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Examining Microsoft Office X Service Release 1

Microsoft has released the first major update to Microsoft Office X in the form of Office X Service Release 1 (SR1). The update, an 11.9 MB download, updates each primary Office program (Excel, Entourage, PowerPoint, and Word) from version 10.0 to 10.1. The ReadMe files for SR1 enumerate many changes ranging from specific fixes (you can now type accented and other special characters reliably) to expanded features that did not survive the transition from Office 2001 to X (pasting in custom toolbar buttons) to improvements in speed and stability.

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Microsoft also released MSN Messenger 3.0, which adds the capability to transfer files, import and export contact information, and create groups of contacts. This version also updates the interface to more closely resemble Mac OS X’s Aqua look and feel. MSN Messenger is a free update, and a 2.3 MB download.

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Bug Fixes — The Service Release ReadMe files list a number of fixes. For instance, you will no longer experience "out of memory" errors when trying to open an Excel X file in Excel 98. Plus, you can now print from Excel X with a setting other than "High" chosen in Excel’s Page Setup. And in a fix especially welcome to anyone doing PowerPoint presentations from a PowerBook or iBook, Microsoft has squashed a crashing bug that could appear when waking a laptop that went to sleep while connected to a second monitor or projector.

Improved Database Support — Microsoft has improved Office X’s FileMaker support – you need not have the entire FileMaker database on a local machine to work with it; instead it can be on a server. ODBC support has returned as well, though it is not everything that ODBC users have wanted. The 10.1 version of Excel includes the necessary hooks to talk to Microsoft Query, the software necessary to create ODBC queries, but you need the separate Microsoft Query for Excel X to make it work. Microsoft plans to release Microsoft Query for Excel X at some point, but it’s not in Service Release 1.

However, you can refresh queries created in some other version of Excel in Excel X, assuming you have a driver installed. The gotcha there is that Microsoft no longer supplies ODBC drivers; they suggest that people purchase drivers elsewhere, such as OpenLink Software. It also might be worth checking out ODBC Router from August Software, and other ODBC drivers may be available.



In other database news, the database file that holds a user’s entire collection of Entourage X email, contacts, and calendar events can now grow as large as 4 GB instead of the previous 2 GB limit. (That file, in case you want to locate it to back it up, lives in your user folder in /Documents/Microsoft User Data/Office X Identities/Main Identity/Database. If you named your identity something other than Main Identity (or have multiple identities), navigate to the appropriate folder within the Office X Identities folder.)

Palm Synchronization and Transparent Fills — Palm synchronization for Entourage did not make it into SR1; it will be available on 15-Jul-02, according to Microsoft. Another fix you won’t find is the capability to print the slick, transparently filled chart objects that the Office X press materials emphasize as an example of how Office X takes advantage of Mac OS X’s Quartz display technology. Transparent objects with simple, single-shade transparencies should print from Office programs, but as soon as you apply a gradient (as you must in Excel X), the object prints solid, not transparent. Though this is a minor problem overall, as a press person who blindly jumped on the "wow-that’s-a-great-feature" bandwagon, I was chagrined to discover this limitation. (The clumsy workaround is to take a screenshot and print it; instead, I recommend making more chart elements visible by rotating the chart or changing the series order.) Microsoft claims a fix may come in a future update to Mac OS X.

Stability and Performance — While using the Office X SR1 beta versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint (but not Entourage) on a 733 MHz Power Mac G4, I noticed fewer outright crashes. In addition, under the 10.0.0 version of Office, I often found myself unable to switch to an Office application (especially Excel) by clicking an interface element, such as a toolbar or window; instead, I had to click the application’s icon in the Dock. This problem has disappeared for the most part, though not entirely.

I haven’t noticed speed improvements in Excel or Word, though in my small and medium-sized documents performance was already quite good. The ReadMe files suggest that Excel’s speed should remain the same, whereas Word’s speed should pick up in only a few specific situations such as scrolling in long documents.

However, Microsoft specifically touts speed improvements for PowerPoint 10.1, so I decided to compare a few real-life files between PowerPoint 10.0 and 10.1. I solicited files from a few family members, plus a few people who posted PowerPoint complaints on the Internet. Testing files in this way can be incredibly time-consuming, but it can also reveal information that I’d never stumble upon otherwise.

My youngest sister sent a presentation created for a college assignment. Slides with larger graphics loaded somewhat slowly in 10.0, but 10.1 handled them smoothly. My father’s slides had scads of complex graphics illustrating data warehousing, and these graphics did indeed load extremely slowly in PowerPoint 10.0. Happily, Microsoft’s improvements enabled PowerPoint 10.1 to handle them efficiently; it moved from being annoyingly slow to offering a smooth user experience.

However, other files suggest PowerPoint could stand another round of improvements. My other sister shared a presentation about chestnut tree growth, which contained many embedded Excel charts, each based on four columns of data. She noted that PowerPoint 2001 couldn’t even open the presentation, and that instead of PowerPoint 98 on the Mac, she uses a Windows machine because switching between Excel and PowerPoint to edit the charts takes too long. PowerPoint 10.0 opened her file but ran into trouble with the charts; I expect the actual problem relates to OLE (Object Linking and Embedding, Microsoft’s method of sharing data between Office applications). Switching into Excel after double-clicking a chart took about ten seconds, as did returning to PowerPoint. Editing the chart in Excel was unacceptably slow, with several-second pauses just to open a menu. Office X 10.1 performed slightly better – the time to switch between PowerPoint and Excel was a few seconds faster, and editing in Excel was okay. Someone using Office X 10.0 would welcome this improvement, but I still can’t recommend that my sister switch to Office X, given this sluggish behavior and her need to switch fluidly between Excel and PowerPoint.

Another source sent a 40-slide presentation that his company exported to a QuickTime movie to play in a public kiosk. Most of the slides contained a few graphics, which both PowerPoint versions handled smoothly. Three of the slides contained QuickTime movies, each about 30 seconds in length. Though performance in PowerPoint was fine, exporting to a QuickTime movie (which Microsoft terms "PowerPoint Movie" format) took about ten minutes in both versions of PowerPoint X. Removing the QuickTime movies didn’t decrease the exporting time. Other presentations exported much more quickly (about 30 seconds for one of my father’s 33-slide shows); presumably something about the original presentation’s graphics is causing the delay.

Further, though the necessary QuickTime movies were in the same folder as the PowerPoint file, neither version of PowerPoint X could find them or recognize them as QuickTime movies until I reinserted them by hand. In limited testing, failing to recognize movie files appears to be a general problem, perhaps related to creating the presentation under a previous version of the Mac OS, and perhaps similar to a problem in Office 2001 that Microsoft fixed in Service Release 1 for Office 2001.

All Together Now — Office X Service Release 1 also installs fixes previously made available by the Office v.X Combined Updater 10.0.03, which in turn brought together the Entourage X Hotmail Update, the Network Security Update (summarized in Microsoft Security Bulletin MS02-002), and the URL Security Update (explained in Microsoft Security Bulletin MS02-019).

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Service Release 1 doesn’t fix every problem in Office, but it does represent a decent effort on Microsoft’s part to chisel away some pesky problems. I do recommend installing the service release – your Office experience is unlikely to change profoundly, but you’ll hopefully avoid future problems.

[Among many other projects, Tonya Engst just completed a big chunk of the manuscript for Office X for Macintosh: The Missing Manual, which should be available shortly.]


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