The most immediately visible innovation in Microsoft Office 2010 is a set of web-based applications - online versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote - slated to appear on Windows Live when the desktop editions ship in June. For businesses that wish to host their own Office Web Apps privately, Microsoft will also offer SharePoint versions of the online suite.

But while Office Web Apps enable at least minimal collaboration - and while they shine at maintaining document formatting that competing, third-party web-based apps tend to mangle - they're unlikely to bowl over anyone who has enjoyed the rich features in Google Docs, Zoho Office, and various other web-based productivity tools. In fact, they're not intended to: Microsoft has clearly stated that it created Office Web Apps as companions to, rather than replacements for, their desktop counterparts.

Still, we probably can thank the online competition for the significant declines in Office suite prices: Three years ago, the Standard Edition, containing Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook, debuted with a suggested retail price of $399; the price for Office 2010 Home and Business, which includes those four apps plus the note-taking program OneNote, now costs as little as $199. OneNote is now present in all editions of Office, and Microsoft has tightened that program's integration with the other apps to make transferring material to OneNote easier.

Suitewide Updates

In general, the shipping version of the suite isn't much different from the Office 2010 beta we wrote about last year. Some of the new features should impress even jaded Office users; PowerPoint's Broadcast Slide Show function, which lets you show a presentation remotely to anyone with a Silverlight-enabled browser, heads the list.

Improved customisation features for the ribbon interface, which premièred in the key Office 2007 programs and is now present suitewide, could mollify some of the ribbon's many critics: You can now assemble the commands you use most frequently - regardless of where they normally reside - in tabs and groups of your own creation.

Overall, the suite's look is more consistent from one app to another - and more subdued than its predecessor, primarily because Microsoft opted for a palette of mostly grey and white, versus the sky blue of Office 2007.

Gone is the big and somewhat un­­gainly Office button that appeared in the upper-left of each window. Instead, clicking on the File tab now brings up a new window (called Backstage view) with a slew of options for creating, saving, sharing, and printing, as well as for accessing recent versions of the current document - or easily opening others via a handy list of recent documents. This window also leads you to menus for application-specific options.

In addition, Office 2010 introduces a nice little refinement to the most basic of all content-creation tasks, pasting material you've cut or copied. The new Live Preview for paste not only lets you opt to retain the source formatting, merge with destination formatting, or transfer text, but also allows you to see what your choice will look like before you commit to it - much the way the ribbon lets you try out formats by hovering your pointer over them.

The suite also now boasts some fairly sophisticated image- and video-editing tools that could, for many users, eliminate the need to process media with third-party applications before using them in Office documents.

Responding to the increasing problem of malware that arrives in files downloaded from the web, the programs now by default open downloaded Office documents in a protected view, with editing disabled until you explicitly authorise it by clicking a button in a highly visible warning that appears at the top of the window.

Some other new features work only with other Microsoft applications, such as a presence indicator that allows you to see which of your Windows Live Messenger contacts are online and to initiate conversations from within various suite applications.

64-Bit Options

Office 2010 is the first iteration of the Microsoft suite to arrive in both 32- and 64-bit versions. The 64-bit edition, however, does not have the full functionality of the 32-bit suite: Among other things, third-party Outlook Social Connectors (for displaying updates from popular social networks within Outlook) are not immediately available for x64 (Microsoft says they will arrive eventually), and Outlook x64 does not support synchronization with Windows Mobile devices because 64-bit versions of Windows lack the Windows Mobile Device Center.

The 64-bit editions of Excel and Microsoft Project can use x64's ability to address more memory to run huge spreadsheets or project models, respectively (though strangely the same does not hold true for large Access databases). Unless you bump into limits with the 32-bit version of these applications, however, Microsoft recommends that you stick with the 32-bit edition of Office, even if your computer runs a 64-bit operating system.