Microsoft Office XP

In a climate where a piracy is no more, prices for software must fall but not so for Microsoft Office XP. Here we look at what this edition of Office has to offer.

Two years have passed and as surely as night follows day, a new version of Microsoft Office, called ‘XP’ has arrived to replace Office 2000. Whereas Office 97 is still much used schools, in four years this software has moved on from really doing things well, to doing them more efficiently. Those using Office 2000 will be tempted to upgrade to some astonishingly good features, although for class rooms to upgrade from 2000 to XP it seems like an extravagant hop. 

The gain in efficiency is easily found in ‘Word’. Appearing down the side of the screen is a ‘task pane’ that speeds up certain jobs like formatting, pasting text and finding clip-art pictures. For example, you can use this to show up to 25 items you’ve copied from Internet pages, or as many paragraphs from various documents. When you return to your work, you’ll see them as pictures or text, ready to use with a click.

To make work look good there’s a formatting ‘task pane’. It lets you choose text headings in different styles and is a brilliant way to create consistent looking work. Another ‘pane’ provides an easy route to clip art and photographs on your disc, a Microsoft web site or an impressive collection of clip art on a supplied CD. 

And as pupils more and more produce work on disc, so now you’ll be able to mark it well on screen. Pupils can send you their work ‘for review’ and see your comments as neat bubbles in the margin. Those who use Word to the max will be familiar with these functions from past versions, but here those features are better implemented and more widely accessible.

Truly new are ‘Smart Tags’ which you’ll see if you use Microsoft Outlook to store your appointments and address book. Type a name on screen, click on the marker that appears and you can send the person an email, get to their details or put their address on the page. Or type in a date and you can look it up day in your diary. This is a fabulous click-saving feature which RM say will be customised to their admin systems. For instance, it will to allow you to query data on an individual’s progress or a group’s performance.

Other notables include an application that scans and reads the text on documents, and a way of translating words in French and Spanish. Available to buy are language packs for Russian, Japanese and many more. Most entertainingly, should you have an electronic whiteboard, Word can turn your most beautiful handwriting on the board into text.

PowerPoint, the slide show program much used by pupils, features an improved slide creation screen with slide thumbnails showing alongside a slide and speakers notes. The ‘task panes’ here allow you to choose different slide layouts, slide designs, and transitions between slides. If you’ve not used these before, they are the key to productivity and strutting the stuff. The best of the newness is a way of animating objects so that they follow a path you draw. As soon as pupils realise they can make a picture of the moon orbit the earth, you can expect them to use this to the full. For sure it’s very useful, more so combined with the go-find clip art feature.

New also is tool to draw Venn diagrams and well as do cycle, radial, pyramid, and target diagrams. The terminology here may be mystifying, but these diagrams are much the matter of INSET days.

If normally these things hit performance, users of Word 2000 will note that XP seems to run almost as fast. If it ever crashes it recovers your work, however, adding hassle for innocent users is the need to activate Office XP after installing it. For this you need to be online or make a phone call. This anti-piracy ‘feature’ allows you to put a stand-alone copy on two machines, say a desktop and a laptop but no more. It will deactivate if you change too many components in the machine. If this happens to my biology teacher friend, they will have someone’s guts for guts.

But good things cost. Even when software can no longer be stolen, to the unwary buyer, an off the shelf copy of MS Office now approaches the price of a computer. Discounted to teachers and students this drops to around £100 while there are bulk buying programmes for better deals.

Curiously, there is a move away from selling this software in the old way to one that’s more like software rental. In this an organisation pays an annual fee (around £35 per seat) to receive automatic upgrades. Convenience aside, the economics needs weighing up given that schools upgrade less frequently, if only to keep old hardware going. With the software now able to deactivate itself without a current license, the rental move is intriguing and could be as popular as the Poll Tax.

Roger Frost

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