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The Explorer /
Fred Langa
Fred Langa

Office 97 and the Upgrade Blues
Based on our discoveries, we're removing Office 97 and Outlook from the WinList.

If I had any musical talent, I'd write a song called the Upgrade Blues. It would go something like this: You bought a Pentium 133, then the 150s came out. So you bought a 150 and cruised until you ate the 180s' dust. So you bought a 180 and were fine until the 200s came out. You bought a 200 and life was good-until MMX arrived....

Other verses might focus on modems: 14.4 to 28.8; 28.8 to 33.6, followed by X2 and-ISDN? I'm sure you could write several verses of your own.

Today's product life cycles are so short, the Next Great Thing is always just a few months away from the Last Great Thing. It's hard to know which upgrades will make a meaningful difference in your (and your business') productivity and which will turn out to be more trouble than they're worth.

Microsoft Office 97 is one painful example. Whenever the world's most popular office suite gets an overhaul, you gotta take notice. And, man, it looked great when we checked out the late betas and "gold masters." All WinMag's tests were positive, and the users were wildly enthusiastic about things like the great Web integration. Based on everything we saw in our formal review, we gave Office 97 a thumbs-up and placed it on the WinList.

But product testing at WinMag doesn't stop when the review ends. We also test the products on our own desktops in real-life situations, using them exactly the way you do. Our lab isn't just a glass-walled room with separate test benches; it's also our personal desktops, laptops and our network.

And that's where we discovered some disturbing problems with Office 97 that would come to light only after sustained use in a real-life setting. For example, we knew the Word 97 file format was incompatible with earlier versions of Word-that wasn't a surprise and wasn't a problem. When we needed to communicate with people using older versions of Word, we'd simply save the documents in Word 95 format-no big deal, right?

Wrong. Microsoft pulled a fast one on us all: When you save a Word 97 file in Word 95 Compatibility mode, the program writes a generic RTF (rich-text format) file and disguises it with a DOC file extension. But it's not a DOC file-it's a generic RTF file. It's fine for the native Word 97 files to be incompatible with earlier versions of Word, but passing off generic RTF files as supposedly native Word 95 files is something else. At the least, you lose formatting information; at the worst, you get strange error messages and other incompatibility problems.

Microsoft released a separate file-converter program that Word 95 users can run to let Word 95 read Word 97 files. But this is backward: The small installed base (Word 97) should provide compatibility with the large installed base (Word 95), not the other way around. Microsoft now says this won't happen until later this year, when it will release an Office 97 patch.

It gets worse. Outlook, Office 97's e-mail/PIM/schedule application, is very cool-unless you use Microsoft Exchange for e-mail. Then Outlook overwrites entries in the Registry Exchange used, and the results aren't pretty.

WinMag staffer Jim Powell, who spent countless hours tracking down Office 97's problems and pushing Microsoft to make fixes, says his system slowed to a crawl and became unstable: "Suddenly, opening a simple mail message in Exchange took 45 seconds on a Compaq Deskpro Pentium 166 with 32MB of memory. When I chose Word 97 as my e-mail editor, I encountered dozens of productivity-stopping out-of-memory errors and system lockups I'd never had before."

Microsoft suggests reinstalling the Exchange client to reset the Registry back to its pre-Outlook condition. But that's a Band-Aid fix that doesn't let Outlook and Exchange fulfill Microsoft's promise of having the products work interchangeably on the same e-mail files. Top-tier products don't break each other, and this serious flaw knocks Outlook down a level from the WinList's other well-behaved contact managers and excellent standalone e-mail clients.

Based on our troubling discoveries, WINDOWS Magazine is removing Office 97 and Outlook from the WinList. Excel 97, on the other hand, is an excellent component, and it will remain on the WinList.

When Office 97's problems are resolved-and we think they will be-we'll reevaluate the product for inclusion on the WinList. Meanwhile, we recommend you stay with Office 95. At least for now, this is clearly a case where it makes more sense not to upgrade.

Here's a rule of thumb that can help you avoid the Upgrade Blues: If your current modem, PC, application or operating system has a problem, is slow or is holding you back in some demonstrable way-or has you at a competitive disadvantage-it's time to upgrade.

But if everything's working fine, you're keeping up with your competitors, and you're happy with the way things are working, don't feel compelled to upgrade just because a new version or model shows up. Focus on getting more from what you have-WinMag's How To section and features will be a big help there.

Here's a real-life example. If you have a 14.4 modem, you'd do well to move up to an X2 or a 33.6; both will make a noticeable, measurable, meaningful difference in your online productivity. But if you already have a fairly new 28.8, it probably doesn't make sense to spring for a 33.6. It's only 16 percent faster than a 28.8, and that's best-case. Add in the normal bottlenecks of today's Internet, and the speed gains can vanish altogether. An X2 modem is likely to offer real-world performance increases somewhere between the mid 30s and low 40s, so you can perform a similar analysis to see if the incremental gains are worth the upgrade costs.

Incremental seems to be the key word these days. We're in an era of steady, modest product improvements rather than giant, revolutionary gains. This is basically good news, because it means the industry is maturing and is unlikely to produce disruptive quantum shifts that will leave whole segments of the user population in the dust or render obsolete entire chunks of your computing investment in a single stroke. And it means when a glitch-like the Office 97 situation-arises, you can wait for the problems to be resolved without getting left at the curb.

It all boils down to this: You don't have to buy every new thing, just the right new things. When it's time to upgrade, using WinMag's information and your own good sense, you can call the shots and resolve not to worry too much when something newer comes out in a few months. Choose from today's wealth of new products and technologies, but don't torture yourself with the Upgrade Blues.

Fred Langa is vice president and editorial director of CMP's Personal Computing Group. Contact Fred via his home page at www.winmag.com/flanga/ hotspots.htm, in the WINDOWS Magazine areas on America Online and CompuServe, or at the e-mail addresses here.


Windows Magazine, June 1997, page 43.

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