MICROSOFT Corp’s soon-to-be-launched Office 2007 has a new look designed to help users be more productive and discover more of the available functionalities. In general, the features are the same, but presented in a different way. The main changes include the Ribbon, which replaces menus and toolbars, and the Office button, which acts like the Start button in Windows.

The familiar Office commands are in the Ribbon and grouped together under Tabs. Each tab shows the commands related to an activity. For example, the Insert tab has all the commands to insert pictures, graphics or charts, the Page Layout tab has the commands for page design, and the Review tab is all about tracking changes.

To reduce clutter, you’ll find some tabs only when needed. For example, the Picture Tools tab will only appear if you click on a picture in the document. Then there are the Formulas and Data tabs in Excel but not in Word, and you won’t find the tab for slide design in Word or Excel.

Working with the Ribbon and Tabs does take some getting used to, even though I’ve been using menus and toolbars for some time. As the commands are shown both in graphical format and text, it seems easier and quicker to look at graphics than to read the text to find a specific command. Anyway, once you get the hang of it, it is much faster to use than the older Office 2003 – on average, it saves a click or two.

Microsoft does provide help at the Microsoft Office Online Web site with a flash interactive command reference guide that shows you where familiar commands in Office 2003 applications can be found in Office 2007. You can also download a guide with the new commands, or familiarise yourself with the new Office layout by downloading a trial version or taking an online test-drive. A useful feature is the Mini Toolbar, which shows up when text is highlighted.

At first, the Mini Toolbar is transparent, but it fades in with the 15 most commonly used commands if the cursor is moved towards it. And if the cursor is moved away, it just disappears. Another useful feature, especially when it comes to editing or formatting, is Live Preview. As the name suggests, Live Preview shows how the document will look like when, for example, there’s a change in font or slide design before actually applying the change. This allows you to go through all the available options and see which format looks best without having to apply it.

The more powerful your computer, the faster the preview will be. On an Intel Core Duo T2050 (1.6 gigahertz, two megabytes of cache, 533-megahertz front-side bus) computer with one gigabyte of memory and an 80GB Serial ATA drive, there was a slight lag, but acceptable. If you are one of those who use a lot of keyboard shortcuts when dealing with Office documents, the good news is that the keyboard shortcuts remain the same in Office 2007. But if you don’t know the shortcuts, you can rely on a new feature called Key Tips. Just press the Alt key and little letters will appear at the top to indicate what letter to press to execute a command.

Although the Ribbon takes care of the formatting and design, most of the commands for document management can be found in the new Office button that sits on the top-right corner. Working in similar fashion as the Windows Start button, here is where you’ll find commands to save, open, print, prepare send or publish documents. Documents can be saved either in Portable Document Format or XML Paper Specification format. Office 2007 uses a different file format than earlier versions, and files saved in the new version are not compatible with earlier versions. For example, Word files saved with a .docx extension can only be opened with Word 2007. But files can be saved in older formats. A nice thing about the new format is that the files are smaller in size. A Word 97-2003 file that is say, 72 kilobytes in size, when saved in Word 2007 is only 31.8KB.

Another interesting feature of Office 2007 is the ability to create blog posts and publish them to common blog sites. In Excel 2007, there is a conditional formatting that allows you to discover trends quickly with colour schemes or indicator icons. And Outlook 2007 has a new To Do Bar, which integrates tasks, e-mail messages that are flagged, upcoming appointments and calendar information as well as offers native aggregation support for Really Simple Syndication feeds.

Basically, Office 2007 has a more logical workflow than previous versions and is quicker to work with once you get the hang of it. I hardly need to customize the toolbar and buttons to suit my needs, which I did with previous Office versions. And as with earlier Office versions, Office 2007 is available in different suites. But you’ll only find the Ribbon in Office Word 2007, Excel 2007, PowerPoint 2007, Outlook 2007 and Access 2007.

All the suites come with Word 2007 and Excel 2007, and only Office Basic 2007 does not have PowerPoint 2007. Additionally, Outlook 2007 can only be found in Office Basic 2007, Office Standard 2007, Office Professional Plus 2007 and Office Enterprise 2007.