Techworld

Office 2013 beta review: Microsoft (almost) nails it

The new software sports a clean interface and excellent new features, but only so-so Cloud integration.

The just-released beta of Microsoft's Office 2013 gives the application suite one of the biggest aesthetic facelifts the package has ever received, with a flatter, Windows 8 Metro-like look, Ribbonless operation for those who favor a cleaner interface, better integration with the Cloud, and a number of features designed for tablets and touch devices. The look of the new suite fits right into Windows 8, but works just as well on earlier versions of Windows.

The changes Microsoft made go more than skin deep, with some very useful new features in many of the applications, such as improved markup and the ability to edit PDFs in Word, the ability to quickly find and insert graphics from the Web in PowerPoint, new data visualization tools in Excel and an improved Navigation pane in Outlook.

All in all, this is a worthy successor to Office 2010, and based on this first beta looks to be well worth the upgrade. That's not to say that all is perfect, because surprisingly, cloud integration still leaves something to be desired. Still, aside from that, Microsoft has done most things right in this new Office version.

A cleaner, Metro-like look

The first thing you'll notice about Office 2013 across all its apps is its new look, which is cleaner, less cluttered, and more like a Metro app than a traditional desktop app.

The new version of Office sports a Metro-like interface, even though it's written as a desktop app.Click to view larger image.

The Office Ribbon is flat-looking, rather than three-dimensional as it is in the current version of Office. The text on the tabs is gray rather than black, making it recede even further. Click a tab and its text turns blue.

The Office Ribbon now has a flat rather than three-dimensional look. The name of your current tab is highlighted in blue. Click the full-screen icon to make the Ribbon disappear.

Although the Ribbon is turned on by default, you can make it go away by clicking the full-screen icon located just to the right of the question mark icon on the screen's upper right.

When you do that, not only does the Ribbon go away, but so does everything else except the content area. Even the title bar at the top of the screen and the status bar across the bottom, with icons for tasks such as changing the view, disappear.

Working in Word with the Ribbon showing.Click to view larger image. Working in Word without the Ribbon -- content takes center stage. Click to view larger image.

The result is more screen real estate, which lets you focus on the work in front of you rather than on the application's interface.

To make the Ribbon come back, click the three small dots that appear at the top right of the screen when the Ribbon disappears. But there's a catch: If you start typing after you make the Ribbon return this way, the Ribbon again vanishes.

To make the Ribbon stay there, you have to first click the three buttons, then click the icon that you initially clicked to make the Ribbon vanish. It's quite confusing; I hope that Microsoft changes this behavior in later versions.

You'll find a variety of other cosmetic changes in Office, many designed to make Office 2013 look like a Metro app, even though it isn't one -- it runs on the desktop, not Metro. Perhaps the biggest of these changes is to the screen that opens when you click the File tab. (Microsoft called this area Backstage in Office 2010 but seems to have dropped the name in Office 2013.)

The File tab in Word and all the other Office apps has gotten a cosmetic makeover as well as some new features, such as easier ways to share with others. Click to view larger image.

This screen looks fully Metro-ized, with attractive flat tiles for a variety of commands. Most of the features offered here were available in Office 2010's Backstage, but some have been updated. For instance, when you create a new document from this screen, you can see thumbnails previewing the various templates.

Office 2013 and the cloud

Like Windows 8, Office 2013 was designed with the cloud in mind -- specifically Microsoft's cloud-based storage service SkyDrive, which is central to the company's cloud strategy. So it's a surprise that even with the Office 2013 beta installed on a PC running the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, Microsoft still hasn't gotten the cloud right.

On the plus side, Office 2013 includes direct links to SkyDrive throughout -- you can easily open any document that's on SkyDrive from inside any Office application; likewise, you can easily save any document to SkyDrive. But only OneNote has an automated sync feature; Microsoft hasn't taken the next step of ensuring that all Office applications automatically sync the latest version of your documents to every device you use.

Files don't automatically get saved to SkyDrive from your local PC; you have to remember to save them there. Let's say, for example, that you're at your office and you create a document and save it locally, but not to SkyDrive. That document is available only on your local PC, so if you're on another computer, you won't be able to open the document.

