What would Office be without Word? Honestly, I don't know and I never will because this humble word processor is the bread and butter of Microsoft's ubiquitous software suite. Given my line of work I am subjected to this particular program for the majority of the working day, every weekday, and I know of many, many others who are subjected to the same pleasure. For various reasons (crazy corporate ones) I am still stuck using Office 2003 on my Windows desktop, so having Microsoft send me a copy of 2008 for my MacBook has been a revolutionary experience - if it is indeed true that in the beginning was the Word then it was typed in this version of the program.
The biggest change is the inclusion of that wonderful aid to productivity introduced with Office 2007, the Ribbon. Unlike its windows counterpart, though, used on the Mac OS it feels more like Ribbon two-point-oh, if you'll forgive the pun. Maybe it's because OSX feels like a more intuitive place to have helpful, intuitive features, maybe it's because of the smooth, slick-looking animations when opening and closing different folds or maybe it's a combination of all everything but the Ribbon just feels right. Simple things like being able to edit the Header and Footer of a document without trawling through five layers of menu or similarly, if you have no sense of style, chop and browse template styles by thumbnail make working with Word just that bit easier. But, again, unlike Office 2007, the changes aren't so revolutionary as to put off users not predisposed to change but sufficient enough to be noticeable as positive - in other words spot on.
This is mainly because not everything has been confined to the Ribbon as the formatting palette is still present at the side of the screen. Unlike in Office 2004, this doesn't feel quite as much of a bolted on hindsight and to my mind is a better place than the Ribbon for such functions as changing the text font and formatting, for example. The palette also serves well as a reference source, with one of its tabs including access to the thesaurus, dictionary and Microsoft's Encarta database. The latter requires an Internet connection as it pulls directly from the web server and while it does sound like a useful tool, it won't be used all that often in real world scenarios. Also in the reference tab you'll find the Bilingual Dictionary, Translation and Web Search tools.
As well as the interface Office 2008 also brings the Mac's file format handling up to date, adding in support for the docx format introduced with Office 2007 and support for Adobe's PDF format. Unlike in Office 2007, Adobe doesn't appear to have insisted that Microsoft make this a separate add-on; for the life of me I can't think why but no matter, it's a useful addition. Going back to docx, you'll find it is now the default format to save to and thus if you ever wish to share files with anyone not living in the bright, XML-ified future you'll want to jump into Word's preferences and change the default back to plain old doc files.
Other useful features introduced with Office 2007 also make their way across the Mac-PC divide, such as word counts not buried miles into menus (it took 20-odd years to work out that was a good idea?) and the contextual nature of the on-the-fly spell checking are also very welcome.
When it comes down to it Word 2004 to 2008 isn't as visually obvious a jump as from 2003 to 2007 on Windows, but the changes that have taken place are unanimously for the better. In a nutshell, this is unreservedly the best version of Word Microsoft has yet produced. It looks better, the interface is more intuitive. It basically puts iWork's Pages to shame - an important task given this is the main program that will be used by Office purchasers.