The Computer Blog

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Academic Copies of Microsoft Office Are No More!

I’ve seen a lot of references to the “Home and Student” version of Office 2008 as “academic” versions. Apparently, even some vendors have not noticed the licensing sea-change that began with Office 2007 for Windows. Academic versions of Microsoft Office do not exist. They have been replaced with “Home and Student” versions of the same.

Yes, the difference is subtle but important. “Student and Teacher” versions of Office, like you’d find with Office 2003 and 2004 and previous versions, were truly academic versions, i.e., you had to be student or teacher to legally use them. Now, it’s true that Microsoft did not enforce the “academic” requirement either at purchase or during use (at least for Office 2004), as did companies like Adobe that required one to produce a student or teacher i.d. just to get the package home. The only checking the software did was across one’s own network where it looked for more than one installed and open copy using the same key and shut down the “second” open version if it was found. But the licensing still required the software to be used by a student or teacher or in an academic environment. Otherwise, legally, even for home use, you had to buy the “regular” copy of Office and pay the premium. That is no more, and that’s great news for the everyday home user. The distinction is now that the software must be used for “non-commercial” use, which is why the package was renamed to “Home and Student”. Even better, Microsoft held the cost down to $149.99 for the package, squarely putting it within reach for most users. I suspect, at least on the Mac side of the house, this was also to keep it within reach of the cost for Apple’s iWork Package, which retails at $79. While that’s about half as much as Office, it doesn’t leave such a big gap that most users wouldn’t leap it to have a full version of Office instead. (If you shop around, you can find retailers who offer it for less than the suggested retail. For instance, is offering it for $130.99 with free shipping as I write this.)

So, have at it! If you’ve been wanting a copy of Microsoft Office for use at home, now you can get one relatively inexpensively on either the Windows or Mac platform. Of course, if you’re using it as part of a home business, “non-commercial” use goes out the window, and you’ll have to commit to the “regular” version of Office to stay legal. (If you need Exchange Server support for Entourage, you’ll also need to step up to the “higher” versions of Office.) For the rest of us, the Home and Student version will be enough.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

First Look - Word 2008 for Mac

Office 2008 for Mac was released yesterday; and, of course, I had to go out and get a copy of it last night. I’ve been running it since and have to say that it was worth the money I paid for it. The best value is the “Home and Student” version of the soft ware which, for only $149.99, lets you install three copies of itself as long as they are for “non-commercial” use. I have a copy of the premiere version with the Microsoft Media management and Exchange Server functions coming; more on that later when it arrives which is still some six to eight weeks away. For this review, too, I’m only going to discuss Word 2008. I haven’t had the time to do anything with Excel, PowerPoint, or Entourage other than glance at them.

That said, other than the fact that this is a Universal software package making Office finally Intel-native, the best description I can give you of the new software is in two words: “iWork competitor”. I say that not because I think iWork has anywhere near the depth that Office does but because the Office and, specifically, the Word interface copies Pages' and at least one feature of Keynote not previously found in PowerPoint is now there.

Like Pages, Word’s default workspace has a large, grey toolbar with only a minimum of functions, i.e., New, Open, Save, Print, Undo, Redo (greyed out unless active), Format (painter), Tables, Columns, Show, Navigation, Gallery (greyed or active depending on what View is selected) icon. The usual toolbars one expects to see in Word are still there and selectable, but the default workspace has the main toolbar and opens the Formatting Palette. Frankly, I like working with that configuration and my wife does, too; she feels it’s easier to find everything that way.

The “Show” icon controls whether publishing marks are shown on the page, and the Navigation icon controls whether a “navigation bar” is presented along the left margin of the screen. The bar contains thumbnail presentations of each page in the document, and you can scroll to and select any you wish. The Gallery icon is inactive if the document is in Draft View but active in Page Layout or Publishing Layout View. If it’s active, a very small bar with the following tabs appears: Document Elements, Quick Tables, Charts, SmartArt Graphics, and WordArt.

Clicking on a tab opens another small toolbar and a larger bar containing thumbnails of the templates or types of items available for each category. Clicking on one of the thumbnails or icons reformats the current document to match what is shown. This provides a very fast way of applying a template to a new document or applying a specific format to a template or document instead of doing it at the formation of the document as you would do in Pages or Office 2004. Luckily, the toolbar containing the tabs (Document Elements) is not very intrusive if you’re not using any of its functions but are simply typing in Page Layout or Publishing Layout views. When I had seen the demos of this functionality a few months ago on a Microsoft website, I wasn’t sure if this feature would turn me off so much I wouldn’t want to use this version of Office; but I’m finding it’s not getting in my way and might even come in handy.

As you might expect, overall responsiveness of the application is excellent.

