Microsoft Office 2010 has now entered its public beta phase, and it's already looking like a pretty substantial upgrade to the 2007 version, and a huge improvement on earlier editions of the omnipresent Office app suite. Here's ten reasons why you should give it a try.
The "Starter Edition" is free
Remember the hilariously-titled Microsoft Works? It never did, and the company got a whole lot of stick for that one, so it's dumping it entirely. Installed on new PCs in its place will be Microsoft Office 2010 Starter Edition - a free, ad supported, feature-limited version of Word and Excel.
But feature-limited doesn't mean you won't be able to do anything useful. Microsoft has tuned the functionality so that an average user who wants nothing more than to write a letter, or an invoice, or perhaps an essay, will still be able to do that with no problems. It's more hardcore stuff like macros and change-tracking in Word, or pivot tables and data analysis in Excel, that you'll have to pay for.
You can stream the software
If you decide you want to give the fuller version a try, but aren't ready to pay for it yet, then you can stream a trial version of the full software from the Web. Seriously. A 2-meg download will get you a "wrapper" that'll let you start up any of the apps within less than 2 minutes. From there, you can use the software as normal while the rest of the functionality downloads in the background.
Microsoft says the experience will be a bit slower than a downloaded version, but it can work out what you're doing and pre-emptively pull down any functions that might be shortly called-upon. The only time you'll see egg-timers is if you dart wildly between unrelated functionality like a Tasmanian Devil. Oh, and once it's downloaded, it stays cached, so you won't need to download again next time.
There's online versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote
A third option for cheapskates is to use the brand new, completely free, web app versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. They work in conjunction with SkyDrive (which we'll come to in a minute) to allow you to access and edit documents, spreadsheets, presentations and notebooks from anywhere in the world without a hefty software install.
They're multiplatform and don't have quite the same full functionality as the desktop versions - limited in the same way as the starter edition - but should give the basic user the vast majority of what they need to get stuff done from anywhere in the world, as well as fighting back against Google Docs.
You can sync your documents to SkyDrive
Another handy feature, which is related to the last point, is the tie-in with Microsoft's SkyDrive feature. This, if you're not aware, is a 25GB online storage space provided free by Microsoft to anyone with a Windows Live account. It's accessible anywhere on the Web and handily you can save your documents in Office 2010 to it.
From then on, anytime you save that document, it'll save straight to SkyDrive - not your local PC. You can also access the Office 2010 web apps through Skydrive, so you can edit to your heart's content even when you're not on a computer with a version of Office installed.
When you finally buy it, you get a scratchcard
So you've read the above, and decided that you do actually need to shell out money for the Office suite. Perhaps you need a pivot table, or a fancy transition in PowerPoint. Perhaps you need access to Access, or to Outlook or Publisher. In that case, you can go into a shop and buy a scratchcard.
That card has a product key on it, which you put in on a website and you'll get a download of the software that arrives in the same way as the trial version above - streaming to your computer. You'll be able to start using it within minutes while the rest of the suite downloads in the background.
Docs look identical across the desktop, the web, and the mobile phone
One of the irritations of using Office alternatives like Google Docs and OpenOffice is that you can never be sure that the document that you've lovingly laid out in those apps will open the same in Microsoft's version. A crucial essay submission could be rejected if it doesn't match the style rules.
So Microsoft has put a lot of work into making sure its documents look identical across the "three screens" - the desktop app, the web app, and the mobile phone version of the software, available on Windows Mobile. No more double-checking page breaks, margins and cell formatting.
We've been testing a pre-release version of Office 2010 for a week now, and gosh it's fast. Older versions of Office crawled along, but if the final release is as zippity as this, then we'll be impressed. The most used Office apps seem to load within a second, with the less used, heftier ones, taking not much longer.
Within the apps, too, things seem to move about a little more responsively. There appears to have been a decent bit of background optimization, as well as the removal of the little bits of Office that sit in your taskbar and degrade your general computer performance.
Better printing experience
Among the various UI improvements, we wanted to highlight one in particular. While the whole "file" menu has been revamped, one of the best bits is the new print experience. Now, rather than having to remember to hit "print preview" before hitting ctrl-P, the two functions are integrated.
That means no more panicking when you're half-way through a vast printout that you forgot to switch it to 6-slides-a-page, or off full quality colour. A full preview of exactly what'll be flying out of your printer is displayed on screen, and easy to customise.
Photo & video editing
This is a subtle one, but it could have wide-ranging implications. Microsoft has integrated basic photo and video editing tools into Office - allowing you to crop, trim, apply filters, correct for brightness and contrast, and add pretty borders. The functionality is pretty powerful, especially when it comes to video.
Could this eat into sales of dedicated photo and video editors? It's entirely possible - most people won't need much more than these tools to include video and pretty images into their next slideshow.
Embed web videos
Lastly, one of the niftiest new features is the ability to stick YouTube videos, or other embeddable web videos, into your documents. Grab the embed code from the site and paste it into a handy text box, and you'll see it appear in your presentation or notebook, complete with controls.
Then, when you're doing your big presentation, you can just hit play on the screen - rather than having to alt-tab to a browser, displaying your bright pink taskbar and Buffy the Vampire Slayer wallpaper.
Office 2010 has some pretty nifty features, and includes a whole host of improvements that should make your documents, spreadsheets, presentations, notebooks and everything else look considerably sparklier.
But we'd love to hear what your favourite features are. See that comment box down there? Go download Office 2010 and fill it up with your thoughts.