Consider this more troublesome scenario: You save the document on your local computer and decide that you might want to work on it elsewhere, so you also save it to SkyDrive. At some point later, you work on it from another computer, accessing it from SkyDrive and saving it to SkyDrive. Then you go back to your original computer, but you forget that you last worked on the document on SkyDrive, so you open up the local copy. You make local changes, which means that you now have two different versions of the same document, one on SkyDrive and one on your local PC.

What makes this confusion all the more surprising is that Microsoft has an easy solution at hand: a SkyDrive client app, which can be installed on Windows devices and Macs, as well as on Windows Phone, iOS and Android devices. With the SkyDrive app, all documents in local and Web-based SkyDrive folders automatically sync to the cloud and to other devices. When you make a change on a local PC, the file automatically syncs to SkyDrive in the cloud, and from there to all your other devices. You're always working with the latest version of your document, no matter where you made the change.

Microsoft only had to include the SkyDrive app in Office 2103 to enable this feature. But for some reason, it hasn't done that. It currently appears as if the SkyDrive app won't be included in the shipping version of Office 2013, although that may change between now and then. There is a simple workaround, though: Install it manually yourself.

Other global Office changes

Office has also been touch-enabled so that it's usable on a tablet -- surprisingly usable, in fact. Navigation using touch is simple, although you'll need to turn on the Ribbon in many cases to perform tasks by tapping the appropriate command. Office is also smart enough to know when you're in an area that requires text input, and pops up an on-screen keyboard at the appropriate times.

Also new are the many devices that Office 2013 will be available on, including not just PCs, but also Windows RT-based tablets and phones. (Only the PC version of Office 2013 is currently available for testing.) RT-based tablets won't have the entire Office suite, only Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote.

Another big change has to do with the way that Office will be able to be bought and accessed. For the first time, home customers will be able to purchase Office 365, the subscription version of Office currently sold and priced for businesses. It includes the standard version of Office plus additional features, which vary according to whether it's for home users, small office users, enterprise users and so on.

Office 365 offers a number of benefits that the standard version doesn't, including licenses for up to five different computers and the ability to keep settings such as Ribbon arrangements and preferred templates synced across all devices. It can also stream an Office application to an Internet-connected Windows 7 or Windows 8 device using the Office on Demand feature. When you finish using the application, it's removed from the computer.

Pricing isn't yet available, but presumably Office 365 will have annual or monthly fees rather than a one-time payment for a perpetual license, which you'll get when you purchase the non-subscription version. Until pricing is announced, there's no way to know how affordable Office 365 will be compared to Office 2013.

Also worth noting is that if you subscribe to Office, you get 60 minutes of Skype world minutes every month. And Office 2013 includes Yammer, a private, social network for businesses that was recently purchased by Microsoft.

Aside from those major global changes, there have also been changes -- some considerable, some not so much -- in each of the major Office applications, as you'll see in the next sections.

Word

Word's new features fall into two main categories: making it easier to read documents and making it easier to share them. One change is clearly targeted at tablets rather than traditional PCs -- a new way to view documents called Read Mode. In this mode, reading becomes a horizontal experience suited to tablets and swiping, rather than a vertical experience suited to PCs and mouse scrolling.

Word's new Read Mode lets you swipe through pages horizontally rather than scroll through them vertically. Click to view larger image.

Choose it by selecting it from the View toolbar at the bottom right of the screen. In Read Mode, the Ribbon disappears, but the View toolbar remains. Text fills the screen horizontally, widening the margins and reaching nearly each side of the screen.

To move to the next or previous page, swipe the screen or else touch (or click) an arrow at the right or left edge of the screen. The horizontal orientation is well suited to the wide screen of a tablet but feels somewhat uncomfortable on a traditional PC.

Read Mode does more than just change the orientation of text; it also adds a very useful zoom feature. When you're in Read Mode, you can right-click a table, chart or graphic, and you'll be able to zoom in on it -- and then zoom further if you want so that it takes up the whole screen. This is particularly useful for viewing detailed information in a table.

Unfortunately, the new zoom is available only in Read Mode. It would be far more useful if it were available in other viewing modes as well.

In Read Mode you can zoom in on pictures and tables, but you can't use zoom in any other of Word's modes. Click to view larger image.

Read Mode also comes at a cost: In Office 2013, Microsoft has killed Draft Mode, which dispenses with displaying how the document will look when printed, and instead focuses on the text. I'll miss Draft Mode, because I primarily work with text rather than a combination of text and graphics. I'm sure others will miss it as well.

