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It’s upgrade time for Windows users, but is the new Office really worth the price? It all depends on your needs.

Just what the world needed: another expensive upgrade of Microsoft’s Office suite. Sure, it’s nice to have the latest and greatest version of all the programs on your PC, but do you really need them? More importantly, is the upgrade price (around $240 for the Standard edition, and $330 for the Professional) really worth it?

The big news is that Microsoft’s Office is becoming less a loose grouping of related applications and more of an integrated system, tying together online services and platform collaboration in the process. Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and the rest now work together better than ever, and projects flow seamlessly between the apps. If you’re looking for a stronger overall suite that has minimal compatibility issues, you’ll probably appreciate this upgrade, but if you’re expecting all new bells and whistles you’re likely to be disappointed.

One solid improvement over Office XP is Outlook’s handling of spam. You can choose the level of filtering that you want Outlook to provide, and on the highest setting (called, appropriately enough, “high”) the program does an excellent job of getting rid of your junk mail. It still doesn’t quite match up with some of the third-party antispam programs, such as the one that comes with Norton’s Anti-Virus software or even Fire Trust’s MailWasher Pro). But it does have the advantage of actually being a part of Outlook and thus immensely more easy to configure and deal with.

Outlook also organizes and stores messages much better than in any previous version, and the 2003 version finally offers the ability to flag messages by priority or time sensitivity (via the use of Quick Flags) and find them in whichever folder they reside. This means no more having to keep everything in your inbox to remind you of important messages that you need to respond to or otherwise deal with, a boon for die-hard Outlook users.

Another new feature is a live online connection to the Office 2003 web site. For the first time in the history of the office suite, the programs will check the online connection for updates before accessing local installation files. This means that your copy of Office will always be in touch with the newest updates and any other new features that Microsoft decides to offer.

Excel 2003, like last time around, remains one of the least-changed apps in the suite. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, some might say, but it’s still a little disheartening to shell out the bucks for an upgrade only to find that one of the programs you use the most hasn’t been updated. There are, however, a few minor revamps, including the ability to read data in any customer-defined XML schema without reformatting it, and improved XML data support of charts, graphs, and tables.

Probably my favorite feature, however, is one that should benefit anyone who writes for a living or has to organize and repair reports: Word 2003 now has the ability to display documents side by side on the screen, comparing and finding the differences between the two in the process. (This is great if you tend to edit different versions of your speeches or letters and want to integrate the best among the bunch.)

So is it worth upgrading? For an individual: probably not. But if you use Office on a network and intend to do a lot of work over the Web and through intranets, you’ll appreciate the new interoperability inherent in the upgrade as well as added server support. Me, I think I’ll wait for the 2005 version, after they’ve worked out all the kinks from 2003.

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