I liked Outlook's new Quick Steps feature, which is basically an easy way of creating rules and applying them to specific messages (as opposed to filters, which perform actions on a set of rule-defined messages). The app comes with several predefined Quick Steps, but creating a new one took only a few seconds and a couple of clicks.

Myriad other tweaks simplify setting up meetings from within e-mail, creating a team calendar, finding a room for a meeting, and other routine tasks. As with the other Office apps, clicking the OneNote button in Outlook's ribbon sends the item at hand (contact, e-mail message, or the like) to whatever notebook you specify. 

OneNote 2010

If Office users don't all start using OneNote to take notes (typed or, where digital ink is supported, handwritten), to gather and organize thoughts and information from various sources, and to share everything with colleagues, it won't be for lack of trying on Microsoft's part. The 2010 version of OneNote, now a component of all Office editions, adds some powerful tools, including an improved search function, the ability to turn handwritten math equations into text, and--for shared notebooks--visual cues to show what new content has been added since you last opened the document.

I was particularly impressed by One­Note's ability to record audio while you're taking notes--and then to let you use the notes to play back the audio it captured as you were writing them. On the other hand, I found the program's new layers of note organization confusing: You can now create tabs and sections on three of the application window's four sides, but their hierarchy isn't immediately obvious.

Microsoft's web Apps: Easy Access and Limited Functionality

It comes as no great surprise that Microsoft's initial foray into web-based Office applications has produced skeletal shadows of the company's desktop offerings. Even if you have great bandwidth, the best apps available on the web can't really match the rich functionality and speed of Office's robust and mature desktop programs.

What Microsoft is doing with Office Web Apps appears to be little more than an effort to fend off Google Docs and other online-apps competitors by giving users who collaborate on documents--or individuals who need access to their files from several Office-equipped computers--a basic alternative.

Supporting evidence for this theory: Office Web Apps can edit documents only in the XML-based file formats introduced in Office 2007 (if you try to edit a document made in an earlier format, you get a prompt to create an XML-based copy). And all of the web-based applications have handy buttons that allow you to open the document at hand in the corresponding desktop program, in case you find yourself bumping up against the online versions' limits.

Most glaringly absent in the web versions, however, is support for any of the desktop applications' revision modes. In my hands-on tests of the web apps, I wasn't able to open documents with revision-mode changes for editing; I could only view them. You also don't get any support for video.

You can, at least, create new Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote documents online, via the Office menu item that appears on your Windows Live home page when the apps launch (Microsoft says that this function will be available in June, when the desktop suite goes on sale). And saving items to SkyDrive, the repository for Office documents in Windows Live, is a straightforward, one-click affair in the Backstage view of the 2010 apps.

Microsoft is also integrating web-app support into the new version of Hotmail: Users who receive attachments in Office XML formats will be able to open and edit them in the browser (saving the download step previously required to open the documents in a desktop program). Of course, you'll still have the desktop option if you want more functionality.

Aside from online access, the other principal benefit of Microsoft's Web apps is that they don't break Office formatting. Whatever changes you make to a file on the web, you are unlikely to be surprised with the results when you bring the file back to your desktop. Given the formatting issues that frequently arise with Office docs in competing web apps, this is no small achievement.

Suite Deals: Skip the CD, Get a Discount

The big news in Office 2010 pricing is not only that prices are down in general but also that you can get a significant discount if you forgo buying a physical disc, instead downloading the software, acquiring a trial version on a new PC, or installing it from a previously purchased CD. In any of those scenarios, you'll be able to purchase a card with a product key that you'll use to activate the software.

The version line-up is pared down, with only three editions to choose from at retail (versus five available for Office 2007), and the price declines are significant. For example, the $199 Home and Business edition (Product Key Card price) includes the same four apps as the $399 Standard edition of Office 2007 does - and adds OneNote. But if you spent a fortune on Office 2007 and were hoping for a break on the new version, forget it: Microsoft is not offering upgrade discounts this time around.

Whether you purchase one of the desktop Office 2010 editions or not, you'll be able to use Office Web Apps free of charge--but you'll need a Windows Live account either way.

Office Home and StudentWhat's in it: Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNoteCost with disc: $149Cost with Product Key Card: $119

Office Home and BusinessWhat's in it: Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, OutlookCost with disc: $279Cost with Product Key Card: $199

Office ProfessionalWhat's in it: Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher, AccessCost with disc: $499Cost with Product Key Card: $349

Office Professional Academic (available only through academic resellers)What's in it: Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher, AccessCost with disc: $99Cost with Product Key Card: Not applicable

Next: The Pros and Cons of Office 2010

Love and Hate: The Pros and Cons of Office 2010

5 Things to Love

1. PowerPoint Broadcast: Show presentations remotely to anyone with a Silverlight-enabled web browser.

2. Live Preview for paste: Saves clicks by letting you see what different paste options look like before you commit.

3. User-created Ribbon tabs: You can assemble your most frequently used commands in one place.

4. Lowest Office prices ever: Product Key Card discounts bring some bundle prices to half of 2007 levels.

5. Neat multimedia tricks: In many cases users will be able to embed images and videos the way they want them, without leaving the Office program.

5 Things to Hate

1. Office Web Apps: They're disappointingly anaemic--skimpy in features, and lacking support for revision mode. Though the Microsoft offerings are free, anyone who is looking for no-cost web-based productivity tools can do much better with Google or Zoho apps, which aren't limited to editing Office's XML file formats.

2. OneNote everywhere: Microsoft's note-taking program is in all versions of the suite, and almost all apps can send material to it at the click of a button. But its new level of organizing options can be confusing, and it isn't always the most intuitive collaboration tool.

3. 64-bit edition: It's lacking some 32-bit features (for example, support for mobile devices and Outlook Social Connector), and even Microsoft advises most customers with 64-bit PCs and operating systems to get the 32-bit Office unless they absolutely need 64-bit's superior memory capacity for Excel and Project. (Oddly, the increased memory capacity doesn't apply to the 64-bit Access.)

4. No speaker notes in PowerPoint Broadcast: A minor disappointment in an otherwise cool new feature.

5. No 2007 upgrade pricing: I realize that the new editions aren't expensive, but the people who invested in Office 2007 really should get a break.