Word 2010 (beta): First impressions

November 27, 2009 at 5:03 pm

The public beta of Microsoft Office 2010 was released last week. I was traveling then, so I didn’t have a chance to download the software until a couple of days ago, but I have been playing with Word 2010 since then. Although I’ve spent only a few hours experimenting, I thought it might be useful to share my early impressions. Do keep in mind that the current release is a beta version, which means it could change significantly between now and the official release, tentatively scheduled for the second quarter of next year.

Because I’m a trainer (and because I’m working on my Formatting Legal Documents With Microsoft Office Word 2010 book), I downloaded the Professional version. That edition includes Word, Access, Excel, OneNote, Outlook, PowerPoint, and Publisher. Most people probably will download the Home and Business edition, which consists of Word, Excel, OneNote, Outlook, and PowerPoint (i.e., you don’t get Access or Publisher). For now, I’m interested primarily in Word, so that’s what I’ll write about today.

Just a few highlights (and lowlights), given that I’ve just started working with the beta.

First, the good news:

A Smooth Transition: Word 2010 Maintains Your Customized Settings From Word 2007

NOTE: This section has been revised / corrected as of 12/2/2009.

Apparently Word 2010, like Word 2007, automatically chooses Calibri as the default font and 1.15 as the default line spacing. The good news is that if you have created a customized NORMAL template in Word 2007 (normal.dotm) that uses a different default font and different default line spacing — say, Times New Roman and single spacing — your modified settings from Word 2007 will be retained in Word 2010.

If your NORMAL template (normal.dotm) becomes corrupted, Word will create a new one from scratch. That new template will use the standard Word 2010 / Word 2007 settings. It’s relatively easy to change the defaults — there is a “Default” button at the bottom of the Font dialog and one at the bottom of the Paragraph dialog; once you select the settings you want, click that button and click “Yes” to apply those settings to all future documents based on the NORMAL template. However, it’s always a good idea to make a backup copy of the NORMAL template soon after you’ve customized it. That way, if the first modified normal.dotm is damaged, you can simply close Word and then go into Windows Explorer or My Computer, delete or rename the original normal.dotm, and rename the backup copy (i.e., change the name to “normal.dotm,” without quotation marks). When you re-launch Word, it should use the backup copy, obviating the need to change the default settings again manually.

Added Customizability: An Improved Ribbon

Evidently Microsoft paid attention to the many customers who complained about the near-total lack of customizability of the Ribbon in Word 2007. In Word 2010, it is possible to add custom tabs (and place them in any order you like). You can divide your new tabs into groups if you wish.

Note that you can’t add icons to or delete icons from built-in tabs / groups. That capability is available only for custom (user-created) tabs and groups. However, it is possible to add one or more custom groups to built-in tabs.

Additionally, you actually have the option of removing existing groups from the Ribbon altogether — for example, you can eliminate the Themes group from the Page Layout tab. (If you change your mind later on, you can add it back in.) You can’t get rid of tabs permanently, but you do have the option of hiding tabs, which effectively is the same thing. Plus, you can rename tabs (as well as groups) or move them to a different position in the Ribbon.

The ability to create new tabs provides much-needed flexibility to this version of Word. People who rue the loss of user-customizable toolbars in Word 2007 will be cheered by this added functionality in the new version.

That said, there are a few changes that users might find less heartening, especially if they plan to upgrade from Word 2007. For one thing, you still can’t add a second row to the Quick Access Toolbar (QAT); buttons that won’t fit on a single row get added to a drop-down, which simply isn’t as convenient as a second row. That’s a relatively minor disappointment, however, and far less problematic (in my view) than the newly designed File tab.

Read on.

The File Tab (Also Known as the “Backstage” View)

Microsoft has done away with the Office Button (or “orb”) in all of the Office 2010 programs, ostensibly because some users found it confusing. In its stead, there is a sort of File tab, which MS also refers to as the “Backstage” View. I say a “sort of” tab because it doesn’t work the same way as the rest of the tabs; indeed, it isn’t really part of the Ribbon. Like the Office Button, it drops down at the left side of the screen. And in similar fashion, it provides most of the commands that people are accustomed to finding on the File menu in older versions of the program (and in most other Windows applications): New, Open, Save, Save As, Print, and Close (among others), as well as an Exit icon to close out of the program and an Options icon to configure Word.

However, that’s where the similarity to previous versions of the software ends.

First, in Word 2010, these commands are not in the standard order. Rather, the File tab displays Save and Save As at the top, followed by Open and Close. And then, somewhat confusingly, there is a new category labeled “Info,” which is comparable in some respects to “Properties.”

The File tab drop-down opens by default to the “Info” command, which displays information about whether the file on screen (if any) is a native Word (.docx) file or uses Compatibility Mode (.doc) and lets you change the permissions on the document, prepare it to share with others, and/or manage the document versions. Specific document properties — size, number of pages, word count, date created, date last modified, author, etc. — appear at the right side of the Info. screen.

Underneath “Info” there is a “Recent” command, which you need to click in order to see your list of recently used files. A checkbox at the bottom of the expanded “Recent Documents” screen does give you the ability to display a number of your most recent documents in the main portion of the File drop-down (without having to click “Recent” to create a fly-out). Also, you can add an “Open Recent File…” icon to the QAT. While I’m pleased that Microsoft has provide alternate methods of presenting the Recent Documents list, those workarounds strike me as kludgy and less than user-friendly.

