No pane, no gain. Roger Frost looks at the sophisticated new Microsoft Office XP

7th September 2001 at 01:00
Two years have passed and, as surely as night follows day, a new version of Microsoft Office (XP) has updated Office 2000.

Those using Office 2000 will be tempted to upgrade to some astonishingly good features, although for classrooms the upgrade might seem an extravagant hop.

The gain in efficiency is easily found in Word. Appearing down the side of the screen is a "task pane" that speeds up jobs like formatting, pasting text and finding clip-art pictures. The pane can show up to 25 items copied from Internet pages, or as many paragraphs from various documents, ready to use.

To make your work look good there's a formatting "task pane". You can choose text headings in different styles and create consistent looking work. Another "pane" provides an easy route to clip art and photographs on your hard drive, a Microsoft website or on an impressive CD.

As pupils continue to produce more work on computers, now you will be able to mark it on screen as well. With XP Pupils can send you their work "for review" and see your comments as neat bubbles in the margin. Those who use Word to the max will be familiar with these functions from past versions, but here those features are better implemented.

Truly new are "Smart Tags" which you'll see if you use Outlook to store your appointments and address book. Type a name on screen, click on the marker that appears and you can send the person an email, get to their details, or put their address on the page. You can also type in a date and look it up in your diary. Other notables include an application that scans and reads the text on documents, and a way of translating words in French and Spanish with the ability to purchase other language packs such as Russian and Japanese. Should you have an electronic whiteboard, Word can turn your board-writing into text.

Outlook is still the tool that shines as manager of diaries and messages across a network, however checking email settings still entails loops of dialogues, which is perplexing. The new version led to grief with my Palm but you could be luckier.

PowerPoint, the slide-show program much used by pupils, features an improved slide creation screen. The task panes allow you to choose different slide layouts, slide designs, and transitions between slides.

The best new feature allows animation of objects so that they follow a path you draw. There's also a tool to draw Venn diagrams as well as cycle, radial, pyramid, and target diagrams.

On the performance front, XP seems to run almost as fast as Word 2000 . If it ever crashes it recovers your work. However, adding hassle for innocent users is the need to "activate" Office XP after installing it - either online or by a telephone call. This anti-piracy feature lets you put a stand-alone copy on two machines, say a desktop and a laptop but no more. It will "deactivate" if you change too many components in the machine. However, good things cost. An off-the-shelf copy of MS Office now approaches the price of a computer. Discounted to teachers and students, this drops to around pound;120 with bulk buying for better deals.

Curiously, there is a move towards software rental. In this an organisation pays an annual fee (around pound;40 per "seat") to receive upgrades. Convenience aside, the economics needs weighing up given that schools upgrade less frequently, if only to keep old hardware going.

With software now able to deactivate itself without a current license, the rental move is intriguing and could be as popular as the Poll Tax.

Office XP needs a Pentium 133 PC with 32 mb memory and Windows 98. Extra memory needed for each program and upgrades of Windows.Price: pound;437.99 Microsoft Student Licence (for teachers too) is around pound;120 from all MS resellers, other deals available within schools and institutions www.microsoft.comuk

WordPowerPoint

Suitability for purpose ****

Ease of use *****

Design *****

Features *****

Value for money **

OutlookAccess

Suitability for purpose **

Ease of use **

Design **

Features ***

Value for money **

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