Microsoft has woken up and made Office XP smarter in the way it helps you. They have added Smart Tags, small icons that appear to help users manage work; Task Panes, little panels in applications to help find features; Speech functionality, for dictation, command, and control in all Office applications; and Data Recovery, for the unexpected system crash.
Wisely, Microsoft has made these new innovations unobtrusive. Word 2002's Task Panes will show the text next to your Word document so you can copy and paste the right selection. Office's Smart Tags let you add new names into Outlook. It sounds more intrusive than it is.
We love the new Word revision marks feature; it now makes sense. In the past, when you added in a new sentence to replace a current one, your new sentence was bold and underlined while the older sentence was struck through with a line. This only made sense to the person who made this revision and none to the person who had to read the mess. The revisions now put the deleted text where it belongs: on the border of your Word doc in small text. With a simple right mouse button click, you can accept this deletion or bring it back into the text.
Microsoft realizes that we're drowning in e-mail and now Outlook lets you follow the track of a lengthy e-mail exchange from a specific person or on a specific topic. This neat feature lets you click the small blue icon in the e-mail's header so you can see all of the e-mails related to that exchange. This is perfect if you've read your 37th e-mail from your assistant on a topic and you've forgotten what the heck everyone's talking about.
On the downside, we noticed that Office got a tad slower especially when pasting text into Word. It seems that Office is trying so hard to figure out what has just been added that it sometimes slowed the flow of our typing. That said, don't even think about installing the new Office XP on a PC with anything less than 96MB of RAM even though 128MB is the sweet spot.
Upgrading your office suite is a major step but Microsoft has spared us any new file formats that marred and muddied up the experience of upgrading from older versions of Office, where the new version couldn't work with older ones. You'll still be able to open Word, Excel, and Access 2002 files in Office 2000. The additions are smart, but are they essential to running your business? If you have a true small business and you don't live or die by electronic collaboration, wait until you buy a new PC to enjoy what Office XP has to offer. If, on the other hand, you share electronic information, make multiple changes to a single document or spreadsheet, and need to track each and every addition, this is a no-brainer. Office XP will soon become an old work friend, and you'll wonder how you managed this long without it.
Microsoft Office XP Professional
Manufacturer: Microsoft Corp.; 425-882-8080; www.microsoft.com/office
Price: $579, new users; $329, version upgrade
Configuration: Windows 98/XP/2000; Pentium II PC with at least 96MB of RAM; 128MB of RAM preferred; 150MB of hard disk space depending on which applications installed
Pros: Annoying helpers have bugged off
Cons: Smart Tags and Panes not necessary