Mac users have often felt like they got the short end of the stick with Microsoft Office, but were forced to use it anyway. We've taken a look at the leaked Office 2011 beta, and we're definitely happy about the new look.
Likely the first thing you'll notice in Office 2011 is that it's so much more Mac-like than its Office for Mac predecessors. In fact, it fixes most if not all of the annoying GUI elements of its forefathers: Office 2004 had that awful, kind-of-separate, but looks-like-it's-part-of-the-window toolbar at the top, and in Office 2008 they moved it to a completely separate palette which was even worse. Thankfully, in Office 2011, they've finally moved all the important formatting stuff to it's own ribbon, called "Home". There is still a separate toolbox that it shows by default, but it doesn't contain anything all that important that you can't just close it and re-open it form the toolbar if you need it.
The new ribbons (or rather, the actual ribbons that replace the ribbon-like "elements gallery" from 2008) are very similar to the ribbons in the Windows versions, making it easy for users to switch back and forth between both versions. They're much more useful than the old elements gallery. Instead of having another row of categories across the top that you had to click on and then page through to get to the millions of options contained within, they've compressed it, leaving each ribbon as one condensed bar of actually useful options. The stuff you had to page through before (like the previews of the table of contents style) has now been put into a separate drop-down or page-through box within the ribbon. The only problem is that, even though each ribbon has been condensed down to one bar, that bar usually contains more things than fit in a normally sized window, and the only way to reach stuff on the other side is to actually resize your window — here's no drop-down or way to scroll through to the overflow. (I'd imagine this will be fixed by the final version.)
On the cosmetic side, it seems they've tried to make everything look a bit more Mac-like than before. The template chooser you're presented with at launch looks remarkably similar to iWork's, and Outlook looks much better than before, which is a welcome change (it's even got a few ribbons of its own now).
Performance-wise, I haven't noticed a huge difference between this and Office 2008 — it's still much too slow for my tastes. The beta isn't super stable either, so it's probably not ready for your production machine, anyway.
But if you're a Mac user who has to use Office, it seems like a release to look forward to. If you've tried it out or just have your opinions about Office for Mac, let us know how you like the changes in the comments.