The most powerful change to Office in the new edition is that it’s made with connectivity in mind.
The most powerful change to Office in the new edition is that it’s made with connectivity in mind. It starts with how you get it: No longer do you need to go to a store and buy a package with a disc inside (though you still can) — a purchase gets you product code. Enter the code, and you’re taken to an account screen where you can download the Office apps and manage your Skype minutes storage, and authorize (or de-authorize) your five devices running the software. It’s all very logical.
Downloading the apps takes a little while (it took my Samsung Series 7 tablet about 15 minutes, but you can start using them sooner than that. I fired up Word and began typing my notes for this review just a couple of minutes into the download.
Connection to the cloud — mainly via Microsoft’s SkyDrive cloud service — is a constant presence in the new Office. Once you’ve connected your account, the default save location is SkyDrive, which also enables sharing and collaborating with others.
Microsoft was already using the cloud with Office 365, of course, but now the integration goes deeper. You can work on a SkyDrive document within the native Word app, for instance (as opposed to the browser), and it will even indicate if anyone else is editing the document at the time. If you want to ask what they’re doing, it’s easy to initiate an IM, call or Skype them without leaving the app.
The way Office 2013 works with the cloud is excellent, though I had a couple of issues with it: Word still needs any edits to be manually saved before they show up for other collaborators. It’s a stark change for anyone used to Google Drive’s real-time edits that just magically appear.
Second — and this is a greater problem — I found editing in Word noticeably slows down when working on a SkyDrive-stored document, even when no one else was working on it. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough to just default to saving locally. Of course, that eliminates the possibility of collaboration and other advantages.
Generally, though, greater connectivity was a needed upgrade for Office, and I hope Microsoft continues to improve it. Now it’s possible to, say, insert a YouTube video into a Word document. Excel tables can be populated with real-time data. PowerPoint has slide templates that are continually updated via the Internet.
New and Improved Word
The apps that constitute Office have evolved over the years, but the core is still Word, Excel and PowerPoint. All of them have a new Spartan look that eschews the old toolbars for a revamped navigation across the top. Things like File, Home, Insert and View are all there, and tapping (or clicking) on one calls up a ribbon of clearly labeled icons. It’s all very neat.
If you’ve ever tried to insert something like a photo into a Word doc, you know why page-layout apps like Adobe InDesign exist. Word 2013 does inserts better than any previous version, though, adjusting text wraps in real time as you move your object (be it photo, clip art or video). Options for inserting online images and videos are right in the menus.
One of the best changes in Word 2013 is the rethink of Track Changes.
One of the best changes in Word 2013 is the rethink of Track Changes. Editors know this function well, and many secretly dread the way it turns documents into strikethrough-laden mush with comments pop-ups everywhere. The new Word gives you an easy way to remove the markings from view while simultaneously consolidating those pop-up conversations.
Even better, you can now protect documents with a password, ensuring users can’t make changes outside of using Track Changes. If you’re used to the old way the feature worked, it’s a little panicky when you make your first change and don’t see the familiar strikethrough, but the mess is now under control.
Finally, a lifesaver: Word can now also edit PDFs, just like you would any other document. When you’re done, you have the option to save as a PDF or a Word doc.
Excel and PowerPoint Rise
Excel’s new big “wow” feature is Flash Fill. In a the “tour,” the app takes a table full of email addresses, formatted “firstname.lastname@example.org,” and invites you to create a new column with just the first names. Start typing the first one, nothing happens. Start typing the second, and Excel figures out what you’re doing and automatically fills out the rest of the column. The first time this happens, you might actually cheer.
However, it’s a situation that I had a hard time replicating, usefulness-wise. This could be just me, but most of my tables I have don’t have similarly formatted data, ripe for extrapolated partitioning. Still, it could save loads of time if you’re doing a data “cleanup” — say getting contact information out of an old address book.
Far more useful, I think, are Excel’s Suggested Charts and Instant Analysis. Got data? Excel can suggest several different kinds of tables that will be appropriate for it. I found its choices, like the chart below, to be very good, generally, needing only style adjustments and proper titles to make them truly pretty. It’s a bit humbling when an app has better instinct than you, but I’ve never claimed to be a chart guy.
Instant Analysis is a great tool: Highlight your table and it can tell you which data points are the top performers, which fall below a certain threshold or what the totals are when each column is summed. It can even create temporary mini charts on the fly.
PowerPoint’s best new feature is Presenter View. This is a feature that already exists in other apps like Apple’s Keynote, and Microsoft has done a good job building this for touch. When you connect your PC to an external monitor, Presenter View shows you a screen with the miniaturized slide along with your own notes and the time elapsed. You can use gestures to enlarge things or jump (just yourself) ahead in the presentation.
New Office Rules
These are just a few of the highlights of Office 2013, but they give you a feel of the direction Microsoft is heading in. Office has been a the go-to suite for core productivity apps for going on two decades, but it’s overall experience felt tired and inflexible in the world of real-time collaboration with services such as Google Apps, Dropbox and OpenOffice.
With Office 2013, Microsoft has caught up with its competitors, but it hasn’t surpassed them.
With Office 2013, Microsoft has caught up with its competitors, but it hasn’t surpassed them. It still needs to polish its experience (improving performance while saving to the cloud would be a big help) and make the experience even more inviting. Office certainly still has its edge on features and formatting — and the new layout is pretty — but it still has an intimidation factor.
The reason you should upgrade and get the new version, however, isn’t the cloud integration or the cool new features. It’s the subscription model. Spending $99.95 a year on a suite of world-class productivity apps that you can install on five machines — complete with cloud integration and continual updates — is simply a good deal.
Yes, you can arguably have Google Apps on an unlimited number of machines for free, but if you’re like me, you’ll at one point or another long for a Word formatting option or Excel pivot table. Although Microsoft’s cloud integration isn’t as good as Google’s, you’ll also never have the frustration of not being able to work because the connection to the server was “too busy.” If you’ve ever felt adrift in the cloud, at the mercy of the changing winds of the Internet, Office 2013 will keep you safely tethered to the ground.
Screen captures by Pete Pachal, Mashable