The kludgy feeling is heightened by the fact that the File drop-down, unlike the drop-down from the Office Button in Word 2007, fills the entire screen. In other words, it extends all the way across, so that you can’t see any portion of the current document while the drop-down is open. And that fact is likely to frustrate users, who might have trouble figuring out how to close the drop-down. In Word 2007, clicking in the document effectively makes the drop-down go away. But you can’t click in the document if you can’t see it.

Users might think they are supposed to click the “Close” button. Doing so, unfortunately, not only closes the File drop-down but also closes the current document. Needless to say, clicking the “Exit” button would have even more unsettling results.

One solution is to press the Esc key (which also works to close the drop-down in Word 2007). Whether users will find that intuitive is an open question, but based on what I know about how most people use software, it concerns me. (People who use keyboard shortcuts to open the File drop-down and any of its commands might find that they have to press the Esc key more than once.)

Alternatively, you can click the label for any other tab, which will close the File drop-down and bring the tab you clicked to the forefront.

Besides the commands I’ve mentioned so far, the other commands on the File drop-down are New, Print, Share, and Help. Most of those commands appear similar in functionality to their counterparts in Word 2007 (except that Word 2010 makes extensive use of graphics and also includes step-by-step instructions for several of the tasks).

One command that has changed considerably is the Print command. In fact, Microsoft has replaced the familiar Print dialog with a new full-screen fly-out that offers not only the expected range of options — number of copies, active printer, portion of document to print, whether collated or not, portrait or landscape format, paper size, and margins — but also easy access to the Page Setup dialog and a highly manipulable preview of the instant document. The preview can zoom in or out, show one page or multiple pages, and so on.

Overall, the new Print page (I’m not sure at this point what term MS is using in place of “dialog box”) provides a great deal of functionality. However, because it — like the other options available from the File drop-down — takes up the entire screen, users once again face the issue of how to close the instructions.

Note that pressing Ctrl P opens the Print page, rather than the old Print dialog. (In Word 2010, some keyboard shortcuts open the old-style dialogs even where MS has developed alternate methods of using the commands, such as “panes” and these new full-screen instruction sheets.)

Other Changes

There are several other notable changes in the new version, including the replacement of the “Find” dialog with a Navigation pane (the Find dialog actually is still available via the key combination Ctrl H, though the Ctrl F keystroke opens the Nav pane), as well as some additions / modifications to the Ribbon.

Also, Microsoft is providing so-called Office Web Apps — web-enabled versions of Word, PowerPoint, and OneNote — that you will be able to use for light editing when you don’t have access to a computer with the full versions of those programs loaded on it. (You will have to upload your documents in order to work on them online.) Note that “personal” users (presumably that means those who buy the Home and Student edition; I’m not sure about the Home and Business edition) will see some advertisements when they use the Web Apps.

Time is scarce at the moment, so that’s all I’ll say for now about the other changes. I’ll write again when I’ve had an opportunity to do more experimentation.

How to Obtain the Office 2010 Beta

You can download the beta free of charge from this page or from this one.

Before downloading the software, you’ll need to create a Windows Live ID account and sign in. (The process doesn’t always go smoothly. If you really want the beta, be persistent.)

I strongly recommend reading as much information as possible about the beta before downloading it. In particular, take a look at the FAQ sheet, which you can find on this page. To expand the FAQs, click the “Show All” link at the top of the page. If the print is too small to read comfortably online, press Ctrl + (plus sign), which will magnify the text on your screen. You can press Ctrl + as many times as necessary to enlarge the text to a size that is easy to read. To reduce the size of the text, press Ctrl – (minus sign).

Before downloading, make sure that your computer meets the minimum system requirements. Note that Windows XP users must be patched to Service Pack 3 or the download won’t proceed. If you’re not at SP3, you’ll have to go to the Microsoft Automatic Updates web site and download all of the requisite patches prior to obtaining the Office 2010 beta. (Users of Internet Explorer can go straight to the site via this link; if you use another browser, you have to head over to the Microsoft Download Center and navigate to the Service Packs section at the right-hand side of the screen — or simply click this link to go directly to the SP3 download page.)

Another caution: You ‘ll probably be given a chance to indicate whether you want Office 2010 to replace or co-exist with your current version(s) of Office, but you might want to download the beta onto a separate test machine in case there are any problems and/or incompatibilities. In fact, Microsoft warns not to put the beta onto your main personal or business computer, and I agree that it’s wise not to do so. That’s especially true if you use Word (or any other programs in the suite) for mission-critical work.

Be careful — slow and deliberate — when any screen appears that requires your input. In particular, pay attention so that you don’t accidentally click the option to have the beta to replace your existing version(s) of Office. (Thankfully, the default is to keep any older versions, but it’s easy to start clicking too fast and inadvertently make the wrong choice.)

Once you choose a product to download, you’ll probably see a screen containing a unique 25-character product code. Microsoft usually e-mails the product code to you, too, but it’s a good idea to print the page and/or jot down the code. You’ll need it in order to activate the beta during setup.

Depending on which edition of the beta you select, the time for the download can be fairly short or quite lengthy. The Home and Business version can be downloaded using “Click to Run” technology, which supposedly doesn’t take very long. The Professional edition requires more time; my download — using DSL — took more than five hours. Microsoft advises that it should be relatively simple to resume the download if it’s interrupted for any reason.

Once you’ve downloaded the software, close all open programs, then locate the executable file and double-click it to start the setup process. As long as you type the correct product key, setup should go smoothly.

You will be able to continue using the beta until October of 2010, after which time the software will no longer work. At that point you’ll be given the opportunity to obtain the trial version or purchase a full version of Office 2010.

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