In Print Layout view, Word presents your document as a single or dual page layout view depending upon the screen resolution, the assigned width of the document, and the amount of Zoom. In Draft view, it always presents a single page layout view. (I usually run it in “Page Width” mode while in this view.) It switches between views instantly (on my 2.33 GHz MacBook Pro with 3 GB RAM). I’ve seen a few graphics artifacts (incomplete line redraws) but they’ve cleared with any kind of screen re-draw.

Like Office 2007, Office 2008 saves its files in the new but proprietary Microsoft XML format. I’ve opened XML formatted files from Office 2007 with 2008 and vice versa quickly and with no losses. Keep in mind, though, that Office 2004 users or Office v.X users will not be able to open your files unless you save them out in the “Word 97-2004” format on a Mac or “Word 98-2003” format on a Windows PC. You can choose to do this each time you save a document or go into Preferences/Save and change the default format to the older “Word 97-2004” format so you don’t have to worry with it. For the time being, since I’ve upgraded all the Macs in our house to the Office 2008, I’m saving files in the new .docx format if they're not leaving the premises.

While I really like Office 2007’s new ribbon interface, I have to say I like Office 2008’s interface better. My wife does, too. I suspect the only time I’ll be using Office 2007 now is when I’m using Windows, either via VMware’s Fusion or Apple’s Boot Camp. I like this new Office, and I’m glad I bought it.

Does that mean I don’t have a use for Pages? Nope. I’ve used Pages to make some really nice newsletters, so I tend to turn to it for simple desktop publishing needs first. I’ll look at Office 2008 if Pages won’t do what I want or if Office has a template I like better. But I doubt if I’ll use Pages for any word processing; I’ve never liked it much for that, preferring Word instead.

My wife tends to use Keynote rather than PowerPoint, and she says it’s better. Maybe so. My workplace is still standardized on PowerPoint, so I tend to use it more and reserve looking at Keynote for only personal needs, and those are few and far between.

I’ve only glanced at Numbers and have no plans to use it instead of Excel. The opposite is true of Entourage. I never use it any more, preferring Apple’s Mail and iCal instead. I’ll look at Entourage a little more once I get the “premium” version of Office 2008 with its improved Exchange server support.

Would I recommend this version of Office? Yep. If you’ve got an Intel-Mac, it’s a no-brainer. Even if you’ve got a PPC Mac, you still might want to take a look at it. Its new features and integration between applications makes it a better value than Office 2004, as good as that suite is. I can’t address the performance side of that recommendation, however; I don’t have a PPC Mac in the house to run a comparison on. Drop me a line if you can comment on that. I’ll post your comments here.

Comments on The MacBook Air

As it had been rumored, Apple introduced “the world’s thinnest” notebook computer in an aluminum case, a full-sized keyboard, a 13 inch LCD backlit display, and only one USB port and a micro-DVI port. It’s a sweet looking machine; and it better be for its $1800 price! Personally, I first thought it would be just the thing for a true “road warrior”. But, then, as I looked at the specifications, I found something that could almost be a “show stopper” for me. The machine’s battery is not user-accessible.

It’s probably no coincidence that the battery on my MacBook Pro is giving up the ghost as I write this, subjected to too much power and not enough conditioning as I used the machine as my desktop replacement at home. Using the “Coconut Battery” utility, I checked the battery and it confirmed what I already intuitively knew, i.e., my battery’s capacity had degraded to about half of what it was when new. The battery is between a year and a year and a half old and was one of those sent to me by Apple when the first battery was identified as possibly defective (the Sony fire deal). I dropped by the Apple Store last night and chunked down $129 for a new battery. I’m keeping the old one to use at home when I’m running the MBP as a desktop hooked into a power adapter. The new battery is the one I will use when I take the MacBook Pro to work or hit the road and need the most battery capacity.

Back to the MacBook Air. How long can one expect the machine’s internal battery to last? My guess would be between one to two years, depending upon how the battery is treated. At that point, an owner would have two options. If he was outside the machine’s warranty period, then he might take the risk of replacing the battery himself since there are bound to be third-party suppliers by then. If he was still within the warranty or simply don’t want to do the work, he’d have to turn his machine into an approved Apple Service provider to have them replace the battery. I can’t say for sure how much that would cost, but that’s an invisible cost you’ll need to plug into your cost/value analysis. (Note: Since I wrote this, Apple has published a cost of only $129 to replace the battery in the MacBook Air. The downtime is advertised to be 5 days, but at least the cost isn’t any more than buying a battery for a MacBook Pro. Also, one thing I didn’t think about and has been mentioned by someone at another Mac related website is that many business users carry an extra battery to deal with the torture of extra long flights. You’d have to find an airliner with a power plug or someone will have to invent a new battery attachment to be able to extend runtime with the MacBook Air.)

