May 21, 2004
So, for our inaugural review, we're going to look at the product that can create more emotion for Mac users than any other: Microsoft Office. Office 2004 is the first major release of Office since v.X shipped. To give you an idea of how long ago that was, Office v.X came out just after Mac OS X 10.1 shipped. We're now on Mac OS X 10.3.3, with the next major rev to be shown off in late june at the Apple WWDC. There have been a lot of changes in both the OS and in Office itself in that time period.
Office is a huge suite that ships with a number of side applications in addition to the "big four", such as MSN Messenger, Remote Desktop Connection, Windows Media Player, and some RealBasic connectors. Since Office is such a monstrous product in size and scope, we're going to split this review up into several parts:
- Microsoft Entourage
- Microsoft Word
- Microsoft PowerPoint
- Microsoft Excel
- Everything Else
Today's entry will talk a little about the suite overall, and Microsoft Entourage. The rest will follow as they get done. It won't be daily, but reasonably close. This way, if you want to just read one part of the review, you can.
One thing you'll notice in this review is AppleScript. Actually, you're going to see that in all reviews on this site. AppleScript is a critical technology for Mac OS X, and any application that wants a completely good review must, in addition to actually being good, have a solid AppleScript implementation. If that's lacking, then there's no way for a product to have a completely positive review. One thing you won't see is ratings. For one, they're crap. But in general, I find that a good review shouldn't tell you if the product is good or not. It can be positive, negative, it can point out those characteristics in the product, but for this site, or anyone else to say "This is a five - star product" is meaningless. To whom? Final Cut Pro drowns in the great reviews it gets, but if you aren't a video person, who cares? We'll attempt to give you a good analysis of the product, and how it performs its tasks in our eyes. You then decide if it's worth using or not.
Oh, one other thing...we're going to focus heavy scrutiny on the installation process. If that sucks, the product better make us breakfast to make up for it. You may be noticing the use of a plural pronoun here. No, I'm not 'round the bend, using the royal We. Not even I know everything. Shocking, but true. So from time to time, I'm going to post reviews that I didn't write, for products that I'm not capable of really analyzing. That way, you get a good review every time. One example will be in this review, when we talk about Excel. I know that Excel does math stuff, and people like it. I just never use it. So I'll dig up someone who does, and then beat them with a boneless cat until they give me a good review.
Now, enough rambling, on to Microsoft Entourage!
Entourage is, in many ways, the odd man out of Office 2004. It has no real Windows counterpart, it doesn't support Visual Basic for Applications, (VBA) at all, it uses a different text rendering engine, and its AppleScript dictionary is widely regarded as one of the best examples of how an AppleScript implementation should look.
While Entourage is referred to as an email client, it's far more than that. It's an email client, contact manager, calendar/appointment manager, and the centerpiece of Microsoft's new Project Center features in Office 2004. Since Project Center is the biggest new feature in Entourage, let's look at that first. TOC
One thing right away: Project Center is NOT Microsoft Project for Mac OS X. Microsoft Project is a tool for managing the workflow of a project. Who's doing what, when, where, with whom, etc. It's a project visualization tool for lack of a better word. It's a great tool, but it doesn't do what Project Center does. Project Center is more of a collection and organizational tool for all the files and communications that go on within a project. So instead of calculating dependencies, and showing time lines, it creates a central place where files can be stored, a way to organize email, contacts, and appointments for a project, and some very basic task management tools. By "very basic" I mean the "Tasks" feature of Microsoft Entourage. The Project Center is managed as a thing from Microsoft Entourage, although all parts of Office 2004 can access the project once it's created. One thing that doesn't get trumpeted in all the hype is that you can add any file to a project, not just Office files. So, if you're putting together a presentation on AppleScript, you can have your text outline in Omnigraffle, your PowerPoint presentation, and your AppleScript source code files all in the project.
The basics of a project are simple. You click on the new "Project Center" button in the UI, (it replaces the custom views button in Microsoft Entourage v.X, and follow the happy wizard steps. One thing you can do is either let Microsoft Entourage create the folders for the project in both itself and the Finder, or, if you have your own folders already, you can pick them manually. Got some items in a category or another project you want to import? Set them here. (Note: You set the category and the project to import from, not the individual items, and this won't import physical files, just things like email, contacts, etc.) Next, create some rules, like associate mail from any project contacts, or specific subjects, (up to three), and you can both say "Don't apply other mail rules to new messages that fit this category" and "Apply these rules to messages I already have." You can also choose to have an alias on your desktop or not. Click the happy right arrow a few more times, and bang, it's a project!
