Microsoft Windows Office 2007 Beta 2 Technical Refresh

B2TR adds a few features, tweaks a few others, and reminds us that there are changes coming in Microsoft's popular Office suite.

September 15, 2006

9 Min Read
Network Computing logo

Microsoft has been slowly releasing updated versions of Windows Vista, Internet Explorer 7 and, on September 14, Microsoft Office 2007. Redmond continues to play name games with its betas: While the last iteration of Office was officially designated Microsoft Office Beta 2, the latest version to hit the Net has been dubbed Microsoft Office 2007 Beta 2 Technical Refresh, or B2TR for short. And while this isn't as radical an update as its predecessor was, B2TR does have a few new angles that are worth exploring. (You can find a full report on the features in Beta 2 in Review: 2007 Microsoft Office Beta 2 Is Up And Running.)

I'd like to start by pointing out that Office is getting a lot closer to the finish line. It's pretty much feature-steady at this point, although they are obviously still making adjustments here and there. In general, Microsoft says that this iteration is faster and more reliable, something I'll have to take the vendor's word for, since I didn't have a whole lot of problems with the Beta 2 version. It's also integrated more thoroughly with Microsoft's Windows Desktop Search tool.

Winding Up The Ribbon
Of course, the main focus of everyone's attention is still the new User Interface (UI); more specifically, the new Ribbon, which has replaced Office's more familiar toolbars. There has been a lot of moaning among Office aficionados about the fact that you can't add or delete features to suit your needs and that it takes too much space away from the work area. Microsoft is very cognizant of this; it made some adjustments in Beta 2 and has added a few refinements in B2TR.

To suit those of us who like to have our most-used features immediately available, there is a Quick Access Toolbar (QAT) which can sit in various parts of the window and to which users can add whatever commands they want easily available. This isn't new to Office 2007; what is new is a drop-down menu that appears when you click on the down arrow in the Quick Access Toolbar, and which offers a checklist of what Microsoft has determined are the features most likely to be added, such as New, Save, E-Mail, and Quick Print.

To answer those who complained about the amount of space taken by the Ribbon, Microsoft has refined its "Minimize the Ribbon" feature. (The company also insists that the new Ribbon takes up only as much, or less, space than the previous toolbars, and will provide exact measurements ad nauseum if you ask for them.)

If you right-click on the Ribbon and select "Minimize the Ribbon," most of it will disappear. All that you'll see on top is the Office button (the large round button on the upper left corner that leads to most of what used to be the "File" commands), your Quick Access Toolbar, and the various category names. Click on a category name, and the Ribbon appears in its usual place, but over your document (something like the way a Windows taskbar set to autohide will only float into visibility when you put your cursor at the bottom of the window). Finish making your choices, and the Ribbon disappears again.

As someone who likes a clean workspace, I found that this new minimized Ribbon worked quite well for me. And if you prefer to keep your hands on your keyboard, you can get the same effect by hitting the Alt key for a few seconds, and the keyboard prompts (small letters next to each feature that you can then hit on the keyboard) appear next to the various categories. Once you've finished accessing your commands, and return to your document, the Ribbon is gone.

Speaking of keyboard prompts, Microsoft asserts that 30 percent of features and commands were accessible by keyboard in Office 2003; all features will be available via keyboard by the time the new version ships in 2007.

Oh, and those who are unimpressed by either the Microsoft Blue or Motorcycle Black interfaces that were previously available for the Office applications, you can now also have your office in Unintrusive Silver.

Working With Word

While I have to admit that the new UI does make it easier to find and use many features that I either wasn't aware of or didn't have the patience to try to locate, there are still problems along the way. For example, while I have a fair facility with software, I have to admit that it took me a while to make the Themes feature in Word work. (Themes offer a consistent "look" to documents.) It turned out that it balked because my document had been saved in Word 2003 format.