That’s not to say I feel you wouldn’t find the MacBook Air worth it. It all depends on your needs. If I were ever to graduate to being a full-time fiction writer doing book tours around the country, a machine like the MacBook Air would be perfect. I’d write the battery change-out off my taxes as a business-expense, as needed, and press on. Lots of people will feel that way. It’d be a prefect little machine for a doctor to haul around in a hospital or a pilot to use to stay in touch with his loved ones or check the weather. It might be perfect for a college student if it weren’t for the costs of the battery swap and the associated downtime, whatever that might be. Buying one now though for an entering college freshman guarantees that the machine will be in the shop at least once for a battery swap, if not twice or three times, before the student is done. Meanwhile, their MacBook or MacBook Pro-toting friends will have swapped out batteries while experiencing no downtime.

The other thing Apple didn’t address was how one performs a reload of all the operating software. Let’s assume you need to wipe the machine’s hard drive, so you do that, and you didn’t buy the optional external DVD drive for $99. With absolutely no software on the MBA’s hard drive, how will it know to access another PC’s or Mac’s optical drive? I sincerely doubt the task will be handled in the machine’s firmware or EFI. I’d be nervous about owning the machine without the external DVD drive, which means you’d have to carry that with you, along with a USB Ethernet connector and a USB modem to cover all your bases. The whole mess would probably still weigh less than my MacBook Pro, but the difference might not be enough to justify the greater expense.

My wife and I both think the MacBook Air is really neat, but its lack of functionality and mainly its cost put it out of reach for us. We’ll see what happens in another year when my wife’s MacBook needs replacing or once we see one for real in a few weeks. After all, sexiness sometimes wins out, despite all your logical and best-laid plans.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Musings at the Beginning of MacWorld Expo Week

Once again, the annual cycle in the life of a Mac user begins. For the last few weeks, Mac users and their publications have been swimming upstream, like salmon preparing to spawn, toward the MacWorld Expo in San Francisco where we know new Mac products will be announced. Speculation is ripe there will be a new sub-notebook, a flash-drive based model similar to yesterday’s 12 inch PowerBook. A few years ago, before I bought my MacBook Pro, I would have been in the market for just such a thing. But too much money has passed between Apple and me to make that likely, at least from what I can foresee right now.

I’m more interested in the possibility of an iMac-like docking station. Speculation had it that this device would be usable with a MacBook. Much to my chagrin, because I’d really love such a set-up, I suspect that’s true for one simple reason. The MacBook’s optical drive is on its side, the side that would be “open” to the user when the MacBook was in place inside its shell. The MacBook Pro’s optical drive is on its front, implying (from the device’s patent drawings) that the optical disk would have to eject downward toward the desk (not practical) or upward through its top (awkward). If Apple does release such a docking station and applies it to its consumer-based laptops only, then it’ll be another shot across the bow of its professional laptop user base. We’re already suffering from the
hard drive in the MacBook being user-upgradeable but the MacBook Pro’s is not.

On the other hand, if the iMac-docking station is introduced and works with the 12 inch portable only, both MacBook and MacBook pro users will grudgingly accept that. That’s not to say there wouldn’t be a lot of pressure on Apple to adapt the docking station for its other products. It’s just that everyone is used to Apple introducing a new concept you have to buy into, as expensive as that might be. Bad for us; good for them.

If I get surprised and they introduce a 20 or 24 inch docking station that works with the MacBook Pro, essentially converting my portable into a working iMac desktop, I probably will buy that product. It would be more elegant than the solution I’m using now, i.e., a MBP plugged into an external keyboard and mouse, even though it would be no more efficient or flexible. It’s a quality of life improvement I’m after. Less chords. More pleasing appearance and interface.

That’s not to say this week won’t already be expensive enough. Along with the keynote on Tuesday, Microsoft will be releasing the new Intel-native Office 2008. We will buy one copy of the Home and Student version primarily for my wife’s use, though I also intend to load one copy up for me to evaluate. (I’m awaiting a copy of Office 2008, the Special Media Version, which won’t arrive for another six to eight weeks. That was part of Microsoft’s Black Friday deals, one of which –the $100 rebate—they’re reneging on by claiming I didn’t include the front cover from user manual of the Office 2004 Student and Teacher version I bought and I damn well did!) That said, it actually looks like Best Buy may have the best price on the software, and we plan to buy it from there. This Sunday’s newspaper ad touted the Tuesday release; I’ll let you know whether the local store has any copies or not then.

I’m really not looking for Apple to introduce an iLife09 and hope they don’t; I haven’t really pushed out the investment I made in iLife 08!

Will Apple respond to user criticism of the glossy-only iMacs by releasing a matte screen version? There’s been no mention of this in any of the rumor mills, but it is something I’d like to see.

