One of the little mentioned benefits of the work that I do is that I often get the chance to use the latest software before it becomes commercially available for the general public. Such a piece of software that I had a chance to get to use recently is the successor to Office 2000 entitled “Office XP”.

To start with, for those of you slightly unsure what Office 2000 is, let me explain: The Office suite by Microsoft contains nearly all the basic productivity software that a business or home user could ask for in one package, a Word Processor (Word), Spreadsheet (Excel), Presentation Package (PowerPoint), E-mail (Outlook), Database creator (Access) and in addition, high-end versions of the Office suite can also include a Desktop Publisher (Publisher) and a Webpage-designer (FrontPage). I estimate that the majority of readers have used a version of the Office suite in the past and so I will focus mainly on what Office XP adds to this so far successful package.

The first thing that hits you when looking at the package is that it doesn’t seem to include any new features that I would describe as revolutionary; many of them seem to concentrate on usability of the application, for example, the introduction of advanced Smart Tags to help with the format and layout of a document, for example to correct grammatical errors, undo small changes etc.

A nice new addition to the user interface is that of a feature called ‘task panes’. Basically, they are designed to help the user achieve common tasks quickly and easily. These task panes operate on the right hand side of the application screen and behave quite like wizards in previous versions of Office, just a lot less intrusive. For example, if trying to import a picture, the task pane pops up on the right hand side and presents your options. In previous versions of Office, a wizard would have popped up and obscured your whole document. The task pane can then stay on the right hand side of the screen until you need it next.

One thing that I particularly liked is that in Office XP, on the odd occasions that it does crash out, rather than just closing down and showing an undecipherable error like most Microsoft products have a tendency of doing, Office XP crashes with an element of tact. It apologises for any inconvenience that may have been caused and asks if you would like to report the fault to Microsoft. When you re-start the program it tries to recover any data that may have been lost as a result of the crash.

The apparent lack of new features isn’t necessarily a bad thing as there is only a certain amount of work that you can do on an application before you start to run out of ways of changing it; I personally would prefer existing features to be improved rather than the suite becoming more complicated with new features (and the possibility of new bugs) that would never be used. The general presentation of the package has been slightly modified, however I am left wondering whether the new look is improved at all or whether Microsoft changed it just allow it to be distinguished from past versions of Office.

Two new interesting features include a new OCR (Optical Character Recognition) and Speech Recognition engines. OCR allows the computer to read text from a scanner or other method such as fax and port it into your chosen application for editing without you having to re-type it. In contrast, Speech Recognition is used to convert your spoken word into text via your computers’ microphone. Unfortunately I have never had a great deal of success such with these systems and so remain slightly sceptical, however I will not say anything too negative as I know of many people who continually rave about such technology so it’s perhaps just my bad experiences.

Overall, I have found using Office XP quite a bit more pleasant than Office 2000, not because there are any radical changes but just because of the small little refinements. However, here comes the downside of the argument, to get the package of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access and Outlook is set to cost around £270 for the upgrade when it is released next week. This seems quite a bit of money for those who already own 2000 and would gain very few new features, however for those of you who still have Office 97 it may seem a better deal. If it is your first time buying, Office XP is likely to cost around £520 which is around the same price that the latest versions of Office have been released at in the past. One more thing to consider is that Office XP is incompatible with Windows 95 and earlier operating systems.

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