And remember that small "x" in the upper right hand corner of your Word window? No, not the one that closes the entire application -- the one that just closed the document you were looking at. That was removed from Word, and is still gone in B2TR (making it necessary for me to find the command and add it to my QAT). Interestingly, though, Excel still has it. Why? Don't ask me.

One interesting feature in Word -- and one I hadn't tested in the last version -- is the ability to post a blog directly from your word processor. I tried it out by posting an entry to LiveJournal, and although that site is not included among the blog providers Windows lists, I was able, by using the Atom API, to post comfortably to LiveJournal (after one mishap). While this doesn't come near to the usefulness of dedicated blogging software, it is certainly nice to have.

(This direct-to-blog feature has also been added to OneNote, Office's freeform information organizer. Essentially, it means you can right click on a OneNote page, select "Blog this," and the text will be copied to a Word blogging page. )

Additions In Other Apps
Like Word, the other major applications in the Office suite have been tweaked in a variety of ways, none of the major, but some of them welcome. Some changes are simply in labeling; for example, in the Beta 2 version of Excel, a button labeled "Edit Data Source" let you change the data range included in a chart, whereas in the new version, the same button is labeled "Select Data," a much more straightforward way of saying it.

Microsoft has also worked with the Excel's 3D rotation feature that lets you move around the perspective on 3D charts. I had a bit of trouble when I first tried it -- for some reason the test chart I had created in Excel didn't seem to want to change, no matter how weirdly I tweaked the rotation vectors -- however, after a couple of attempts, I was able to see an immediate change on the spreadsheet.

Other new features in Excel include the ability to calculate faster on computers that have multi-processor or dual-core chips enabled, and improvements in formatting numbers in charts.In Outlook, a new button called Time Zones lets you set an appointment using a different time zone, and it will place it correctly in your calendar. In other words, if somebody makes an appointment with you using, say, Mountain Time, and you can't remember how many hours that is earlier or later than Eastern Time, Outlook will figure it out for you. Microsoft has also added new anti-phishing features to Outlook that will disable threatening links and warn about potentially malicious or phishing content within an e-mail message.

PowerPoint has actually had a quite visible and interesting change to its Ribbon. The Home (or main) tab previously had the WordArt Styles tools front and almost to the center. Those tools have now been relegated to the less prominent Text group under the Insert tab. Instead, the Drawing group of tools now sits among the Home-based features -- apparently, PowerPoint users found general drawing a lot more important than WordArt. There have also been additions to the formatting choices and themes included with PowerPoint.

Help Is On The Way
A lot of the improvements in Office B2TR are not in the applications themselves, but in online help, training, and references. Despite all its assurances that beta testers are finding the new interface just dandy, Microsoft has put a plethora of support materials online, including an interactive command guide to help perplexed users find where their favorite features have been hidden in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, and a video explaining the thinking behind the new user interface, among others.

The verdict? Since most of the changes here are tweaks rather than major alterations, it's not going to change anybody's opinion of the new interface, the new features, or the new suite as a whole. I must say that the minimized Ribbon feature, along with the keyboard shortcuts that were introduced in the Beta 2, has made me much more inclined to want to start using Office 2007 rather than popping back to 2003's security blanket. There have been a variety of opinions stated in various blogs, editorials, and reviews, ranging from happily enthusiastic to dire warnings of doom. On the whole, I can express cautious optimism -- it looks as though Microsoft has planned the new version of Office with a view not only to elaborate theories of UIs and corporate features, but with a real concern as to how it will fare in day-to-day use.

You can download Microsoft Office 2007 Beta 2 Technical Refresh from the Microsoft site. Be aware that you cannot install the Technical Refresh from scratch; it's an update that has to be installed over Office 2007 Beta 2. And if you don't have the Beta 2 yet, you're going to have to pay a $1.50 "cost recover" fee to download it.

Stay informed! Sign up to get expert advice and insight delivered direct to your inbox

You May Also Like

More Insights