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XP WILL KEEP MICROSOFT A STEP AHEAD

In the year 2001 -- as opposed to the movie -- you don't have to be a Jupiter-bound astronaut to talk to your computer. All you need is $479.

Voice recognition is one of the new bells and whistles on Microsoft's Office XP, the latest version of its Office software package. The price for new users of the standard edition is $479, or $239 for an upgrade from earlier versions. Office XP, which went on sale May 31, is the companion to Microsoft's next operating system, Windows XP, due out this fall.

Cube dwellers will already be familiar with Office XP's lineup. Word, Outlook, Access, Powerpoint and Excel are all there, and the basics of their functions are unchanged from Office 97 and Office 2000.

To the core tasks, Microsoft has added new controls like "taskpane" and voice recognition, which give users new ways to control the software.

After about 10 minutes of voice-recognition training, you can dictate text or give the computer voice commands to open or close files, copy text, and so on. Words spoken into the computer's microphone appear as text on the screen -- just not always the same words that you intended. But the voice-recognition system is fairly accurate. XP rendered the sentence "How about a game of chess, Hal?" almost perfectly, except for stumbling on "Hal." It also nailed "how now brown cow." It recognizes commands for punctuation like comma, period and question mark. But, no, it doesn't talk back in an icily polite voice and refuse to open the pod bay doors.

Office XP's voice-recognition performance is less accurate, but more entertaining, when someone else enters the range of the microphone and starts a conversation. The software doesn't know you've stopped dictating unless you toggle it's pause button, so it gamely tries to transcribe whatever the microphone picks up. This is probably why Microsoft recommends a quiet environment for using Office's voice-recognition features.

Accurate voice recognition doesn't necessarily mean useful, though. One test user at The News said he'd resort to computer dictation if he lost all 10 fingers. Microsoft's press material says that people with repetitive stress problems could benefit by doing less typing and more talking.

David Straitiff, a trial user of Office XP in Buffalo and a touch typist, said he didn't get around to trying out voice recognition. But the overall package won his respect.

"The look and feel is a lot cleaner . . . (and) they've added a lot more integration to the Internet," said Straitiff, chairman of InfoTech Niagara. Users can tell Excel to update spreadsheet data automatically from a specified Web page, and application errors can be reported to Microsoft as they occur from an error dialog box.

The biggest productivity boost that many people want from Microsoft is simply not losing hours of work due to a system crash. Office XP addresses this with a new document recovery feature that gives you the option to save your work when an application error occurs and retrieve it after shutting down the balky program.

Among the other new features in Office XP are:

Task panes. Windows at the side of the workspace let you see the contents of the clipboard, perform a search or other functions.

Smart tags. Pop-up tags give you more control over functions, such as when Word corrects some of your typing, giving you the option to overrule. They also give you options when pasting text whether to keep the original style or let it conform to the new document.

Ask a question. A new dialog box allows users to get help without having to launch the answer wizard or Office assistant.

Office is a mainstay in corporate cubical hives around the country, making up a substantial portion of Microsoft's sales. However, companies are likely to take their time upgrading to the latest version, said Joseph Smajdor, senior account executive at computer training company IKON Technology Solutions in Amherst.

"Most companies just switched to (Office) 2000," he said. "It's just too much of a cost factor to keep switching all the time."

IKON will probably gear up its training programs in XP in the fall, he said, after the usual lag before softwear sales are rolling. "That's when the demand kicks in," Smajdor said.

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