But wait, there's more...
Double - click on the project and you get some more things. The Overview shows you a week - long calendar view. Any tasks associated with the project are shown here as well. New mail or new files? Got 'em. But the real coolness is in the buttons at the bottom of the screen. For one, you can share this project. That's right, it's network - enabled. So, if you have a machine that can act as a file server, you can put this on that file server, and that way, your project team members can get to the information, even if you're not online. As well, the only requirement for sharing the project is that you can mount the disk on your system. So you don't need to play "what protocol" games. If you're using Mac OS X Server in a single - signon environment, you get kerberos access control for free. (No, not from Microsoft Entourage, but from the system.) If you want easy access, you can put it on an iDisk. There's some decent access control. Existing items are treated differently from new items, although both are a bit binary...it's share everything or nothing. If you want better security, implement it on the file server. Once that's done, you can then have Microsoft Entourage send out an email invitation to people to join the project. There's a backup button that allows for one - click backup of project files, non-project files and contacts. (I know a certain Internet Radio Show host who can use THAT little item.) There's a properties button that allows you to change the preferences of the project. Pretty cool, eh?
The Add button allows you to add new emails, contacts, events, or external files among other things to a project, and the watch folders buttons allow you to modify those. The watch folders are the folders you designate as the project folders when you create the project. Any files you add to the project from within Office are placed in the watch folders. In addition, any files added to the watch folders automatically get added to the project, so anyone, or any process can add files to project, regardless of if they have Microsoft Entourage 2004 or not. The tabs on the top of the Project Center window give you finer control of those aspects of a project. Most of those are self-explanatory, but there are three that have some pretty neat features.
The first is the Files tab. This is where you deal with non - Entourage files in a project. Any file can be used here, not just Office 2004 titles. As well, you can choose to (not) share individual files here too. Now this is not real fine - grained. It's all or nothing, so if you got 55 people in the project, everyone can see them. You can also use the Send files from here to people either by email, or via MSN Messenger. (Now you see why the new version is a part of the Office install. No, you can't use iChat. It's only MSN Messenger. As for why, I believe the "M" in "MSN" should answer that question for you.)
The Contacts tab also has MSN Messenger integration, and you can add contacts from your Microsoft Entourage Addresses here too. One quibble, the "add" window really needs a search field. If you need to create a contact, you can do that from here, and add them to the project and your Microsoft Entourage addresses at once.
Finally, the Clipping tab allows you to add items from the new Office Scrapbook, creating, on a per project basis, a networked scrapbook.
Project Center may not be MS Project, but, to steal blatantly from Bare Bones Software, It.Does.NOT.Suck! It's an amazing feature for the suite, is Mac first, and has the potential to really help people organize distributed projects without needing specialized software. TOC
The UI for Microsoft Entourage has evolved a bit, but is essentially unchanged from Microsoft Entourage v.X. The main 6 buttons are still in the upper lefthand corner, but the last button is no longer for Custom Views, but for the Project Center. Custom Views, or Mail Views as they are now called, live in the main folder display along with the rest of your email. This makes more sense to me at least, as now, using Mail Views doesn't require a mode switch. The Main 6 buttons are changed a little, with more rollover feedback, and the active button has a translucent blue fill to differentiate it from the other five. The top toolbar is about the same as in Microsoft Entourage v.X, with only some minor adjustments. It's still not customizable, and there are an equal number of good reasons for and against allowing customization. Since I have to do quite a bit of support in my
real job, I'm always in favor of a consistent UI.
There is still no preview for Tasks or Notes, and I do hope that this gets taken care of soon, for consistency with Microsoft Entourage's three-pane UI in other places, as well as convenience. Probably the biggest UI change is the new vertical three pane interface, lifted from Microsoft Outlook, and shown in comparison to the
normal mode below.
Traditional three-paned view
Vertical three-paned view
Obviously, the new view is designed around Apple's latest trend of making their displays with a good bit of horizontal screen area. The vertical screen shot shows another new mail UI trick the groups. These allow you to group your mail in various ways, using date as the default, but as you can see below, there are a number of ways you can customize this.
The only problem with groups is that you can't just turn them off everywhere! They're on by default, and if you don't want them, you have to manually turn them off in.every.blasted.mail.folder. GAH! You can't even turn them off via AppleScript. Double GAH! Making me do repetitive stuff is infuriating because that's why I have a computer...IT does the boring repetitive junk. This feature desperately needs a global setting.
