We looked at the two applications you probably use the most, Word and Excel, and tested the new features that would be of most interest to you. We also ran the new Outlook through its paces. Here's what we found.
No Ribbon Alternative, But a New View
Many Office users rebelled against the Ribbon introduced in much of Office 2007, and wanted the option to toggle to standard menus. No dice, either in 2007 or 2010.
But Microsoft did introduce a new interface convention in Office 2010 applications that centralizes file management and printing options: the Backstage view. This vertical pane houses the functions that the File menu previously did, plus more - operations like preference-setting (you can customize the Ribbon form here), version-management, and document-dispatching (Save to SharePoint, Publish as Blog Post, Create PDF).
Worth upgrading for: No.
Excel More Visual, Collaborative
Sparklines are tiny charts that live in individual cells; they're visual representations of data entered in adjacent cells. They exist in the background and they're not objects, so you can enter text on top of them. They can be printed along with worksheets.
Slicers let you easily filter PivotTable data using a set of buttons, rather than drop-down lists. They label the current filter and provide information that helps you understand the resulting report's data. Power users can download the free PowerPivot for Excel 2010 add-in; among other things, it lets you work with massive data sets and share your work via Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010. Remote users have access to Excel's other new tools.
Microsoft introduced a number of "Web Apps" along with Office 2010, and these extend the collaborative and remote access capabilities of Excel. You can now make spreadsheet-editing a real-time group effort in conjunction with users at other locations; changes appear to everyone as they're entered. And two other applications let you work on a spreadsheet from any Web browser and from your Windows-capable smartphone.
Worth upgrading for: Maybe.
New Word Doesn't Wow
Microsoft Word 2010 offers fewer enhancements than its counterparts, but there are some nice additions that you may find useful.
Like Excel, Word gives you multi-user document collaboration and mobile access. New SmartArt graphics help you easily create diagrams out of bulleted text; you can use these, for example, to illustrate hierarchical relationships and outline steps leading to a goal.
If you want to drop part of a spreadsheet into a report, you can easily do so using Word's new screen shot and screen clipping tools. You can pull in all or part of an open screen on your computer. Other Office applications-including Excel-offer this.
Worth upgrading for: No.
Outlook Simplifies, Gets Social
Outlook 2010 improves access to Web-based mail and helps you manage the numerous simultaneous conversations you likely have going. It's also more collaborative, especially helpful if you're in a busy firm that requires a great deal of interaction. Some of its new features require communications tools that you may not have. If you do, you'll find this one of the most innovative new offerings in the Office suite.
Using Outlook 2010, you be able to bring in your email from Gmail, Hotmail, etc. Once there, new tools can clean up your folders by organizing them into related conversations, and by quickly banishing unneeded threads to your Deleted folder.
SharePoint Server 2010 and Office Live users can connect with contacts on social networks (including LinkedIn) from Outlook using the Social Connector for Microsoft Outlook. New capabilities in Exchange Server 2010 enable access to voicemail anywhere via a voice-to-text version of the message (requires Microsoft Outlook Mobile or Microsoft Outlook Web App). And if you're using Exchange Server 2010 and have IT support, you can get alerts when you're about to send a message to a hefty distribution list, to an individual out of the office, or to someone outside of your firm.
Smaller changes can save time and increase productivity. You can create multi-step processes that can be performed with a click, like Forward to... and Delete. Forward your calendar to a colleague. Use SmartArt and other graphical tools to make your email more polished and professional. Hover over a message header, and you'll see a small card graphic with links to the sender's location and related tasks, like calling, sending an instant message or email, and scheduling a meeting (requires additional communications tools).
Worth upgrading for: No.
Not a Necessary Upgrade, Necessarily
If your firm is presentation-heavy, you'll likely gravitate to the new functionality in PowerPoint; it and Outlook boast the most innovative changes. PowerPoint 2010 adds built-in picture- and video-editing, real-time collaboration tools, Web-based presentation broadcasts (Web App required), and SmartArt layouts.
So should you upgrade? While you're considering, you might download the trial version of Office Professional 2010; it includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, OneNote, Access, and Publisher (other suite configurations are available).
We didn't see any outrageously compelling reasons to upgrade to this version of Office, considering the required outlay of cash and time. And some of the new features require additional resources that you may or may not have, bumping up the cost of the new version(s).
However, if you've missed a version or three, you might take a look at the trials available. At its core, Office lets you perform the same tasks it always has: process words, crunch numbers, manage emails, etc. But some of its improvements can shave some time off of your workday and present a more polished, professional face to your clients. If collaboration is critical to your workflow, Office 2010 may improve the effectiveness of your group interactions through its simultaneous editing tools. And if you live in Outlook, its expanding reach into the Internet and enhanced internal message-handling will likely be welcome.
Investing in new versions of almost any type of application requires a serious cost-vs-benefits discussion. And the more employees in your firm, the longer the talks should go. Office 2010 isn't a must-have for accounting firms, but it does offer attractive tools to some with specific needs.
Keep in mind that your current version of Office can do more than you know. If you'd like to upgrade but can't, dig into your copy and start exploring features you didn't know you had. You might be surprised.