An interesting bunch of CD-ROMs landed on my desk the other day and I’ll be looking at them over the next few weeks.
Three of the discs contained what will probably be the last pre-release version of Microsoft Office 2000 and I’ll be looking at them over the next few weeks.
Three of the discs contained Microsoft Office 2000 and the other was a copy of PhotoDraw 2000 which is the newest member of the Microsoft Office stable of programs. PhotoDraw is new so it attracted my attention first and therefore chose itself as the subject this week’s column.
PhotoDraw ? 18 April 1999
PhotoDraw 2000 is graphics program intended for use in creating graphics for the web, for documents and for electronic presentations. Unlike most other graphics programs which are designed to work with either bitmap or vector images, it allows you to work with both types.
I’ll digress a moment a to explain that bitmap images are images which are represented by a number of pixels of colour which, when viewed together, make up a picture. You’d typically obtain a bitmap by scanning a photograph, taking a picture with a digital camera or creating it from scratch with a program.
They are widely used in publishing and on the Internet but they do have the drawback that they don’t enlarge or reduce too well because of their pixel-based structure. Vector images are based on mathematics and they can be resized without any loss of quality simply by changing the values that describe the picture.
It is nice to be able to handle both kinds of image without being forced to skip from one program to another. I found it far less distracting to be able to touch up a bitmap or apply a special effect without having to fire up another program.
The PhotoDraw screen has menus and couple of rows of buttons at the top and then the screen is split into three with list of all the files you’ve got open on the left and, in the middle, a work area. On the right is a dynamic area where the controls for the tool you’re currently using are displayed.
It’s as easy as pie in PhotoDraw to remove red eye, scratches or dust and spots from a photo or to apply a special effect such as a drop shadow, blur or distortion. It’s as easy to apply a fill or add text to an artwork and you design your own or choose from a number of preset options.
I’m mostly going to be reserving judgement on PhotoDraw 2000 because the copy that I’ve got is the 30-day trial version and it came without the clip art, photos, wizards, templates and tutorial. The missing bits and pieces will have a direct bearing on how easy the program is to learn and use to create professional-looking graphics.
I’d say, though, that Microsoft have done pretty well with it and that it will be a useful tool in the corporate armoury. I’ve already tested it in action, so to speak, and was most impressed when it produced a nice clean image for the Web which was far superior to Corel Photo Paint’s mangled attempt at the same thing.
There are a couple of things I find wrong with it which I think are mostly to do with this being version 1.0 of the program. Problems include a slightly unwieldy interface and sluggish performance when I loaded larger graphics, even on my Pentium II 166-based machine with 64Mb of RAM.
IE 5.0 – 25 April 1999
Last week I promised that I would be looking the various bits of Microsoft Office 2000 in my next few columns.
Unfortunately I struck a snag which was that I didn’t manage sufficient time alone with the programs to be able to form a detailed opinion. Everything installed perfectly and during what little time I had to play I must say that I got a favourable feeling them, especially the new version of Front Page.
And so, over the next few weeks, I’ll be taking looks at Word, Excel, Outlook, Publisher, Access and Front Page. In the meantime, however, it’s the turn of the recently launched Internet Explorer 5.0.
When I first reported its arrival I said that I was going to hang on for a while to see if any major bugs surfaced before upgrading to it. Last weekend I decided to go ahead partly because I had heard good reports about it and partly because I became aware of a special weekend deal on telephone time.
My telephone bill arrived complete with a circular saying that the weekend-be-on-the-line-as-long-as-like-for-R7 special was being extended. News about the special came as complete news to me but it took me only a short minute to log onto my ISP and begin downloading the humungous files for IE5.
The process took the better part of two hours but I must say that it was worth it in the end because IE5 is a really excellent browser and a significant improvement over it’s predecessor. It looks pretty similar to IE4 but is smaller and faster and performs a whole lot better.
Among the most significant improvements to my mind is that you now spend far less time hanging around waiting for a page to load for the second time after you press the ‘Back’ button on the browser. There is now enough space on the status bar to display the address of the page currently being loaded or of a link you’re thinking about clicking.
A very useful feature is the revamped auto-complete feature which will try and complete web addresses and web-based forms based on what you’ve typed before. A drawback for some people might be that it can potentially remember even confidential stuff you’ve typed-in, but like the man said: “There ain’t much privacy in cyberspace and you better get used to it Jack”.