I think it’s likely, though, that Apple may indeed announce the release of 3G capable iPhones. As compelling as that extra speed might be, I don’t see a large horde of present day iPhone users selling off their phones to get the newer models. We certainly won’t. But that might become an option when our current AT&T contracts expire, though a year and a half or so from now that may be. If our current iPhones were still working well, I could see us offering the old phones to younger family members who might otherwise not be able to afford them and paying the extra money to upgrade phones and service.

Apple will undoubtedly hand down some surprises Tuesday; they always do. To be honest, though, I’ll be content if this is an “off” year when Apple doesn’t do something that really rocks the computer world or releases something my wife or I “just gotta’ have!”. Otherwise, I’ll be just like Wimpy in the Popeye cartoons but with a slightly twisted quip:

“I’ll gladly pay you back on Tuesday for a new Apple today…”

Monday, January 07, 2008

On the Road with only an iPhone

For our Christmas trip this year, my wife, my dog, and I hit the road for a long trip to Missouri followed by an excursion to the wild, red-rock country of southern Utah. I had purposely left the computers at home to avoid any possibility of theft, damage, or other form of mishap. After all, we were going to be either on the road or camping in cold, snowy, backcountry. What good would computers do there? And who would want them?

Both my wife and I took our iPhones, and they proved to have more utility than I first thought they would. I mean, a cell phone is a cell phone, right? (I’m just kidding!)

Our route up to northeastern Missouri was via Interstate 45 to Dallas and Interstate 35 through Oklahoma City, Wichita, Kansas City, and north until we picked Missouri Six. During most of the trip, we had good (AT&T) phone and Edge (data) coverage which we used not only to keep Connie’s parents posted of our progress but to check road conditions and weather ahead. Once we were heading east on Missouri Six, AT&T coverage became spotty, especially as we raced up and down the country’s hills. In Green City, Connie’s old home, we pretty well lost all coverage but maintained our online abilities by hooking into the Ayers’ wireless network. It was nice being able to check e-mail every now and then and let folks know we were not back in Houston where they thought we were.

The first major demonstration of the iPhone’s utility came as we readied to leave. Our original plan had been to drive to Denver in one day, stay there overnight, and then finish the drive to Moab, Utah the next day. As our time to leave approached, however, it became evident that a bad snowstorm was moving in from the west. Fetching down reports from the National Weather Service while online on my iPhone convinced me the odds of being stranded in one of the little Kansas towns that dot I-70 were good. TO avoid that, we would drive to Wichita on the first day, arriving before the winter storm hit there, ride it out overnight in a La Quinta, dog-friendly hotel, and then make a decision whether to jog back north to I-70 and continue as previously planned; jog south to I-40 and press west to Albuquerque; or even continue south and return to the warm swamps of Houston. Sitting in the warm confines of the Ayers’ kitchen, I surfed over to the La Quinta website using Safari, placed a reservation at the hotel in Wichita, and used Google Maps to locate where it was.

Once in Wichita and established in the hotel, I used the iPhone and Google Maps to find out what restaurants were nearby. We drove to an Outback Steakhouse to discover the wait was more than we wanted to endure, so we relocated to a iHop, where I got happy with a steak and eggs.

The next morning, we used the iPhones to check road conditions and establish a reservation at the La Quinta in Golden, Colorado. And that night, we used Google Maps again to locate restaurants close by. We ate at a local Italian restaurant named Abrusti’s instead of the roadway visible “Mickey D’s”.

We didn’t need iPhones much for the snowy, windy, icy drive through the Rockies. It was all we could do to keep the truck’s nose straight on the snowy, icy roads! We stopped in Vail to visit the Swiss-chateau-like McDonald’s and in Grand Junction at the Red Lobster for lunch. But, then, when we decided to stay in the Moab La Quinta that night instead of heading into Devil’s Garden’s campground in Arches National Park, I used the iPhone to place an online reservation while we were driving in the truck!

Now, THAT is utility!

That’s not to say there weren’t a few hang-ups. La Quinta supports both “normal” and mobile websites, and I was constantly getting shuffled off automatically to the mobile website, even when I didn’t want to. (The iPhone handles mobile websites just fine, but it really was built to handle regular web sites with their greater flexibility and options.) Secondly, Google Maps can be a bit fickle. For instance, a search for “Moab UT hotels” showed me every hotel in Moab Utah except the La Quinta, making me think at first there wasn’t one there. The search terms “La Quinta Utah” automatically took me to the one in Moab. AT&T coverage in the north side of Albuquerque was almost non-existent, something I wasn’t expecting out of New Mexico’s largest city.

Still, the iPhone demonstrated its greater portability and almost equal utility to traveling with a computer on this trip. If there’s one old saying that true, “Don’t leave home without it!” applies to the iPhone as well. The only thing that would make the whole thing sweeter would be the inclusion of a GPS that linked with Google Maps and could show you instantly and continuously where you were!