Finally, Mac users can change their Outlook: Review of Office for Mac 2011

For anybody who purchases a new Mac these days the first question they typically ask is ““ how do I get Office on to this? And the answer has always been pretty disappointing ““ Office for Mac was available, and it was a horribly stunted version compared to the Windows counterpart. Office for Mac 2008 was a slow, unintuitive mess, especially after Office 2007 gained its Ribbon interface. In fact, I was pretty sure Microsoft was purposefully making the Office for Mac suite a stunted excuse compared to the Windows version. Who knows?
Office 2010 for Windows was released a few months ago and it is a brilliant version ““ the user interface is great, the built in tools have been improved and the speed has increased a lot, especially with start up with apps. In fact, after using Office 2010 at work, and then using Office for Mac 2008 at home you realize how slow Office for Mac was.
Luckily that changes with Office for Mac 2011. I have been running the Beta version for quite a while and I eventually also got hold of the final version, and clearly Microsoft‘s Mac division has been working hard to fix Office. The interface has been made cleaner, more powerful, and they have finally made it up to scratch with the rest of the Mac experience.
The product range has been simplified ““ especially compared to the Windows SKU‘s. There are only two versions available: Home and Student (single user package, R999; three-user family package R1299, and Home and Business (single user package, R2499; licensed for two machines, R2699). Both  versions include Word 2011, Excel 2001 and Powerpoint 2011. But the Home Business version gains Outlook 2011 as well.
Outlook 2011
Outlook 2011 is significant because it replaces Entourage 2008, which was has always been a very poor mail, contacts and calendar app. I cannot even explain to Windows users how bad Entourage was ““ even trying to import a Outlook PST file was impossible with Entourage. Outlook 2011 is almost identical to Outlook for Windows, but of course uses the Mac user interface guidelines, so if you are a Mac junkie for years you will be happy.

Switching from PC? PST import is finally here.

Talking about PST files ““ Outlook 2011 does away with the PST archive system which creates one giant file, and instead stores each message, calendar or contact entry into a separate file (you can still import your PST file over from your PC if you would like). This is primarily to make Outlook easier to use with Apple‘s Time Machine backup solution. This way only delta changes to your mail needs to backed up, and Spotlight can quickly index and access these files.
Outlook's Threaded Conversation view

Overall it is very similiar to Windows in terms of features, but there are a few new features as well. Do you like the unified inbox on your iPhone? You can do the same in Outlook 2011. All your account‘s inboxes can populate one inbox if you prefer. If you Exchange at work, make sure they are running Exchange server 2007, previous versions are not supported. This is not as devastating as it sounds ““ your Snow Leopard mail account has the same limitation. So if you can access Exchange through Apple Mail on your Mac, you will be fine… (Thats a subtle tip, you might not need the more expensive version of Office for Mac 2011)
Word 2011
One thing that always bothered me about the Word 2008 for Mac was that it‘s files was not perfectly compatible with the Windows version, and vice versa. Often I would try to open a report that had a bit of formatting, only to see it not render correctly. Word 2011 also includes some pretty great templates ““ and they need to, because Apple‘s Pages includes very stylish templates, but Office has the big advantage of being able to use a massive online library of available templates.
But perhaps the most significant improvement is the addition of Visual basic macros which is finally coming to Mac. I tried a few more sophisticated documents from my Windows machine and did not have any problems. Of course the security conscious Protected Mode is also carried over from the Windows version.
Word 2011 also gains the collaborative features from Office 2011, but it requires a file to be stored online using Skydrive, but you can also use Sharepoint if you have that available to you. Of course it requires the latest version of Sharepoint, and I was unable to test this functionality. Skydrive based collaborative editing was not perfectly realtime in my experience, but it was still very useful.

Who needs Publisher when Word 2011 does the job?

Word also sports a new Word Publishing Layout tool which gives you precise publishing tools to quickly design and perfect flyers, banners and page layouts. Publishing view also gives and innovative new way of handling the image ordering ““ using a 3D stack to move around objects.

Word 2011 Full Screen View takes away distractions

A small, but potentially very powerful feature is the full screen writing mode which take away all distractions, and makes you concentrate on just your writing. Great.
Excel 2011
Once again macro support is back, which is such an essential part of Excel, but was somehow ignored in the previous version. I was once again impressed by the range of templates available out of the box ““ for example the personal finance calculators. I was also surprised to see that conditional formatting is also finally available – for some reason it was skipped in the 2008 version.

At last your conditional formatting can be carried between platforms...

The graphics portion of Excel is also finally up to par with the Windows version ““ graphs and SmartArt features look very good. Im not going to pretend to be a big Excel user, but I can honestly say it is finally good enough.
In 2007 when Microsoft debuted its ribbon interface, it was Powerpoint 2007 that got the biggest overhaul. Powerpoint 2010 on Windows improves even further on that by including very decent graphics tools ““ which does not require you editing an image outside of Powerpoint and then copying the image back.

You can now stay in Powerpoint if you want to do image tweaks

Similiar to Word, Powerpoint gets the new image ordering tool which shows you in 3D the layers used. This will take a lot of frustration out of image rich slides, especially ones using the new animation effects. MS has clearly taken a few tips from Keynote, because they do look fantastic without taking away the attention of your audience.

Office's new image reordering tool takes away the guessing in image rich slides and documents

Powerpoint 2011 gets all these new editing tools ““ like the super easy to use background remover, but video editing options is not available in Office for Mac. I guess they realize that Mac‘s come with Quicktime X or iMovie, which is plenty good enough right? Some people might say that Apple Keynote is still the best presentation software ““ which might even be true, but which office runs on Apple‘s productivity suite? For me the major reason I ignored Keynote was that its export to Powerpoint functionaility was almost consistently useless. I stick to Powerpoint thanks.
Its sometimes difficult to get excited about something like Microsoft Office, but with Office for Mac 2008 Macheads have always felt a bit shortchanged. In fact Office for Mac was such a poor product for me that I used to use VMWare Fusion and then booted into Windows 7 on my Mac when I wanted to do “œreal work“. Office for Mac 2008 was that bad.
With Office for Mac 2011 things have changed ““ now Mac users can use Office without any limitations. The apps launch quickly, they are easier to use and they do not feel like immitations of the “œreal thing“. Perhaps the best part of Office for Mac 2011 is that Mac users can now also use Outlook 2011, which is still the defacto standard in PIM software out there. Sure, Apple‘s Mail and iCal apps work well, but Outlook is still a polished, well rounded, integrated application.
If you are not too bothered about Outlook, the other apps are still great value for money if you take the Home and Student edition. If you are an Office for Mac 2008 user I cannot recommend this upgrade enough. You will be surprised at how good Office on the Mac really can be.