There are many other enhancements in the browser including the fact that you can now save a Web page complete with graphics on your machine to view later. You can even save pages that change regularly, like news pages, and arrange to have IE 5 go off and fetch the updated versions whenever you like.
Bundled with IE 5 is Outlook Express 5 which is an incremental improvement to the previous version which was, itself, a pretty good e-mail program. My favorite new feature is that names from your address book are displayed in a section of the main screen and all you have to do is select a name to send a message to them.
A new feature I found at the last minute in IE 5 is built-in support for receiving and playing sounds from Internet radio stations of which, I might add, there are a surprising number. One thing I found about writing and listening to the BBC World Service, though, is that I couldn’t write and listen at the same time so I decided just to listen…
Publisher – 2 May 1999
This week I have a look at one of the relative newcomers to the Microsoft Office suite of programs. MS Publisher has been around for long enough to become the best-selling desktop publishing package around but it has only comparatively recently become a member of Office. I’ve always liked it and it was the component of the pre-release version of Office 2000 that I happened to begin playing with first.
When you start up Publisher 2000 you get a catalogue screen from which you can choose what sort of publication you want to create. You can set up a publication entirely from scratch or you can pick from an awesome variety of pre-designed templates covering every conceivable eventuality.
The number of designs you can choose from range from about 50 in the case of brochures to one in the case of CD Covers. Each of the designs can be customised for your own purposes and each has a wizard to help you with the task.
Some familiarity with using Windows programs will go a long way towards making you instantly productive with Publisher 2000 but even a novice will be able to cope. It is literally so easy to use that all you have to be able to do is replace its text and graphics placeholders with your own stuff.
I was needing to print some more business cards and found that Publisher supports the use of the pre-printed Paper Direct paper that I normally use for the purpose. A mere five minutes after picking the correct template, I had filled in my details and run off 20 cards on my laser printer.
Paper Direct is a company that produces paper products like business cards, letterheads, certificates and compliments slips in a number of designs. The idea is that you can achieve colourful and professional looking results even if you print on them with an ordinary black and white inkjet or laser printer.
Publisher comes with templates for most of the Paper Direct stuff and life would be just peachy if the only local supplier I knew of hadn’t dropped out of sight. There are a couple of locally produced alternatives to Paper Direct, which I found at MAKRO, but the range wasn’t too awesome.
I appreciate it if anyone who knows where to get Paper Direct stuff would email me at email@example.com. But now, with that off my chest, it’s back to the story.
In spite of its very simple interface and popular appeal Publisher is starting to look a bit professional with features such as the new measurements toolbar. This useful beast allows you to adjust things like the position of an object or the spacing between letters with a precision that the program has never had before.
When it was a puppy it could only print using black and white or colour printers but the last few editions have been able to produce files that a commercial printer could print from. These features have now been refined and version 2000 can now do the whole bit including Pantone and CMYK colours, colour trapping, colour separations, and the like.
It produces an Encapsulated Postscript file which a printer or repro house should be able to use without too much hassle. I can’t vouch for how well Publisher will tackle the task but because I haven’t tried it but I imagine that it would do fine.
The things I didn’t like about Publisher may be attributable to the fact that my copy is a pre-release version. The help screen hides behind the current publication whenever you open it and the WordArt feature seems to be a relic from the past and not even as good as the one in Word 97.
People who really only want to create the odd greetings card may be happier Microsoft’s Greeting Card Workshop but Publisher 2000 is just the job for anyone who needs to create good-looking publications with the minimum of fuss. It may not be up to the standard of professional layout packages but I wouldn’t bet that it never will be.
Front Page – 9 May 1999
This week my journey through the programs comprising the yet to be released Microsoft Office 2000 continues with a look at Front Page which is a tool for creating and managing Web sites.
When it first appeared a couple of years ago it attracted considerable criticism from web designers who thought that it didn’t make it as a professional tool. The non technically-minded took to it because it allowed them to work in WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) mode and create sites relatively quickly and easily.
With the arrival of Front Page 2000, however, Microsoft is sending the professionals a clear message that the product is now ready for the big league. I think the Big M may be right because the product has been modified extensively to make it much more powerful, versatile, and easier to use.
For some strange reason Front Page used to consist of three separate components including Front Page Explorer, Front Page Editor and a web server. Many people found it difficult to understand what each component did and thus never used them to their full potential.
