Microsoft Office 2010 Starter Edition Review — Introducing Word Starter and Excel Starter

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By Jay Garmon

Fans of Microsoft Works may be disappointed to learn that their preferred lightweight office suite has been discontinued in favor of a very different product: Microsoft Office 2010 Starter Edition. What makes Starter Edition different from MS Works and other previous incarnations of Microsoft Office? We break it down in this preview.

Office 2010 Starter Edition diverges from all previous Microsoft office productivity software in several respects: it’s free, it’s ad-supported, you can’t buy it in stores, and Microsoft is OK with users making copies of it. Oh, and its functionality is extremely limited even though it contains the code of a full version of Microsoft Office 2010.

Let’s start with the “you can’t buy it” clause; Microsoft Office 2010 Starter is available only as preloaded software, so if you scratch-build your PCs, Office Starter isn’t directly available to you. If you buy your PCs off the rack, Office Starter 2010 will be a free software option from most major manufacturers. Office Starter 2010 is also only compatible with Windows Vista or Windows 7, so Windows XP hangers-on are left out.

If you opt to have Office 2010 Starter Edition preinstalled on your PC – or if the manufacturer makes that decision for you – it will cost you nothing. Office 2010 Starter isn’t available at retail, but its retail price is zero. The trade-offs for this price point are manifold.

Microsoft Office 2010 Starter Edition advertising unit (Image courtesy Wikipedia)

First, Microsoft Office 2010 Starter Edition is ad-supported. In the bottom right corner of the application window, an ad unit rotates through paid advertisements every 45 seconds. It should come as no surprise that many of the advertisements are upsells to paid versions of Microsoft Office, and that as of yet Microsoft has not scheduled any third-party ads for these units. Moreover, the ads are not based on the content of the user’s documents; no indexing takes place and no user data is shared with the advertising system. That said, you can’t close the advertising pane or its parent column, so a fair percentage of screen real estate is committed to ad-related content in Office Starter 2010.

Second, while you can’t separately purchase Office Starter 2010, if you buy a PC with Starter preloaded on it, Microsoft supports copying the application to a USB drive and running that copy on an unlimited number of additional PCs. Microsoft isn’t going to penalize you for giving away the product that the company itself is giving away. The reason Microsoft probably doesn’t object to giving away Office 2010 Starter Edition is that the suite’s two applications – Word 2010 Starter and Excel 2010 Starter – are fairly feature-limited.

The major missing features in Office Starter 2010 are macros. Almost no macros will run in Excel Starter or Word Starter, with the .accde, .dsn, .mde, .odc, .udl, .xla and .xlam file types unsupported by Office Starter applications. No Office add-ins are supported in Starter Edition, either, so if you have custom Microsoft Word or Excel link-in applications, Office Starter likely won’t cooperate with your legacy apps. Specific to Word Starter Edition, users will be unable to create embedded comments or automated tables of contents. In Excel Starter Edition, pivot tables have been disabled. None of this should sound terribly unfamiliar to MS Works users.

What may be unfamiliar, however, is the ribbon interface, which first showed up in portions of Microsoft Office 2007 and defines the UI for every version of each Office 2010 product – Word Starter and Excel Starter included. The bad news is that the ribbon is a stark departure from past MS Works and Microsoft Word interfaces. The good news is that the 2010 Office ribbon is vastly improved from the Office 2007 ribbon, largely because the 2010 version is similar to the classic Office interface. For example, the 2007 ribbon removed the File menu, while the 2010 ribbon brought it back. If you held off upgrading from MS Works or even Office 2003 to Office 2007 because the new interface was too foreign, Office 2010 presents a much easier transition.

The major premise behind Office Starter 2010 is to ensure that Windows users can still open Microsoft Word or Excel files on a new PC even if he or she didn’t pay for Microsoft Office. For basic word-processing and spreadsheet tasks, Office 2010 Starter Edition is adequate. The aforementioned advertising pane sits at the bottom of a persistent help column, which is the relatively improved descendant of Microsoft Bob and Clippy. Whatever common task you’re trying to accomplish – write a letter, compose a resume, set up a household budget – Office Starter 2010 has a basic template ready for you.

Should you stray from these basic tasks – or try to open a PowerPoint presentation – Microsoft Office 2010 Starter Edition is there to upsell you to a paid version of Office 2010. This is where the “contains the full code of Microsoft Office” idea comes in. Simply purchase a product key card – a redemption card with an Office 2010 license key sold at traditional retail outlets – and you can convert your Starter Edition to a paid edition of Office almost instantly. What this means for the memory footprint of Office Starter 2010 is unclear, but it’s safe to assume that Office Starter will likely take up more hard drive space than previous versions of MS Works.

The bottom line: Office Starter 2010 is a loss-leader for a paid version of Microsoft Office 2010. If you’ve gotten by with MS Works (or Google Docs) in the past, you’ll probably be fine with Starter Edition 2010. If you’ve ever faced the limits of MS Works – or simply need to create PowerPoint presentations – you’ll need a version of Office 2010 that actually costs money.


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