As most software packages strive for faster update cycles dragging hardware along with it, Microsoft Office has kept a steady and slow update cycle of about three years for more than a decade. Being a product mostly aimed at corporate customers it’s not that unexpected; corporations tend to be conservative with their expenditures, especially in times of economic uncertainty. The new Office version was released at the end of January; having used the preview for the past six months, I have noticed a long list of nice new features, as well as some things that don’t quite work as they should.
The most notable change for me is the ability to add spelling dictionaries for other languages; in previous versions the process was more complicated and, as far as I remember, you had to pay extra for each language you installed. Extra dictionaries come in very handy both for home use and for work when you communicate in several languages. Before Office 2013 I used to upload texts written in Romanian to SkyDrive and use the online spell-checker there, but now this step is no longer needed. Close behind on the list of most useful new features is the ability to open and edit PDF documents in Word. I was a little surprised to hear about this one, you would think Adobe would prefer people to use – and pay – for their own software! Microsoft and Adobe probably have some license arrangement covering this; in any case I have used it several times to reformat some articles for my Kindle and works remarkably well for text documents, even if it’s a bit slow.
As with the last three versions, this one also sports some design changes, although nothing as major as the introduction of the Ribbon in Office 2007. In this version the Ribbon finally matches the degree of customization available in the old menu system: the Office interface offers tools to hide Ribbon tabs and to create new ones, to change their contents, to add or remove commands and to rearrange them in new groups. But the major theme for Office 2013 is mobile and Metro. To be better suited for mobile, Office now has a ‘Touch mode’ with bigger buttons available from the ‘Customize Quick Access Toolbar’ menu in the Ribbon. A new ‘Full Screen Mode’ was added as well: it completely hides the ribbon, the title and status bar for maximum screen space. It can be toggled on and off with a button on the right side of the title bar or directly from the keyboard with the shortcut Ctrl+Shift+F1. The Metro influence is visible in the flat design of the icons and ribbon. I love how the new application icons fit in with the Windows 7 taskbar; but the flat white Ribbon with no option to change the background color can become irritating at times. Something more neutral, a more subdued or darker tone would be preferable when you need to concentrate on writing; it would also help to be able to better distinguish between buttons. Despite the unified design across individual programs in the suite, there are some minor inconsistencies, especially in Outlook: the desktop notifications and the tray icon haven’t been updated to the new design, same for the Reply/Forward buttons in inline replies. Another annoyance for me are the animations in Excel – specifically, when you change the selection, Excel does that with a lag and a useless animation instead of switching to the new cell(s) instantly. This makes selecting hit-and-miss, especially when you try to select a range with the mouse. It’s hard to understand the reason behind this in a productivity suite where you want to get things done fast and efficient, not slowly and unreliably – and on top of that I didn’t find any way to turn it off!
One of the major developments in Office 2013 is support for online ‘cloud’ services through SkyDrive. It works well in theory, but less so in day-to-day use. I had frequent issues with files saved to SkyDrive; error messages that the file cannot be found at that address; I got locked out of opening files when the Internet connection was down, even though a copy of the file was still saved locally – and bear in mind I didn’t even try to collaborate on any documents! Another recurring problem is speed: after saving to SkyDrive, typing in Word sometimes crawls to a halt until you close and reopen the file. Saving files seems to take much longer that previous versions, even for plain old local documents. I also noticed that files saved in the cloud leave two entries in the recent files list under Windows 7 (one for the local copy, the other for the cloud version, I guess), which looks cluttered and can be confusing for some users. I would say Microsoft still has some work to do here, especially for corporate customers, who will undoubtedly be more demanding.
Office 2013 offers a new way to customize and extend the functionality with Apps for Office and SharePoint. I suspect the push towards apps based on web technologies is also linked to Microsoft’s mobile strategy, because these apps will be able to run on (more-or-less) any device, including the Surface RT; VBA code on the other hand would have extra hardware of software requirements making it difficult for a wide mobile roll-out. On the other hand converting all the legacy VBA code will be a pain and I don’t think companies will rush to adopt this new format anytime soon, not internally at least.
And moving on to application-specific updates:
- When you first start up Word, it asks you to choose the default format to save files.
- When re-opening a file, you can easily return to the last editing location by clicking a new action bubble. The feature was available in older versions, but only as a keyboard shortcut (Shift+F5) and with no user interface it was practically unknown to most users.
- Speaking of opening, Office 2013 defaults to showing the ‘Backstage view’ when you launch a program directly instead of showing a blank document as before. You can get the old behavior back by unchecking ‘Show start screen when app starts’ in the settings.
- If you use styles to add headings to documents (which you definitely should be doing) they can now be collapsed along with their contents. You’ll see a small semi-transparent arrow on hover. It’s a nice way to hide parts of the document that are not critical in order to focus on the current paragraphs.
