You may be considering upgrading to Office 2007, or perhaps you've started to use the new suite - and if you're looking for a summary of the differences, then this article may be of interest. It describes the main changes common to all the core applications (Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook). The biggest change is the introduction of the new navigation bar - the Ribbon.

Out goes the traditional menus and toolbars at the top of the screen and in comes the new Ribbon which consists of a set of named Tabs. Click on a Tab to reveal groups of commands which can be clicked on to carry out particular commands, or for some a more traditional looking dialogue box can be opened to help you select a command.

Microsoft has made it easier to access all the Office commands by this tabbed arrangement, with common commands grouped together, and several related groups in each Tab. Now you need only a couple of mouse clicks to carry out most actions, rather than wade though an army of menus and submenus. (And no, you cannot revert the Tabs back to the traditional menu and toolbars view!)

In Word there are seven Ribbon tabs called Home, Insert, Page Layout, Reference, Mailings, Review and View. Clicking on the Home tab shows commands for formatting and styles. Clicking on the Review tab shows all the commands for mail merging. Excel and PowerPoint also have their own unique seven Tabs with grouped commands.

However Outlook is different. When you open Outlook 2007 the traditional menus and toolbars are still there. You're not faced with the new Ribbon until you open or create a new item, for example a new email message, or a new calendar item.

Once you start using Office 2007 you need to be able to carry out routine file management, such as open file, save and print, fairly quickly. To help users carry out file management, Office 2007 applications all have a new Office Button at the top left of the screen. Click this and you are taken to a list of file management topics (similar to the File Menu options in previous versions of Office) such as New, Open, Save and Print, so you can quickly start working with your files. As well as the new Office button, Office 2007 has a new Quick Access Toolbar.

The new Quick Access Toolbar at the top left of the application has several commonly used command buttons (like a short version of the old Standard Toolbar). The beauty of this new toolbar is that you can easily customise it. This is particularly useful when you first start to use Office 2007. Although the commands are organised under the Tabs in a logical fashion, you may find it easier to put the commands you always use, for example Print Preview, Save As or Quick Print onto this toolbar for quick access, until you are really familiar with the new Ribbon layout.

Once you start creating new Office 2007 files you'll discover a new Calibri default font for all the applications. Calibri characters are "sans serif" (without the pointy bits) which are clear to see particularly on flat screen monitors. Sans Serif fonts are also widely used on web pages. Of course you can reset the default Office 2007 font back to Times New Roman or Arial if you wish.

There are new ways to apply formatting in Office 2007 - In Word or PowerPoint if you add some text, highlight it, then in the Home Tab choose a formatting change, the new formatting is temporarily applied to the text - this is the new Live Preview feature. Click on the selected formatting change to permanently apply it or move your mouse away and the text reverts to the original formatting. Excel 2007 PowerPoint 2007 and Outlook 2007 (when editing or creating an item) all have Live Preview.

You can also apply formatting using the new Mini Toolbar and Style Galleries described next.

If you select some text and then hover in the text, a Mini Toolbar appears containing formatting buttons. This lets you change formatting without moving away from the text - just choose the required formatting and it is immediately applied to the highlighted text. Then move your mouse away and the Mini Toolbar disappears. This makes for fast format changing and along with Style Galleries lets the user easily and quickly alter document formatting.

All Office 2007 applications have Style Galleries. Styles are sets of particular formatting features which can be applied to selected text, or cells in Excel. If you select some text in Word or PowerPoint, or cells in Excel, then in the Home Tab hover over one of the Styles in the Style Gallery, (or cell styles option in Excel), Live Preview shows how the text or cells look with this style. Just click on the chosen style if you want to apply it.

Charts building has been completely redesigned in Office 2007, and all the core applications now use exactly the same chart builder. In addition to the familiar Office charts, there are many new chart styles and colour schemes with impressive effects such as 3-D, soft shadowing and glowing.

An important change in Office 2007 is the new file formats. All the Office 2007 applications use new file formats based on the XML standard, with an "x" added to the filename extension. These files are smaller and can be processed more efficiently and more securely. Word 2007 uses filename.docx, Excel uses filename.xlsx and PowerPoint uses filename.pptx.

However all the Office 2007 applications are fully backwards compatible so you can still use existing Office 97-2003 files with Office 2007. If you open an Office 97-2003 file in Office 2007, the file opens in Compatibility Mode with only functions which will work with that version of Office enabled. You can also convert any Office 97-2003 file to the newer Office 2007 format, but remember to make a backup of the original first as the conversion process changes the original file.

As Office 2007 becomes more popular and the docx or xlsx or pptx file formats become more widespread then there will be less need for file conversions in the future. Did you notice the recent announcement by Google that Word 2007 and Excel 2007 files can now be imported into Google Docs? This suggests a significant and growing user base.

There are many more interesting new features in Office 2007, for example Themes, SmartArt, saving to PDF format (needs a free Microsoft download) and improved Help. Attending a training course would be a good way to cover the Office 2007 changes in more depth.

This new version of Office represents the most significant changes made to the Office suite in years, and we can look forward to these same features being taking further forward in the next version of Office.