This problem is now thankfully no more because Front Page 2000 combines file management and page creation in one program and it works fine without a web server. It does, in fact, come with a web server but only advanced users who want to do programming and other fancy stuff will ever have to install it.
The interface will be familiar to current Front Page users because it looks just like FP Editor but with a Views Bar running down the left-hand side of the screen. From it you can view the list of files in the web, view the links between pages in the site, or view any one of a number of site reports.
There is not much of a visible change in how web sites and pages are created and formatted. The whole process just seems much slicker and far less time-consuming. Applying colour to text in previous versions, for example, can take you up to five mouse clicks and you have to go through the same process for every separate bit of text. The first time you apply a colour in FP 2000, you might have to click four times, but after that you can reapply that colour with just one click.
Another improvement is that you can format one piece of text and then copy the formatting to other pieces. I, for one, have spent many hours laboriously formatting bits of text individually and was very happy to see this feature.
One of the great weaknesses of Front Page in the past was that it was impossible for a number of people to work on the same web site but now it’s a piece of old tackie. FP 2000 locks web pages so that only one person can edit them at a time and it allows managers to assign tasks to their staff and keep track of their progress.
Those people who like to dabble with HTML code and web programming are in luck because Front Page now has now major support for both. You can now not only edit HTML manually but you can get it to enter and alter code for you by clicking on the toolbar or selecting menu options.
Front Page 2000 supports all the latest web technologies including scripting, ActiveX, Dynamic HTML and Cascading Style Sheets. You can set how compatible your site will be and, if you decide you want to it be compatible with Version 3-bowsers, Front Page won’t allow you to do things that won’t work in them.
I usually close with negatives about the product I’m reviewing but I can think of precious few about this one. All I’ll say at the moment is that I would have liked it to have some kind of library arrangement in which to store page elements or bits of code for reuse.
Word, Excel, PowerPoint & Access – 16 May 1999
This week I conclude my look at the various programs which make up Microsoft Office 2000 which is due for release soon.
The core members of the suite are considered to be Word, Excel, PowerPoint and they have been changed comparatively little in this version. Their look has been revamped and the enhancements that have been made have given them a slightly slicker feel but they are essentially still the same.
Many of the changes are common to them all and they now have the ability to repair themselves if program files get deleted or corrupted. They have an improved ‘Save’ and ‘Open’ dialogue boxes and menus in which the less common commands are hidden until needed.
The Office Assistant now takes up less screen space and there is a new ‘Collect and Paste’ feature which is essentially a clipboard enhancement which allows you copy and paste up to 12 separate items.
One of the most significant changes is that the HTML, or Web, file format has been promoted to the same status as the programs’ own native file formats. They can all save documents as web pages and then re-import them without losing any formatting along the way.
The process is known as round-tripping and I really can’t see the point because you end up with web pages that are big and ugly. I would rather have had an top class export facility which created small neat web pages out of Office files and left it at that.
Word, Excel and PowerPoint retain the same native file formats as their predecessors but the exception to this is the Access database program which has been given a totally new file format and the ability to create Data Access Pages.
In the days of yore you could create tables, forms, queries and reports within an Access database but now you can have DAPs which are essentially Web pages which live outside the main database. These pages can be used to enter, view, edit and update data in the database.
The idea is that users of a database application can do whatever they have to do over an Intranet or the Internet without needing a copy of Access. The snag with DAPs, however, is that users have to use Internet Explorer 5 and have an Office 2000 license.
For myself I’m not sure that DAPs aren’t an ingenious solution to a non-existent problem. Unless there were special circumstances I wouldn’t choose to use them when developing an Access application.Apart from the DAPs, however, Access has a bit of a new look and feel but, again, not all that much in the way of new features. Not that, in my opinion, it needed many because it was already an excellent and (relatively) easy to use database package.
In conclusion I would say that Office 2000 will be fine if you’re buying for the first time or for new users in the organisation. I don’t think that there is much justification for upgrading users who have the suite already seeing as how Office 2000 will co-exist quite happily with the previous version.
It’s a different story with Access because having users with different versions, and thus file formats, in one organisation would be awkward. I liked PhotoDraw and Publisher 2000 very much and would give the thumbs up to Front Page 2000 as a ‘must have’ upgrade.
The Office programs were already excellent and I think the developers really had to scratch around to find things to improve and I’m waiting to see, with some amusement, what they’ll come up with next. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the next version of Word can make you coffee with its optional USB coffee percolator.