MS Office 2011 for Mac Word hands-on: is it better than OpenOffice?

After MS Office 2010 for Windows, Microsoft launched the 2011 Mac version. Does it bring something essential to an iWork and OpenOffice user? Probably Outlook, which is ported on OS X for the first time, after previous Office versions that included something called Entourage. This is a great plus for corporate users, but I’ll focus on the word processor since I haven’t used Outlook for six or seven years. I’m evidently using it a lot since I’m a writer.

The good things are legion

The first thing worth mentioning is MS Word is a solid text editor for complex documents such as this one, which I’m actually working on:

Office 2011 for Mac

As you can see, this is collaborative work in English. One particular aspect is the “track changes” feature. OpenOffice does have a similar feature, labeled as “record changes.” It does work, but it produces compatibility issues. Bulleted lists and footnotes do it too. They exist in OpenOffice, but they break or inject strange formatting.

I know, this is not intrinsically related to the quality of software but to the total number of users of the same processor/version, which is absolutely in favor of MS Word. This surely irritates open-source supporters, who also feel sorry for the people spending money on software that has a free equivalent. But there are other things too.

MS Word is a clear winner at launching, which is much snappier than OpenOffice’s. Then there are the menus. Microsoft Office launched the “ribbon” interface in its 2007 version, while OpenOffice still has the traditional organization of the previous MS Office versions. The ribbon is nice and comfortable even to me, a traditional menus user because it’s highly intuitive.

Another thing that makes sense to Mac users is that MS Office 2011 really has a very nice look and feel on OS X. The previous versions were pimply and crowded. The Microsoft UI designers really did a good job in terms of integration with OS X. Then there’s something that makes anybody who knows something about fonts feel good: the new “C” typefaces, such as Calibri and Cambria. In standard formatting, they replace the old and ugly Arial/Times New Roman pair. Also, plain templates are pretty sexy in the new MS Word: headings in a subtle blue and nice body text. Word 2011 makes even users that don’t know anything about graphic design produce good-looking documents, compared to, let’s say, Office XP users.

And there’s something else which I admit could be my personal obsession: the “split window” feature in MS Word, which breaks in two a document horizontally, so that the user can work on a totally different version of the text in the bottom half. It’s a priceless feature for one that translates an English text or works on a news story based on press releases and other text chunks that stay in the half-window above. There are countless word processors with countless windows organization options. I’ve tested many of them and always looked for the “split window” feature. Again, maybe this is personal, but I haven’t found it anywhere else.

And finally, MS Word has a more complex Find and Replace module. I sometimes need hidden characters such as paragraph marks or non-standard spaces. I can do this in programming editors such as Smultron or Sublime Text. But not in common word processors. OpenOffice Writer kinda has it but is buggy.

Enough praise. Where does MS Word fail?

Is there a downside of MS Word? There is, since no software is perfect. Oddly, the most compatible word processor has a compatibility issue. To produce a document totally suited to non-Microsoft users (OpenOffice or whatever), one must save documents in the old “doc” format and give up the new Calibri-Cambria pair. This is ironic, since Microsoft adopted the new XML-based “docx” to give up its old proprietary and messy standard. But to keep the new polished look of “docx”, one can at most export the documents as PDF, which is a relatively new and welcome MS Office functionality. Still, PDFs are hardly editable.

In personal terms, though, what upsets me most is the lack of Romanian spelling. There is a multilingual pack for MS Office 2010 (Windows), but I couldn’t find it on Mac Office 2011, although I’ve installed the available updates. It will possibly show up in the following updates, but so far, it hasn’t. However, Romanian spelling is available in OpenOffice, iWork Pages, and other Mac processors. It needs a bit of work to get it, which is to install Aspell, the GNU Romanian spell checker. I could do it easily. Aspell is less-than-perfect, but what other spelling checker is?

Would I spend money on MS Word?

I got the test copy from McCann Romania, the agency in charge of Microsoft. In virtue of all the advantages I’ve mentioned, I will keep it. I’ll delete my OpenOffice with few regrets and be happy about the compatibility with other Word users I need from time to time. This means big collaborative documents in English. I’ll keep using iWork Pages for my Romanian writing, which I’ve integrated with the Aspell spellchecker. It is free, very nice, and non-disruptive for simple, journalistic stories. Now the issue is – would I spend money on MS Word if I didn’t get it for free from McCann?

I certainly would if I did more collaborative work. I only sometimes do at this stage, and I know how to avoid inserting OpenOffice junk into such documents. Then again, I’m a very particular use case. If I were to turn this into a piece of advice, I’d say that spending 100 euros on Microsoft Office is more of a work environment decision. You’ll probably buy a high degree of intimacy and comfort with the software, but what you’ll absolutely need is seamless integration with other users’ work.

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