Office 2011: Top ten features

When Microsoft Office 2011 hits the shelves October 26, it'll be sporting dozens of new features. Here are the ten we think matter most.

1 Collaboration

In Word 2011, Excel 2011, and PowerPoint 2011, you'll be able to edit documents, spreadsheets, and presentations with co-workers or clients at the same time. A window pops up at the bottom of the application window, listing your collaborators, and bubbles appear next to the sections they're working on (shown here). The key to it all: Saving the document/spreadsheet/presentation to Microsoft's SkyDrive cloud-storage service (more on that in a bit) or your company's SharePoint server.

2. Compatibility

For years, Office for Mac and Office for Windows seemed like entirely different products. One of Microsoft's chief design goals with Office 2011 was to narrow that chasm, by making it as compatible with Office 2010 for Windows as possible. That means greater feature parity. It also means that documents, spreadsheets, and presentations you create in Office for Mac should appear and work identically in Office for Windows. So if you embed conditional formatting in an Excel sheet on your Mac (shown here), that formatting should work exactly as intended on a Windows machine.

3. Outlook

Bye-bye Entourage, welcome back Outlook. Actually, the only connections between Outlook 2011 and the Outlook Mac client that was retired in 2001 are the name and the fact that they both work with Exchange. Otherwise, this is an entirely new e-mail/calendaring/contacts/to-do manager. It's more Mac-like than Entourage, can consolidate multiple accounts in a single inbox (like Mail), and can display all the messages in a thread under a single header.

4. Cloud

With Office 2011, your documents are available from any computer. That's because you can now save them to Microsoft’s SkyDrive storage service (25GB for free) or, if you're in a corporate environment, to a SharePoint server. And once they're there, you can access them from any computer and edit them using Office 2011, Office for Windows, or Microsoft's Office Web apps.

5. Ribbon

Office 2008 had the Elements Gallery, that clunky uber-toolbar that made some features easier to get to, but also sat atop every document window like a big, fat log. Word 2011 gets rid of that Gallery in favor of the Ribbon, a much sleeker and smarter implementation of the same idea. It organizes tools into tabs, and if you want to get rid of it, you can.

6. Visual Basic

When Office 2008 appeared, many users howled because it didn't support Visual Basic for Applications, the scripting language that let power-users automate their Office docs and make them more interactive. Those howls should turn to hosannas, because Office 2011 brings Visual Basic back. One early tester imported a bunch of his old Office 2004 macros into Office 2011, and they worked perfectly; we'll be doing some testing to see whether (as Microsoft claims) Office 2011 macros work just as well in Office for Windows.

7. Template Gallery

Templates are a great way to make your Office docs look good. Unfortunately, the Office 2008 interface for selecting them looked horrible: Thumbnails were low-res, and there wasn't much you could with the templates once you found them. The Template Gallery in Office 2011 has had a complete face-lift. The thumbnails are higher resolution (and, so, easier to distinguish). And in Word and PowerPoint, you can modify those templates on the fly using the Gallery's drop-down Themes menus.

8. PowerPoint dynamic reordering

You can make some pretty fancy slides in PowerPoint by layering elements—graphics and text—on top of each other. Unfortunately, those layers can be hard to manage. PowerPoint 2011 makes it easier with something Microsoft calls "dynamic reordering": Select Arrange -> Reorder Objects, and you'll see a side-view of all those layers; you can then grab a layer and move it forward or back.

9. Excel Sparklines and Pivot Tables

Excel 2011 adds one new tool, and improves another, for representing and analyzing data. Sparklines are miniature graphs that appear within a single cell. Instead of building a full chart, you can insert a sparkline to graphically show what you need to see, simply and quickly. And while pivot tables are beloved by spreadsheet geeks, they've never been particularly easy to create. Excel 2011 makes them easier with a new PivotTable Builder and new pivot table report designs, layouts, and styles.

10. Protection

Finally, a bit of help for the security-conscious. Office 2011 comes with several tools that give you greater control over what other people can and can't do with your documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. Those tools range from Excel's enhanced worksheet protection (shown here), which gives you fine-grained control over what recipients can do to each cell of your sheet, to support for Microsoft’s Information Rights Management (IRM) tools (which require a Microsoft Rights Management server).