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Do you need Office XP? Part II

Excel and Access offer some improvements with annoying new bugs; PowerPoint and FrontPage offer little improvement and no new bugs. Windows Advisor hed: Do you need Office XP? Part II dek: Excel and Access offer some improvements with annoying new bugs; PowerPoint and FrontPage offer little improvement and no new bugs. by Joe DeRouen

Last month, we pondered the decision to upgrade to Office XP. We looked at Office XP in general and Word 2002 and Outlook 2002 in particular, focusing on both the benefits and pitfalls you might experience in upgrading to the Office XP versions of each.

This month we take a look at the Office XP versions of Excel, Access, PowerPoint, and FrontPage. While none of these four programs changed quite as much in Office XP as did Outlook and Word, there are still some significant upgrades–some obvious and some not so obvious–in each.

Like Word, a lot of the other programs that make up the suite have stayed the same, with the only major changes being upgrades across the board that affect Office XP as a whole. The biggest changes, of course, are task panes and smart tags.

That smarts!

Smart tags, for those who missed last month’s column, are small icon-like buttons that appear within Office documents after certain actions, such as cut and paste. After you paste text into a Word document, a Paste Options smart tag appears below the inserted text. If you pull down the menu you’ll be given the option of keeping the original formatting or changing the text to match the formatting of the document’s destination area.

The task panes are windows that open up on the right side of an Office application to provide faster access to features that were otherwise buried in sub-menus or options, such as a list of the last several documents you opened in an application.

The Task Pane also boasts an improved cut-and-paste feature, which displays the last 24 items you cut in a selectable menu. If you need the block of data you put in the clipboard a few actions back, just pick it from the list and the program will paste it into your document. Office 2000 only remembers the last six cut or copied items, so this upgrade is a major improvement.

Excelling in the office

Excel 2002, which comes with the standard version of Office XP, now has the ability to pull down an entire Web page and let you select the various tables on it that you wish to download. You can import the star stock data from The Hollywood Stock Exchange, for example, into a spreadsheet and use that data to decide which star stock to buy next.

Excel also has a Formula Evaluator that helps you step through complex calculations to see where problems might lie, as well as a database connection wizard that guides you through the steps to connect to a database to retrieve data.

So far, so good, right? Unfortunately, Office XP’s Excel also incorporates this far-from-useful feature: if you try to left-align or right-align a cell, the program might do exactly the opposite of what you wanted to do. Then again, it might not.

How can you tell? If the “View Current Sheet right-to-left” option is selected, the cell in question contains a number, and the cell is formatted with Wrap Text formatting, then you’ll almost certainly get the error. Unfortunately, the error can only be fixed by making sure that one or more of the three conditions aren’t met.

Gaining Access

Access 2002 is more compatible with the Web than any previous version. The new version of the database program offers an improved Data Access Page Designer that allows you to quickly create Web pages linked to both Access and SQL Server databases. It also gives you the ability to export forms, reports, or queries in XML format with your choice of XSL style sheets. Access 2002 also offers an improved ability to generate Pivot Tables and charts and save them as Web-accessible Data Access pages.

With all these positive changes, however, something negative was bound to sneak by, and it did in the form of a compatibility problem between Access 2002 and Windows Millennium. Occasionally, for seemingly no good reason, you’ll be struck with a fatal system error while running Access 2002 on Windows Me.

The error can actually be caused by a variety of factors–including a damaged, fragmented, or corrupted database–all of which are usually a result of a memory conflict between the program and Windows Me. You can usually fix the problem by compacting and repairing the database, via the Tools menu in Access. If worse comes to worst, though, you may have to create an entirely new database and import all the objects from your old, corrupted database into your new, hopefully non-corrupted one.

Feel the power of FrontPage news

The Task Pane feature really shines in PowerPoint 2002 because it displays thumbnails of various graphics you’re working with. It also boasts a list of animation effects and an animation builder to create visual effects, giving you a better handle on creating the perfect presentation.

Aside from the Task Panes, though, the new PowerPoint looks amazingly like its older brother. And while there aren’t a lot of flashy changes here, the changes that have been made (like anti-aliasing on-screen and the long-overdue print preview function) make the program even more solid than it already was. Best of all, because no big, new bells and whistles were added, there aren’t any new bugs to complain about.

No news is also good news, at least for FrontPage 2002. Aside from a new interface, the program, which comes with the Developer version of Office XP as well as by itself, is mostly unchanged. It does come with a new drawing tool for adding graphics to pages, and also enables you to connect to external sources like (surprise!) MSNBC to pull data into your own Web site.

As with PowerPoint, most of the changes are internal to the program in order to make things run more smoothly, or changes to the look and feel (but not how the program operates) of the interface. One nice addition, however, is an improved Web-site management usage report system. You can follow the traffic your site is receiving by setting up FrontPage to give you daily, weekly, or monthly reports, and even delve into the specifics of the traffic by keeping track of referring domains, peak visit times, and more. And in an improvement over previous versions of the program, you can now use FrontPage to publish to a server that doesn’t support FrontPage Server Extensions.

So are there any bugs in FrontPage 2002? No major bugs, at least none that we could find. Like PowerPoint, Microsoft chose to focus on (with a few key exceptions) and improve what they’d already done right, strengthening the already-strong points of the program. What has been added has gone through numerous rounds of beta testing, making for one of the highlights of the Office XP offerings. The only drawback is that you have to buy the Developer version–at a substantial upgrade in price–to actually get the program with Office XP!

Should I or shouldn’t I?

As we reported in this space last month, Office XP is a worthy descendant of all the Office suites that came before it. Every program included has at least some improvements from the last release. Of course, along with the improvements come a few new gremlins … just as in every previous release of Office. And the more fundamental the changes, the better the chance of new bugs. It is actually a relief that some pieces of the Office puzzle were not significantly upgraded, but, if that’s the case, why pay all that money to upgrade?

Office XP offers an improved suite of programs that have some major changes (like Smart Tags and Task Panes) that affect everything across the board. If you desire a better interface for Office, go ahead and upgrade. But if the thought of having to deal with even more information on your screen makes you want to run for the hills, you might decide to save the money and stick with your current flavor of Office.

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