men shaking handsWith all the publicity about Windows Vista, Microsoft’s other newly updated product, Office 2007, has been almost forgotten. Yet, the changes and updates in Office 2007 are dramatic and quite valuable.

The Office programs have been completely revised. If you are a current Word, Excel, or PowerPoint user, your first comment will be, “Why did they move everything?” The second will be, “Where did they put it?”

The entire user interface for the Office programs has been revamped. Everything looks very different. The traditional menus, like File and Edit are gone. The old toolbars have been thrown in the trash. Instead there is what Microsoft calls a “Ribbon” across the top of the screen. The Ribbon has task choices spread across it horizontally. It also has tabs that organize the commands into logical groups by use. For instance, in Word, there are tabs titled Home, Insert, Page Layout, References, Mailings, Review, and View.

For anyone who is currently using an older version of any of the Office programs, this new user interface is sure to be confusing. When I first saw it, I didn’t think that I would like it at all. However, after a few days of use, I realized that the new interface was both intuitive and easy to use. Tasks that were previously hidden deep in menus were now easy to access. I was able to add a watermark to a document in just three clicks without fumbling through menu choices.The same holds true of many other tasks that are now much more visible and more easily used.

A large circular icon at the top left corner of the screen, the Microsoft Office 2007 button, now holds the common file and system commands, like New, Open, and Save. There is also a small Quick Access toolbar which you can customize to hold the icons that you use most often. This new system saves time and actually makes the new Office programs easier to use. Not only can you be more productive, but you can create better looking documents much easier.

Contextual tabs appear when you need them. For instance, if you click on a picture in Word, a Picture Tools tab will appear at the top of the screen and the Ribbon will be filled with choices for what you can do with that picture. If you click on a chart in Excel, the Chart Tools tab will appear with choices related to creating a chart. This makes it easier for users to find and utilize program capabilities.

Also, you can often see how your changes will affect a document, spreadsheet, or presentation before you actually commit to the changes. For instance, if you highlight an area of your Word document, you can then simply hold your mouse over the different styles that are available in the Gallery selections on the Ribbon. As you move your mouse over different Gallery choices, the highlighted area of your document will appear showing how the document will look with the formatting of that Gallery. So you can see in real time what your document would look like if you made that choice.

Options for customizing the program have also been upgraded and made easier to find. To access them, just click on the Office button then click on the Options button. There is even an option to change the color of the background and Ribbon bar. Although the default blue is prettier, I find that changing the color to black provides more contrast which is easier on the eyes.

The changes that I’ve talked about apply to Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, and other Office applications. Outlook is the only program that doesn’t seem to have the fully implemented Ribbon interface. Yet, even then, the changes in Outlook are beneficial and make it easier to use.

One caveat is that the Office 2007 programs use a new file format, which is usually indicated by an “x” at the end of the file extension. So where older Word documents would be named something like “document.doc”, the Word 2007 documents will be named “document.docx”. The same is true for Excel (xlsx) and PowerPoint (pptx) documents. Unfortunately, friends and workmates who are using an older version of the Office programs will not be able to read the new files.

There is an easy fix. You can save your documents in the older format. You can even click on the Office button, choose Options, and then choose the older format as the default for saving documents. Saving files in the older format will not save some of the new functionality of the Office 2007 programs that was used. However, since most of the program changes have been in making the documents and files easier to create, in most simple documents all the functionality is preserved.

Changing the user interface so dramatically was a bold move for Microsoft. Some users will no doubt be annoyed. Yet if you are willing to give Office 2007 a chance, I am certain that you will like it as much as I do.