out.

Our verdict? The Research pane is truly useful only in Word. You're not likely to need to research a concept as you write an e-mail message or work on a spreadsheet. And if you prefer Google over MSN Search, you can't add Google to the list of search options inside the Research pane. Microsoft says it will offer free tools so that sites such as Google can make their services available in the pane, but you'll have to wait for these tools to emerge.

Microsoft touts Word 2003's enhanced integration with Internet faxing, which works if you use one of the three services the company currently supports: Venali, and J2's JConnect and EFax.

Ultimately, unless you're part of a workgroup, the Reading Layout view and the Research pane may be the only noticeable changes in Word. You'll find no feature differences among the versions of Word in the various Office bundles, except the XML capabilities and groupware functions in Pro and Pro Enterprise.

No star features shine in Excel 2003's revamp, either. The Professional Enterprise Edition offers the lone interesting new feature, List Management. (This is the only major feature difference among the versions of Excel, excluding the XML and groupware functions.) When you're working on a spreadsheet involving categories such as months or types of expenses, List Management enables Excel to see that the information is related, and the program will carry over the existing formatting and calculations as you add to the spreadsheet.

Excel veterans may lament that Microsoft didn't address several longstanding complaints regarding the program, voiced in PC World's July 2001 review of Office XP. For example, it failed to improve the 3D charting options, which are acceptable but could certainly be prettied up and expanded.

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