This is one thing about Microsoft Entourage that often gets missed...although you can't customize the buttons in the main UI, there is a surprising amount of customizability for almost every other function. The trick is, that unlike Mozilla or Eudora, which put all your preferences in a single, ever growing scrolling screen, Microsoft Entourage tends to place things by function. So to get to the group customization dialog, you use the same menu you use to select or enable groups. Some like this, some don't. I tend to favor it, as it allows things to be more discrete. The one problem is that Microsoft Entourage still has an ungodly, (to my eyes at least) amount of modal dialogs. So if you're creating a new mail rule, the big list 'o' rules isn't modal, but the actual rule creation/edit window is. If the big list 'o' rules is covering the part of the message that you need to see to make the rule, you have close out of the rule creation/edit window to move the other window. It's really tedious, and not necessary.
Another improvement that's also still annoying is errors and how Er'age notifies you. It now has the option of, in addition to a dock bounce, a lovely translucent window. I turn that off. I'd LOVE to kill the Dock icon bounce, but I can't. So, when I'm at work, where my Internet connection is...interesting, I get that damned bouncing icon every.time.a.check.mail.script.runs. TRIPLE GAH! Off means OFF. Yeesh! Just badge the Dock icon, and stop spazzing. TOC
For anyone who was running into Microsoft Entourage v.X's 4GB database limit, the new database size is...well, you're not going to hit it anytime soon, as it's somewhere around 263 bits. That's a lot. This works with the other limit of a million items in the database. If you come close to either, you probably should rethink how you store stuff. Microsoft has also updated the tools to repair and compact the Microsoft Entourage database. You can now check for damage, compact, rebuild, and set options for checking your database in the background while Microsoft Entourage runs.
While there is a lot of controversy about the Microsoft Entourage database and it's
goodness or stability, I will say this: In all the time I've been using Microsoft Entourage, which is pretty much its entire existence, i've only had two cases where the database has gone bad. Both times involved versions that were far from release code. I've never lost data with a GM release. Ever. The problem is, there are a lot of things that will pooch a database. The biggest is hidden disk damage. Everytime I've had a scare with Microsoft Entourage, I've run DiskWarrior, and LO...there were damaged directories, and the didst cause great mischief. Fixing those issues always cleared up my database problems. I'm not saying that no one with a dead DB has a legitimate beef. I'm saying that in almost every case, it wasn't the DB just up and
dying, but that there were external factors. Oh, just to answer the inevitable...no, using mbox or text files does NOT prevent mail loss. I've had buggy IMAP clients like Netscape and Eudora hose IMAP messages with great speed and enthusiasm. mbox and text are just data formats, not magic spells. Having said that, I'm glad that Microsoft has made it easier to get at older versions of your database. Backups are always a good thing. Besides, Microsoft Entourage, for good or ill, is far more than just an email application, so for the way it works, a database is the most logical choice.
Microsoft Entourage's HTML email tools are still very basic, (and a good thing too!), with 2004, you can now use Microsoft Word as an email editor if you want complex HTML messages. It does a decent job of it, as it now can create...well, not clean HTML, but a lot better than the crap the Word v.X made. You can't edit Word - created emails with Microsoft Entourage, but it will send them along nicely.
Microsoft Entourage's Address Book gets only minor updates here, mostly dealing with MSN Messenger integration, so you can now tell if a contact is online ala Apple's Address Book and iChat. No, it doesn't talk directly to, nor use Apple's Address Book file. There are a number of reasons why, and I covered a lot of them here, so I'll avoid reinventing that wheel. If you want to have Microsoft Entourage's and Apple's Address Books in synch, there is a marvelous shareware solution from Paul Berkowitz, AppleScript Super-Genius, available here, (Panther Version) and here, (Jaguar Version). They're great, and they rock, like everything Paul does.
The Calendar has received some minor tweaks too, nothing terribly remarkable. One serious weakness in the calendar is with regard to reminders. All you get are those little translucent windows. Now, they're awful purty, but what if you're not looking at your monitor? Or on a different computer? Or if you need some other things to happen at this time? Email reminders, or running AppleScripts would rocks. So why is iCal the only low - end calendar application I've found that does this? GAH! Again, Paul to the rescue...but really, this is so obvious a feature that I'm almost shocked it's not there.