With Word 2013, Microsoft seems to have finally recognized that PDF files are here to stay, and has added a feature that will be exceedingly useful to anyone who works regularly with them. In this new version of Word, you can open PDFs and work on them just as if they were Word documents, including full editing capabilities.

When you work on the document, you get all of Word's normal features, such as markup, formatting tools and so on -- it's like working with a native Word document. You can save the document in any Word format, as well as in PDF.

There have been plenty of other changes in Word, including alignment guides that make it easier to precisely position photos, charts, pictures and diagrams. There's also a new Design tab in the Ribbon that puts all design feature and functions in a single location -- you can choose from a variety of document templates, and also change text colors, fonts and paragraph spacing; add watermarks; and change page colors and page borders. The Navigation Pane has also gotten a slight facelift, with a simpler, cleaner-looking layout that makes it less confusing to navigate around documents.

One change shows that sometimes the smallest and simplest alteration can be a big time-saver. Word finally has the feature I've been wanting for years: When you stop reading or editing a document, a bookmark is automatically placed in the last location you scrolled to, even if your cursor wasn't there. The next time you open the document, you're asked if you want to jump to the place where you left off. If the document has been synced to SkyDrive, when you next open the document from SkyDrive you can go to that same bookmarked spot as well.

People who share documents, make changes and comment on others' documents, or have them make changes or comment on theirs will welcome several improvements to Word's review features. One particularly useful one is Simple Mode, which makes it easy to review the changes and suggestions that others have made to a document.

In this mode, you see a clean version of your document with others' changes incorporated, but you also see indications where changes have been made -- for example, a red horizontal line indicating that text has been deleted. In this way, it's easy to do two things at once: see how the document will read with the changes made, but also see where edits have been made. To see the actual edits, just choose All Markup from the dropdown box on the Review tab.

Also useful is the new ability to lock a document into commenting mode. That way someone can't turn off tracking changes, and you'll always be able to see any edits made to a document.

There's also a somewhat useful new sharing tool similar to a feature that was introduced in PowerPoint 2010 (but was not available in Word 2010). You can now share a Word document online, even with people who don't have Word, as long as they have Internet access. Send a link, and they'll be able to see your document in their browser as you scroll through it.

PowerPoint

PowerPoint 2013 gets new features in three areas: creating slides, giving presentations and sharing presentations.

When you create a new presentation, you'll see visual representations of your available templates, which makes it much easier to get a sense of what your presentation will look like when finished. Word and Excel have a similar feature, but because those applications are less visually oriented than PowerPoint, the feature isn't as important for them.

The graphical Metro-like interface is particularly useful when creating a new presentation in PowerPoint.Click to view larger image.

One of the biggest problems many people (including me) have in creating presentations is finding suitable art to include. Microsoft has found a useful way to solve that problem. From directly inside PowerPoint 2013, you can search the Web for art (using Bing's image search function) and embed it in your presentations.

I found the process remarkably easy. On the Insert tab on the Ribbon, click Online Pictures and choose Bing Image Search; you'll see thumbnails of graphics that match the search. Choose which one to insert, and the picture downloads and embeds directly into the presentation. This feature is also available in Word and Excel, but once again I found it most useful for PowerPoint.

From inside PowerPoint you can search for images on the Web and embed them in your presentations.Click to view larger image.

In addition to using Bing image search to find graphics to embed, you can search through clip art on Office.com, browse your SkyDrive or choose an option called "Also insert from." According to Microsoft, this last option will allow you to embed pictures from your Flickr and Facebook online photo albums, but I was unable to do that.

To do it, you have to agree to connect your Microsoft ID with those services. If you don't, you won't be able to search for graphics and insert them. I was unable to sign into Flickr to search my albums -- my Yahoo ID kept getting turned down. And I couldn't find any place in PowerPoint to search through Facebook. So I'll have to test this feature out with the next release.

For those who give presentations rather than just email them, the improved Presenter View will be a welcome addition. While giving a presentation, you see a navigational grid showing all slides at a glance so that you can easily jump to any in the presentation. The audience sees only the current slide you're presenting. There's also a new zoom feature that lets you zoom into and out of diagrams, charts and graphics while giving a presentation.

There are also new ways to share and work with others on presentations, including a comments pane that lets you immediately see all comments others have made.

