With each update to its Office suite, Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) has piled on features aimed at boosting users' productivity and goosing sales of the world's most widely used collection of programs for handling documents, spreadsheets, e-mail and presentations.

Office 2007 for Windows-based PCs, launched Tuesday alongside the company's new Windows Vista operating system, is no different, except for one feature that makes it vastly easier to figure out what these programs have to offer.

Most of the suite's applications — Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook and Access — have done away with the old, familiar menus and toolbars. In their place is the Ribbon — a horizontal strip of screen real estate populated with tabs and icons grouped by function.

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Want to add clip art to a Word document? Just click on the "Insert" tab and choose the "Clip Art" icon, which, incidentally, is hard to miss. Creating a complex formula in Excel? Click on "Formulas" and pick your poison — all broken down by type.

It's also dynamic: When handling a photo in Word, the Ribbon presents the tools suitable for that task. No more clicking on the "View" menu, choosing "Toolbars" and then figuring out which of the tiny icons might be of use.

The Ribbon ranks among the most significant improvements to Office to date. It's not the first software to break out of the "File," "Edit," and "View" mold, but it's the most convincing alternative I've seen. Other programs will surely follow suit.

The Ribbon isn't customizable and can't be repositioned, though it can be minimized. There's no option to switch back to "classic" view, and it isn't universal — the old menus and toolbars can be found in parts of Outlook, for instance.

It took me a few weeks to get used to it, but after trying out Office 2007 for a couple months, the Ribbon has revealed features of the suite that I didn't know existed.

The Ribbon isn't the only enhancement. In many of the programs, when text is selected, a faint "Mini Toolbar" appears above it. Hover the mouse pointer over the toolbar, and you can change the formatting of the selected text. For those easily annoyed, it can be switched off.

Office 2007 also stores documents in a new format — one more compact and safer than before. Colleagues who haven't upgraded must download a free converter program to open the files.

You also can save files in the older formats with Office 2007 — important because the converter isn't available yet for Apple Inc.'s (AAPL) Macintosh computers.

There's also a new way of adding graphics magic to your documents — once everyone upgrades. "SmartArt" allows you to easily insert graphics that can be easily edited and repositioned. If the typed-in text doesn't fit, it automatically shrinks the size of the font so that it does.

As with previous version of the suite, Microsoft is offering a special rate for students and teachers — $149 for Word, Excel, PowerPoint and the note-organizing program OneNote. The Standard edition, which has the first three plus the Outlook e-mail client, is $399 ($239 if you're upgrading from a previous version since Office 2000 or Works 6.0).

The Professional edition is $499 ($329 to upgrade) and includes the database program Access, page-design program Publisher and an accounting program. Other, more expensive suites are available, and programs can be bought individually.

Some highlights of the core programs:

• Word: Even the most boring document can be spiffed up quickly by applying several new themes. And you can get a preview — before committing with a click — simply by hovering over the theme with the mouse; you can quickly compare which one might look best.

Word also has a new tool to instantly strip away any metadata, such as snarky comments thought hidden, that might have been attached as notes by people reviewing your work.

• Excel: The popular spreadsheet can now handle a grid of 1,048,576 rows by 16,384 columns of data — a 16-fold increase in one direction, 64-fold in the other.

Improved charting functionality supports 3-D, transparency and shadows. And when working with a large table, it keeps the headers in view when you scroll down.

• Outlook: In previous versions of Outlook, searching was possible but painfully slow. Outlook 2007 now supports "Instant Search," letting you find old e-mail in seconds without a third-party program like Google Inc.'s (GOOG) Desktop search program.

Also, in the main inbox screen, Outlook displays a to-do bar that highlights the tasks you should be doing, precluding the need to fish for some function on the Ribbon. It offers many more options for categorizing messages. And it also has built-in support for Really Simple Syndication feeds, so you can catch up on the latest news and blog reports.

• PowerPoint: There's good news for those of us who dread meetings where speakers rely too heavily on PowerPoint: A boatload of new templates helps jazz things up. It's easier to create the presentations, too, thanks to SmartArt and themes. A boring bulleted list, for instance, can be transformed into a diagram — such as timelines — with a click or two.

• Access: Microsoft's database program gets a much-needed infusion of user friendliness. A launch screen presents different tasks that can be handled by the program. And no longer must you wade through floating windows to create a form for collecting data or a report to present your results.

Of course, a big selling point, particularly for businesses, is how the Office programs work together. Microsoft also is updating its servers that act as the glue, enabling easier sharing of documents and information.

But are Word, Excel and PowerPoint necessary for the average consumer or student?

Microsoft has seen increasing competition lately from Web-based word processors and spreadsheets as well as open-source productivity suites. All those work fine for basic word processing and number crunching. And you can't beat the price — free.

Office 2007, however, goes a step further in that it not only helps you produce the content but also present it in ways unequaled by its rivals. At least, not without a lot of work.