- Working with tables got a couple of improvements as well, for example visual controls for inserting rows and columns and more built-in styles. The quick action toolbar appearing when you select the table now has an entry for deleting the table, an action I always found too obscure in previous versions – specifically you had to use the backspace key to delete the table, while delete would only delete the contents leaving the table structure in place.
- Reviewing and keeping track of changes and comments by other people receives a big refresh, one that was sorely needed. Unfortunately, at the slow pace the companies are used to update to new Office release, it will be some time until anyone will be able to enjoy them…
- On the down side for Word, the 2013 version seems to have changed something in the .docx document format because the Kindle converter no longer recognizes files in this format; also, opening .docx files created with Office 2010 causes 2013 to enter into ‘Compatibility mode’ as seen in the title bar. Could have something to do with transitioning to Strict Open XML documents.
- The first change you’ll probably notice in the new Excel is that a new workbook starts with a single sheet as opposed to three until now. Some people seem to care a lot about this, I personally don’t, I was easy enough to change that default previously.
- Excel now also comes with the ‘Formula’ bar turned off, which is just weird to me. The only reason I can think of to turn it off is to save some screen space, but usually the information there is much too important to be hidden away. A more sensible approach would be to hide the formula bar for charts and display it for data sheets.
- But Excel 2013 has more powerful features in store: for example Flash Fill will eliminate the need to construct complex formulas to do basic string manipulation like concatenating names or reformatting dates and telephone numbers. It’s incredible how well this works in most cases, it’s almost like magic!
- Filtering in tables became more flexible with the addition of slicers, a sort of floating filters reminiscent of Pivot Tables. You can also turn off the filter indicators in Excel table without losing the actual filters because of this.
- Quick Analysis provides a powerful and easy to discover data analysis tool available anytime you select a range of data. A new hovering toolbar shows up where you can add conditional formatting to the data set, create charts and pivot tables or add sparklines.
- When pasting tables copied from a web page, Excel now detects the source and shows a prompt to transform the static data into a "refreshable web query" that would update itself when new data is published on the original web page.
- The process of creating and customizing charts has been simplified by adding chart recommendations, filters and a very handy formatting task pane, that all but eliminates the need to leave the chart to dig through dialogs; this also shows any changes instantly on the screen. Here you can turn chart components on and off, like titles, gridlines or legend, or quickly change the chart design. The same task pane found its way in PowerPoint to format shapes and text.
- The inbox added a series of actions available when you hover over messages – it’s very similar to the corresponding actions in the web-based Outlook.com. The most important update here is a new (blue) button to quickly mark messages as read/unread, found on the far left of the message in the list. Believe it or not, previous versions didn’t have such a basic feature – even though other mail clients like Thunderbird had that for ages. Unfortunately, it’s tied to the preview pane position and only shows up when this is set to ‘right’. Outlook 2013 introduced a ‘New email’ button on the top side of the left sidebar; that should also speed up things considerably.
- Outlook 2013 added ‘inline replies’: again when the reading pane is set to ‘right’, replying will not pop out a new window, instead you can type a quick reply directly in the reading pane. The feature is very handy for keeping the number of open windows in check, but unfortunately not very consistent: in some cases the reply will start in a new window – when the email contains images for example.
- The ‘People hub’ is another innovation in this version, extending the social connector add-on available in Outlook 2010. You can connect the Office account with LinkedIn and Facebook on the web and the contacts from those social networks will be available locally in Outlook, along with pictures, status updates and any other information stored in their profiles. In my experience, Outlook does a good job of grouping the different online identities to display a unified contact. Skype is becoming more and more integrated here as well, the latest versions allowing users to call contacts directly from Outlook.
- ‘Search’ now has a dedicated ribbon where you can filter by multiple criteria and choose which folders should be searched for messages.
- In the ‘Calendar’ section you can now add weather information for multiple locations.
Another major change to Office will be the pricing, where Microsoft is moving away from the license model, where you pay once and have access to the suite for as long as it’s supported, to a subscription model, with monthly payments for a mix of online services and local software. I find the (now confirmed) prices a bit high for home use, the minimal subscription covers 5 devices whereas I would only need two – my PC and iPhone. That aside, I generally think it’s a good idea for consumers, who will have better flexibility to easily cancel the subscription if they no longer need it, and for Microsoft, who will enjoy a steadier stream of revenues, less affected by seasonal demand. It should also help speed updates to the suite, because with a subscription you can get the latest version at no extra cost, so there’s less reason for customers to hold back from upgrading. On the other hand, it could prove a hidden threat for Microsoft, because this reduces the “lock-in”-effect and makes it easier for customers to switch to another Office suite without worrying about wasting money. But hey, increased competition is always good! I’m just curios how long can I use the Preview now that the final version was launched…