Dear Lifehacker, Earlier today, Microsoft released Office for Mac 2011. I like to keep up with the latest software, but is it worth the upgrade? Signed, Oscillating Over Office
Hey Oscillating, That's a good question, and one a lot Office users ask themselves whenever a new release hits the shelves. In fact, we looked into this when Office 2010 for Windows came out earlier this year. But let's talk about it a little more and consider the Mac release a little.
The short answer
Unless you're a Microsoft Office power user — by which I mean, you take advantage of the deepest and darkest secrets of Office, its advanced formatting options, server-oriented business tools, VBA scripts and so on — you don't need to upgrade every time Microsoft releases a new version of Office.
The longer answer
It's never that simple, though, is it?
Why You May Want to Upgrade There are two main reasons you may want to upgrade to Office for Mac 2011: 1) Outlook and 2) cloud-based collaboration. This version of Office for Mac ships with Microsoft's popular desktop client, Outlook. If you're a Windows Outlook user or your workplace requires you to use Outlook but you want to stick with your Mac, that's probably your most compelling reason to upgrade
Like Office 2010 for Windows, 2011 for Mac adds some cloud-synced collaboration. That's a very nice thing if you have to use Office and want to work in tandem with someone on the same document.
Why You May Not Want to Upgrade That said, if all you do is light word processing, data crunching and the like, save your money. Seriously. This is common knowledge among most geeks (well, actually, among geeks who don't just download the latest upgrades via BitTorrent or Usenet), but it's a good reminder.
Unless you've got a specific feature you need, you should stick with your old version of Office or, if you aren't already using Office, go with something completely different. It's not that Office for Mac 2011 is bad — it's got some very nice improvements over its predecessor — it's just that it costs $209 or $379 for the Home version and Business version, respectively. That's a lot of cash for an improved feature set you probably don't need — kind of like dropping hundreds on Photoshop when all you need to do is crop and scale photos.
What should you use instead?
Anything. Seriously. There are so many good and free Office-like suites that can handle what most of us need without breaking a sweat. In fact, at some tasks — like live collaboration — they're still head and shoulders above Microsoft's offering. (Office 2010 for Windows and 2011 for Mac have introduced some cloud-enhanced collaboration tools, but it's still not up to what Docs can do.) Try Google Docs or Zoho, or even something like previously mentioned TypeItWith.me (which is just Etherpad resurrected).
You'll also find no shortage of usable word processors for the desktop that can likewise read and write DOC files — like, say, the very fast Bean for OS X. (Even better, if you can get away with it, just stick with glorious plain text. Across platforms, you may also want to take a look at suites like OpenOffice.org or new spinoff LibreOffice. These suites are probably more horsepower than the average user needs, but if you need a middle ground between Microsoft Office and the lighter tools, they might be what you're looking for.
We're not trying to come off as anti-Office here. It's a great productivity suite, and if you need specific features it offers — if you need more than regular old writing and spreadsheeting — you probably know it already, and you're currently using and will continue to use Office.
P.S. Did you take the plunge and upgrade to Office 2011? Let's hear what made it worth the upgrade price for you in the comments.