Excel

The changes made to Excel in this version of Office are centered primarily around new analysis tools aimed at both spreadsheet jockeys and those who use Excel only occasionally.

Occasional users will find the new Quick Analysis tool to be one of the best new Excel features in some time. Highlight data that you've input into a spreadsheet and a small icon appears next to it. Click the icon and Excel offers suggestions, based on the data, about what you might want to do with it -- for example, formatting it in a certain way, creating specific types of charts, inserting formulas, creating tables or creating Sparklines -- mini charts embedded in single cells.

Excel's Quick Analysis feature offers suggestions on how to handle data, including choosing the right charts, formatting options, formulas you might want to insert and more. Click to view larger image.

Similarly, if you aren't particularly familiar with pivot tables (tables that auto-summarize data and display the results in a tablet) but want to create them, Excel gives you help by suggesting the proper pivot table to use. Even experienced users will welcome the Quick Analysis tool, because it cuts out the intermediate steps of manually choosing the right options for creating charts or tables.

Those who use the Office Professional Plus version of Excel 2013 will also get extra features aimed primarily at power users. A particularly useful one is an add-in called Spreadsheet Inquire & Compare that examines spreadsheets and looks for problems such as errors you've made or broken links. Microsoft also says that the add-in can look at multiple related workbooks and see if there are any inconsistencies that might indicate that fraud is being committed, although I didn't get a chance to test that out.

Outlook

The new version of Outlook offers only moderate changes from the previous version of Outlook, which made a big splash with its full-blown use of the Ribbon. The changes in this version are useful, although not nearly as significant as that.

The Navigation pane has been streamlined so that it takes up less space, giving you more screen real estate for the rest of Outlook; in fact, it's so much smaller that Microsoft has renamed it the Navigation bar. As with other Office 2013 apps, the overall design is Metro-like, and you can easily go into full-screen mode to hide the Ribbon.

Those who use SharePoint and Exchange can create special email folders for team projects and give everyone on a team access to them. These folders can include not just mail, but also calendars and task lists.

Searching has been improved considerably. You can now search across all folders and mail accounts in a single search, rather than having to search folder by folder or mailbox by mailbox. It's another example of a small change being a big productivity booster; given how often I search through my mail, it'll probably be the most significant addition to Outlook for me.

There's also a useful new "peek" feature embedded in the Navigation bar. When you're reading mail, hover your mouse over what you want to peek at -- for example, your calendar that day -- and a thumbnail of your schedule appears, large enough to read, but not so large that it obscures the entire screen.

The "peek" feature lets you see thumbnails of other Outlook activities when reading mail.Click to view larger image.

Other Office apps

Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook form the core of the Office suite, but depending on the version you get, there are a number of other applications in it as well, including OneNote, Visio, Publisher and Project. They have all been visually redesigned to be more Metro-like, and all have gotten new online sharing capabilities and other new features, none of them revolutionary.

OneNote now lets you capture screens and portions of screens, and save them to your notebooks. It also syncs automatically to SkyDrive and is accessible not only on other PCs, but via a variety of OneNote apps for mobile devices. I'm a big OneNote fan and find this feature particularly compelling. I was able to easily incorporate my existing OneNote notebooks from OneNote 2010 onto a Windows 8 tablet merely by launching OneNote -- it automatically synced from the cloud.

Publisher has been given the same feature as PowerPoint for finding photos and graphics online and embedding them in documents. Visio has gotten new shapes and new organizational chart styles. And there's a new Web-based version of Project, called Project Online, that's simpler to use than the full-blown Project.

The bottom line

Office 2013's streamlined look and feel may take some getting used to, but I believe it's a step forward for the suite. After using it for a while, I found that Office 2010 started to look dowdy by comparison. Add to that a slew of new features in each Office app, including several big productivity boosters, and Office 2013 is clearly a worthy upgrade, even in this initial beta release.

In fact, I found the beta to be surprisingly stable. The only issues I encountered were occasional problems fetching files from SkyDrive and saving files there. (Of course, all the usual caveats about installing beta software on a production machine still apply.)

The final version of Office 2013 won't be available until sometime in 2013 (Microsoft hasn't announced a shipping date), and the design and features may still change. So stay tuned -- we'll review every major new version released between now and then.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

See more by Preston Gralla on Computerworld.com.

Read more about desktop apps in Computerworld's Desktop Apps Topic Center.

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