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By Charles Haddad Microsoft's Office X is like Los Angeles, a sprawling metropolis of attention-worthy attractions, most of which are nearly impossible to find on your own. What you need is a good guidebook. The one that comes with Office is skimpy, and it reveals no more than what anybody who has ever used a word processor already knows: Type, and the words show up in the blank document.
It has little or no mention of the features that now make Office special -- the document map, hyperlinks between the Net and other documents, and the easy archiving of e-mail. Sadly, Office's built-in help isn't much better. The catalogue is extensive, but scrolling through the contents is painfully slow. And the organization can be chaotic, forcing you to jump around among entries to solve your problems.
HIDDEN EXPENSE. To really master Office, you're forced to spend up to $40 for a third-party guide. In essence, Microsoft has pushed the cost of learning its software onto customers. And that has become a new, hidden expense of owning Office, which retails at $300-plus.
In fairness, Microsoft is far from alone in this outrage. Almost all of the major developers -- including Apple -- fail to include comprehensive manuals with their software. Imagine buying a cabinet from Ikea that came without directions on how to snap it together. That's what buying sophisticated software is like these days.
The good news is that most of the third-party guides for Office are pretty good. I've taken a look at several and found the best to published as part of Pogue O'Reilly Press's Missing Manual series. The Missing Manual for Office X is written by three longtime Mac experts and veteran Microsoft users: Nan Barber, Tonya Engst, and David Reynolds.
WRITTEN WITH ATTITUDE. Like its competitors, the Missing Manual is clearly written and comprehensive. But what sets it apart is that it's also a touch irreverent. It tells you about the features in Office that don't really work, such as auto-summary, which can't, despite Microsoft's claims, really summarize a document in a meaningful way. That attitude also makes Missing Manual fun to read, not that you'd want to sit down with it like War and Peace for a Sunday, although it's almost as long.
The real selling point is Missing Manual's usefulness. It's full of revealing secrets. You wouldn't know it from Microsoft's own literature, but today you can find a keyboard equivalent for nearly every feature in Office's suite of Word, Excel, Entourage, and PowerPoint. All of them are listed here.
Missing Manual helps compensate for Office's greatest weakness. Many of the program's most powerful features are hidden -- almost as if Microsoft didn't really want users to find them. Take the document map, one of Redmond's few real innovations in word processing. Using headings in a document, this tool generates a hierarchical list in a left-hand panel. Click on a heading, and you jump to that location in a document. It's a great way to navigate through books and long reports.
BURIED DEEP. Yet information about the document map is paltry in Microsoft's literature. In Missing Manual, it's explained in full, including how to customize heading styles and collapse subheadings for easier navigation. It's nearly impossible to figure out these features on your own, since they're buried deep within Office's long lists of menu commands and dialog windows.
Here are some other powerful features revealed in Missing Manual:
You can create a style once and then copy it again and again into any other document, whether a letter or spreadsheet. It's not easy, but Missing Manual shows you how to do it step-by-step.
Cells between separate spreadsheets in Excel can be dynamically linked. To change a number in one cell is to change them all simultaneously across all the links.
You can fill a document with hyperlinks to other documents, files on your hard drive, or the Net. Click on a Net link, and Office fires up your browser and takes you to the page. This feature is a great way to keep a running log of information you may need for research, a memo, or report.
E-mail can be archived by simply dragging a folder from Entourage to the desktop. The e-mail can be saved or opened in Word or other word-processing programs.
Such features make Office X the best version ever of this venerable suite of productivity applications. But you'd never know it by the slim guide included in the box. To unlock the real power of Office X, you need Missing Manual. Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for
BusinessWeek, is a long-time Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BusinessWeek Online