Office 2011: Has Microsoft Got It Right This Time?

Making the switch from a PC to Mac is a pretty substantial move to make, and to help ease the transition, many switchers purchase Microsoft Office right off the bat. It’s that familiar old friend that we all love and remember, and it makes the process easier.

Microsoft Office 2004 worked fairly well, but wasn’t quite up to its Windows brethren, and with Office 2008 came a disaster of a suite that ran many people towards iWork.

So is Office 2011 the version that everyone’s been waiting for, or is it another dud? Microsoft sent me a review copy of the program and I’ve spent the past week playing with it, trying to test its limits and see where it took me. The results were a bit surprising.

Overcoming Hurdles

The problems with Office 2008, and to a lesser extent 2004, were pretty apparent. Each program in the suite took eons to load, the toolbox was ridiculous and clunky, and they were all crash happy. With Office 2011, all of those problems are fixed and more.

Office for Mac 2011

Office for Mac 2011

The Icons

The Icons

First, the speed. One of the impressive things about Office 2011 is the speed that it takes to load from the dock. In my tests, each of the programs loads in under five seconds, with no problems at all. Each program has also been pretty stable in my experience, which is pretty impressive considering that they’re not even officially released to the public yet.

Now the toolbox, that’s a whole other issue; one I’ll get to in a little bit.


The standard e-mail program in Office 2008 was Entourage, and that has since been replaced by Outlook. This is a welcome change, as Entourage definitely had its share of issues, and many detractors as a result.

Outlook not only looks great, but it performs amazingly well, too. Setting up a new account is quick and easy, and doesn’t involve any complicated steps or procedures, which is quite the difference from Entourage.

But Outlook’s Mac predecessor wasn’t all bad, and the good features are still there. The popular “My Day” sub program is around, and functions just as well as it did before. Plus, Outlook has Exchange support, which is the real reason most purchasers will step up from the Home edition to Pro.

Outlook in Action

Outlook in Action

Word is also a pleasure to use. The program opens just like iWork in that you can choose from a variety of templates to customize your future document. Text boxes, shapes, pictures, and themes make doing desktop publishing as simple as a few clicks — but better yet, it just looks good. Word isn’t overdone, and it isn’t ridiculously complicated, either. It’s just right.

The big new Word feature that everyone is talking about right now is Full Screen view. This takes the document and blows it up across the screen, blacking out anything behind the area you’re working on. This is meant for distraction free writing, and it helps, assuming you’re the kind of person who wants to focus on one thing at a time. That said, on multiple-monitor systems it only blacks out one screen, which might come in handy if you need a reference on one screen and a focus zone on the other.

Full Screen Microsoft Word

Full Screen Microsoft Word

As for Excel, there’s not much to say that hasn’t been said about the reigning spreadsheet king in the field. I personally don’t use macros or VBA, but a quick menu check shows that both work just fine, and I’ve confirmed that with other test subjects as well.

I do have to use Excel exclusively for one or two of my customers, and now that I’ve switched to 2011, I can say that it’s a step ahead of the game.

Excel's Template Chooser

Excel's Template Chooser

The suite also comes with Powerpoint, a popular player in the world of business presentations. I have personally never used the program, so it’s not really fair of me to do any kind of comparision between the two versions.

What I can say is that the same template chooser found in all of the other programs is here in PowerPoint, and that makes a presentation newbie like myself feel comfortable with the program – or it would, if I needed it.

One common theme to all of the Office programs is the Ribbon. This is something that Microsoft has been pushing in their Windows lineup, as a simple way for users to find exactly the tool they need right away.

This eliminates that pain in the butt toolbox, and makes common tasks and formatting issues easy as pie. Microsoft is touting this feature pretty hard, calling it a “familiar” feature from the Windows version, making it easier for switchers.

What’s another positive about the suite? The price, if you can believe that. The Home & Student edition sells for $119 for a single install, $149 for a family pack. Home and Business adds Outlook to the standard package, and goes for $199 single user, $279 for a multi pack. That’s still not as cheap as the $79 iWork, but when compared to $149 for Home & Student or the Business edition for $399 in the ’08 versions, that’s not too bad.

The Problems

Well, there’s the ribbon. Although it’s a handy feature for finding things, it’s in every Office 2011 program, and it clutters up the top of the screen like crazy. Add to that the various toolbars, sidebars, and everything else that comes standard, and you end up losing a good amount of screen real estate just to editing tools.

Fortunately, it’s a feature that you can remove, which goes a long way towards giving the clean aesthetic that some Mac users crave.

Outlook's Ribbon

Outlook's Ribbon

Then there’s the price. Yes, it is a pretty substantial price break from Office 2008, but iWork sits pretty at just $79, which is tough competition. I made the transition over to Numbers for my spreadsheets and Pages for my word processing because it was more stable than Office 2008.

There are many other OS X users in my position, and there may not be a good enough reason to pay $200 to buy the latest Microsoft offering.

Final Thoughts

When I first heard that Office 2011 was coming out, I was curious, but I really didn’t want to spend $400 on a piece of software that accomplished what I was already doing with iWork.

But once I started using the suite – combined with the fact that the price has dropped – I realized that it’s really worth the extra money. Outlook alone has made my life easier; making e-mail organization easier than it is in Apple Mail.

But it comes down to this: If you’re comfortable with the iWork suite and you see no need to switch, don’t. But if they don’t quite work out for you and you’re looking for an Office suite with a marked improvement from the old version, than Office 2011 might be for you.

It took them three tries to get it right, but I think that this time, Microsoft has finally put out a decent Office suite for the Mac.


Office 2011 for Mac brings Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and now Outlook to your OS X desktop. It's a worthy step up from previous releases, and certainly shows that Microsoft's work suite is moving in the right direction.