Now, on to the biggest non - UI change...the Exchange connectivity. It's all DAV. No SMTP/IMAP/LDAP. You can still use those with Exchange servers, but if you create an Exchange account, it will be all DAV. So there's fewer ports you need open. SSL support is there, but it's pretty much a binary thing. You also get some delegation support, but you can't set it up in Microsoft Entourage. You can query the Global Address List, or GAL, but you don't see distribution lists. Microsoft Entourage works with Exchange server rules, but you can't create or edit them in Microsoft Entourage. It's not the full Outlook experience. It probably never will be. It will probably get better with every version, but there will always be things you can't do with Exchange on a Mac. VBA workflow will never happen anyway. It does most of what you'd want, so just live with the shortcomings. No, it doesn't use MAPI. It never will. Really. MAPI is a pile of crap protocol anyway, and the day it's dead will be a day of partying o'er the land. Microsoft has been adding more of the MAPI feature set into DAV anyway, so within a few years, you won't need MAPI. Thank god for that.
The Junk Mail Filter is much improved over Microsoft Entourage v.X's. It's the first one I've wanted to use. Mostly because I don't have to train it. It's not a Bayesian filter, so there's no training. However, Microsoft has committed to regular updates, so you don't have to train it. Which is fine with me, since training is stupid, repetitive monkeywork, and that's what the COMPUTER is supposed to do, not me. Bayesian or not, it works really well. Turn it on, set the sensitivity, and relax. I've very few false positives or spam that gets by.
In the area of security, Entourage has improved it's SSL handling, and now uses the Keychain to store SSL information, (at least in Panther), so you don't have to use IE for that. By default, remote images in emails are never downloaded, you have to do this manually, although you can set Entourage to download images automatically for contacts in your Entourage Address Book.
Finally, displaying complex HTML, while not as fast as plain text, no longer eats your CPU alive the way it did in Entourage v.X. TOC
The AppleScript dictionary in Microsoft Entourage didn't get a lot of work for Office 2004. Then again, it's a thing of beauty, it didn't need a lot of work. Contacts now have an IM element, and events got some new properties. In general, this is good. You don't want a lot of radical changes to a dictionary, that tends to break things. I would still love to see a boolean result for a mail check. This would be very handy for a lot of scripts I want to write, but it's a pretty complex bit of work. Still, I'd love to see it in the next version of Microsoft Entourage. One thing that has to get fixed is the way AppleScript just grinds Microsoft Entourage into the ground. Microsoft Entourage may have gotten a lot of work, but the application threading is still a ways from where it should be. So, AppleScripts all run in the main thread. Which means, if you have AppleScripts that run often, you'll see Microsoft Entourage slooooooow down until they're done. It's maddening, considering that Microsoft Entourage 2004 is noticeably faster than the v.X version. Considering that Microsoft Entourage's excellent scheduler can run scripts every minute, and Microsoft Entourage has a fantastic AppleScript dictionary, you're going to get a lot of scripts running on Microsoft Entourage. It really sucks to see what a script can do to Microsoft Entourage's performance.
Still, I find scripting Microsoft Entourage to be a far more pleasant experience than scripting Apple's Mail, and I simply refuse to do Eudora at all until it's dictionary no longer requires large amounts of alcohol to work with. But there's always room for improvement. Oh, one minor thing...Outlook Virii CANNOT INFECT ENTOURAGE! Is that clear to everyone? Great, thanks. TOC
It's dead simple. Drag and Drop. You don't do any registration until the first time you run it. It behaves well, doesn't scatter crap all over your drive, (coughADOBEcough), and doesn't require authentication, unless you need that to modify the folder you're dragging in to. There's an installer if you want more fine - grained control over the process, and since it's not Apple's installer, it doesn't suck to use. (It's a VISE installer, if you really care.) Of course, the person who set this up took the time to do it correctly, which helps as well. It's amazing how a huge complex product like this has a nicer install process than many far less complicated applications. Hmm...maybe more people should follow Microsoft's lead here. TOC
So, for what it's worth, I really like Microsoft Entourage 2004. It's faster, stronger, and better than the v.X version. It still has some issues, but all applications have issues. None are particularly crippling, unless you just really don't like Microsoft. This is an improved version that really does live up to that adjective. If you want some good places for help and info on Microsoft Entourage, my two favorites are:
The Entourage Help Page is a most excellent site, and has not only top - notch information, but links to almost anything Entourage - related.
Oh...one more thing...since Microsoft Entourage is based on the WASTE text engine, and not the one that Word and the rest of the suite use, it has better support for things like RTL languages and other neat ATSUI tricks than the rest of the suite.
CommentsWarning for Notes users: The commenting system uses HTML.
I know this will be scary for some of you, especially Notes fans. However, open standards, rah-rah.
If you want to use less-than or greater-than signs, or other similar characters that HTML reserves,
you'll simply have to learn to do it the HTML way. Luckily, HTML is kind of popular, no matter what
your re-educators have told you, and you can easily find help on the intertubes.