New office programs resemble old hot rods


September 04, 1995|By Stephen Manes | Stephen Manes,New York Times News Service

Computer programs for basic jobs like typing and counting are beginning to resemble cars of the early '60s. Icons, buttons and toolbars have become the chrome, tailfins and fuzzy dice of our time. They are bolted onto vehicles that guzzle memory, hog hard disk parking space and come with more promotion than acceleration.

Microsoft Office 95 is the first major office software suite adapted for a certain new operating system you may have heard of. What Office 95 reveals is that Windows 95 is no panacea. Current users are likely to be mildly disappointed when they discover how little the program and its performance have changed.

Others may wonder why Microsoft Corp. continues to graft features onto existing programs rather than coming up with truly new ones. Of course, the last time the company came up with something new, it turned out to be called Bob.

The Office 95 Standard edition bundles Microsoft's Word

processor, Excel spreadsheet, Powerpoint presentation software, and Scheduleplus calendar program. The price is about $230 to upgrade from just about any competitive product short of a quill pen; users of Office or any of its components get a $40 rebate. First-timers are asked to pay roughly $500.

Choose CD-ROM

The Professional Edition, about $100 more, adds the Bookshelf 95 reference program in its CD-ROM edition and a coupon for the Access database, due in a couple of months.

Unless you have time to waste, choose a CD-ROM edition (which comes with added goodies) instead of one that comes on 24 or more floppy disks. A full installation of the Standard edition requires 89 megabytes of disk space; 12 megabytes of RAM or more is a very good idea.

In a supposedly integrated package, maddening inconsistencies remain. To drag and drop selected material, for example, Word and Excel still demand different techniques. And though improved in many ways, the help comes as separate modules.

If you are confused about the useful new Binder, which lets you bundle several documents into one, clicking on Binder under Word's help gets you no help at all.

Still, there are lots of enhancements, including long file names. Several irritating peccadilloes of Word have been tamed. Dragging data from one program to another is easier. Powerpoint now lets presenters bore their audiences with ever sillier textured effects and animations.

Scheduleplus offers new monthly and weekly views and much better to-do lists.

It also includes material based on "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," helping you create a "personal mission statement" and promising to "help you Put First Things First it (sic) in your life." The first thing I did was look for a highly effective way to delete it.

The Answer Wizard lets you ask for help in natural language. Type "What is the meaning of life?" and you will be directed to instructions for looking up words in the thesaurus (close!) or summing numbers (perhaps closer). More usefully, subsidiary Wizards often show you what to do and do some of it for you. The improved manual is now oriented toward performing specific tasks. But certain crucial items, like Word's indentation markers, go almost totally unexplained.

Probably the handiest new feature, though hardly a trailblazer, is Spell-it, Word's on-the-fly spell-checker. If the program is puzzled by a word you type, a squiggly red line appears under it the instant you hit the space bar. (It just appeared under the word "squiggly." Hey! There it is again!) Right-clicking the word brings up a list of alternatives. Depending on your spelling and writing habits, you may find this a godsend. A fine speller but lousy typist, I have yet to turn it off.

Word's Autoformat as You Type helps produce bulleted and numbered lists automatically, along with headings and a few other typographic effects. Microsoft has also improved Word's Autocorrect feature, which can automatically capitalize the first words of sentences, fix words that begin with TWo capital letters, and change common typing errors like "teh" to "the." It now works in Excel and Powerpoint, too.

If you use Microsoft Mail, Word can help you send messages with fancy formatting. One Microsoft executive noted that the company's E-mail now boasts fewer misspelled words and more snappy fonts. This may or may not be an advantage.

Rough edges

For a mature product, Office has plenty of rough edges. If you use autonumbering and save the file in the plain text form many E-mail systems require, the automated indentations disappear. On my machine, a new indexing and retrieval system called "Find Fast" could not find files with names lacking a three-letter extension, and the directory functions make it easy to request the ludicrous task of searching among no files at all. "Write-up," a new Powerpoint feature, can export slides and notes to Word, but can also make it crash. The process for selectively installing or deleting program components is virtually incomprehensible.

Performance is decidedly mixed. Directory displays are improved, but the delay between clicking File Open and seeing a directory can be significant, particularly if old Windows or DOS programs are open. Multitasking seems better than with older versions, but too often the machine can briefly ignore all commands.

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