Price as rated: £349.95 as part of Microsoft Office 2008 (also includes Microsoft Word 2008, Microsoft Excel 2008, Microsoft PowerPoint 2008), upgrade £219.95; Home and Student version, £99.95; Special Media Edition (includes Expression Media), £449.95, upgrade £299.99.

It has been 24 years since Microsoft first released Word, and four years since the program’s last major upgrade. How much more can Microsoft do to tweak its venerable word processor? Surprisingly, Word gets several major enhancements in Office 2008, the first version of Microsoft’s productivity suite to run natively on both PowerPC- and Intel-based Macs. Those changes include a new document format, a simplified toolbar, and a new toolbox that combines palettes for managing formatting, clip art, iPhoto images, research, and bibliographies. But the biggest improvement is the addition of a new view option called Publishing Layout.

In this new view, arranging text and graphics on the page is far simpler than it was in previous versions of Word. Like Apple, Microsoft has apparently concluded that people use word processing programs for far more than just creating text-based documents. Creating complex, graphics-rich documents requires tools historically found in powerful page layout programs such as Adobe InDesign or QuarkXPress. Like Apple’s Pages, Microsoft Word now allows you to select a distinct editing environment specifically for creating layout-intensive documents. That environment is Publishing Layout.

The biggest downside in what would otherwise be an excellent upgrade: the elimination of Visual Basic for Applications (VBA). In its place, Word 2008 offers limited support for AppleScript and Automator. Those replacements don’t offer the recording or other features that made it pretty simple to automate and customize Word 2004. If you’re accustomed to Word 2004’s automation features, you’re going to be disappointed in Word 2008.

Fresh look
Like the other Office 2008 apps, Word has a new user interface that makes it easier to manage preferences, consolidates most of Word’s formatting tools, and puts key document elements - including cover pages, headers, footers, and bibliographies - a single click away.

The first and most obvious interface change is the new toolbar. It sits at the top of your document window, rather than being tied to the menu bar. In previous versions, Word’s toolbars could fill up most of the top of your screen. They were too easy to accidentally rearrange and contained way more buttons than most people used. Word 2008’s simpler toolbar includes all of what you need to effectively open, create, and save documents, undo and redo changes, and add tables and columns. If there’s a button you don’t want or one that you think is missing, it’s easy to change the toolbar. Unfortunately, Word still doesn’t use the typical Mac toolbar customization sheet; Microsoft says those sheets couldn’t manage all the options Microsoft wanted to offer.

Just below Word’s toolbar is the Elements Gallery, a set of five new buttons from which you can quickly add document elements, tables, charts, SmartArt graphics, and WordArt to documents. The Document Elements button, for example, lets you quickly add or modify cover pages, headers and footers, or a table of contents. Some users may find it annoying that they can’t remove this Gallery; I think more will be grateful for its presence.

Word 2008’s new Toolbox combines a bunch of different palettes in one floating tool. From it, you can quickly access formatting options, insertable symbols, clip art, your iPhoto library, reference tools, and Office’s Scrapbook and Project Center. In previous versions, those tools were scattered among menus, toolbars, and floating palettes; they’re now all in one place.

Aside from the formatting tools, I particularly liked the Toolbox’s Citations panel, which allows you to quickly and simply create a database of reference works. By adding articles, Web sites, books, and other materials to this database, you can easily add them to your document. Word will then automatically create a bibliography or citation page (in APA, Chicago, MLA, or Turabian format). Previous editions of Word had limited versions of this feature, but it was not this obvious or easy to use.

Still, the Toolbox lacks the simplicity of Pages’ floating palettes. For example, depending on what was selected in my document and which disclosure triangles were opened, the Formatting palette sometimes outgrew my screen - even when I was working on a 20-inch iMac. Closing those disclosure triangles took care of this problem, but it would be nice if Word worked more like Pages, which uses a tabbed format for document options and which allows you to open more than one floating palette at a time. I was also frustrated by the fact that my scroll wheel didn’t work on scrollbars in the formatting palette but did work on other scrollbars in the Toolbox.

One other nice interface change: Word 2008’s new Preferences panel is much better organized and more Mac-like than Word 2004’s.