Microsoft is now previewing a major update to its cloud-enabled Office 365 office suite which will add Windows 8 support, along with a first-time "home" edition of a Web service once geared to businesses only. Will the Office 13-based Office 365 Home Premium be right for you, or should you buy the retail software instead? Now that pricing for the "new Office" is available from Microsoft, we'll explore that question in this review of Home Premium.
The basic premise of Office 365 is this: Instead of dropping a bigger chunk of cash to buy a license for Microsoft Office 2013 outright, you'll be able to rent it from Microsoft for a monthly fee. When the final version of the updated Office 365 reaches availability, the Home Premium edition will be priced at $8.33 per month ($99.99 per year) for an annual subscription covering up to five devices, including PCs, Macs, and Windows 8 tablets.
Like the original (and still currently available) Office 365, which was based on Office 10, the updated suite will also be available in versions for businesses ranging from SMBs to enterprises.
Beyond Office 365, Microsoft also plans to sell a bunch of retail software versions of the suite for PCs, along with Office RT, a software release for Windows 8 tablets. Also with the launch of the new Office, Microsoft will deliver an update to Office for Mac 2011, designed to let Mac licenses count as part of the Office 365 Home Premium subscription.
Microsoft officials, though, are making no secret of the fact that they'd prefer consumers and businesses alike to go with Office 365 rather than traditional packaged software.
Office 365 Home Premium will include downloadable iterations of seven apps: Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, OneNote, Access, and Publisher. In a way, it will also support even more than five devices, because it will also fold in Office Web Apps. These Web Apps are limited, browser-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote which won't require you to download Office. So if you're working on a remote PC somewhere, and you don't want it to count as one of your five devices, you can use Web Apps instead.
To sweeten the deal a bit more for Office 365 Home Premium, Microsoft is also throwing in a few bonuses, such as an additional 20 GB of SkyDrive online storage space (worth $40 per year otherwise) and 60 free minutes a month of Skype international calling (valued at $119.52 a year).
Of course, Microsoft is hardly the only one doing a cloud-enabled office suite. For instance, the basic version of Google Docs is free to all, and Google also offers a premium option for businesses and power users who want a little extra. However, Google doesn't offer a full suite of desktop apps in the way that Microsoft does. Google Docs is entirely browser based, with all the potential headaches which come with that.
On the directly opposite side of the coin is OpenOffice, an open source office suite that's one of Microsoft's other biggest rivals. OpenOffice, though, is offline only. It doesn't feature either the usable-anywhere Web Apps or the online sync features that Office provides.
Microsoft's plans for software updates look like another strength to the Office 365 approach. Microsoft has committed to updates for Office 365 on a 90-day schedule, making it likely that squashing bugs and adding new features will be a large emphasis.
But what if you only one or two PCs? Taking the retail software route could make the best economic sense, particularly over time. In the pricing scheme for Office 13, Office Home & Student, for $139.99, includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. Office Home & Business, priced at $219.99, adds Outlook. Office Professional, priced at $399.99, folds in Publisher and Access, as well. Each license you buy supports one PC only, but you'll "own" the software forever.
On the other hand, do you even want to upgrade to the "new Office" yet? To help you figure that out, we'll now drill down into the new features of the seven apps included in the preview edition of Office 365 Home Premium.
Microsoft Word has been around for almost as long as PCs. Its near 20-year evolution has been fairly slow. Most of you have probably worked with at least one previous version. In that case, then the learning curve on the newest edition of Word isn't going to be too scary.
The first thing you'll notice is that the user interface (UI) is slightly sleeker, blending elements of both Microsoft's new "Metro" UI and classic Word. Although the icon-centric design looks better than dozens of obscure menus, more importantly it's also highly functional, making Word easier to work with on small displays and/or touchscreens such as those that accompany tablets, convertibles, and netbooks. There's also a mode expressly designed for touchscreens, which adds a little bit more margin around the icons to make it simpler to tap accurately.
Going under the hood, the most important new feature is full support for the OpenDocument format version 1.2. (Here, compatibility had been a sticking point ever since Office 2007.) Also, you can now open and edit PDF files (assuming, of course, that they're editable). Moreover, Word now supports directly embedding internet photos and video into documents, in a fully viewable form.
Fortunately, none of these new tweaks interferes with the classic word processing functionality that's 99% of what the average user will want out of Word.
Above and beyond the cosmetic changes that also show up in Word, Excel gets some significant feature upgrades, a bunch of which are aimed at people working with insanely large data sets. I'm not sure what kind of application would require a spreadsheet capable of 512 megabyte data strings -- but by Jove, if you need that, Excel 2013 can deliver.
On the more practical side, though, Microsoft has implemented a new feature called "Flash Fill," which is basically a kind of auto-complete for spreadsheets. Flash Fill "intelligently" analyzes what you're putting into your spreadsheet and then tries to help. For example, if you start to type the same number into each row of a given column, it'll automatically fill the rest of the column with that number. Alternatively, if you're filling out a contact database, the software can recognize "John.Doe@company.com" as containing a first and last name, allowing those values to be filled out automatically.
Obviously, there are limitations on how smart this feature can be. Still, though, it represents a huge improvement over having to perform these functions manually.
The noticeable change to PowerPoint is that by default, new projects now start off in a widescreen format. This is hardly a shocker given the popularity of widescreen, especially on the large LCDs that you'll probably use if you want to do a presentation. Of course, that's just the default setting, but it's well chosen.
Microsoft has also greatly improved PowerPoint's video capabilities. You can now search YouTube straight from the app, select a video from SkyDrive or your local computer, or even paste in the embedding code for video from another website. These improvements to video handling are welcome in such a media-centric app.
In the same vein of "stuff that will save you time," color adjustments to images and templates can now be previewed on the fly, letting you pick exactly the right configuration for what you're trying to do. Speaking as someone who's spent more than a few hours tweaking photos or backgrounds to get exactly the right color temperature, saturation, or shade out of them, I can say that this will make these adjustments much easier for you.
Other timesavers include image tools like blurring, "art looks," and other pre-set effects that you might want to use spicing up a photo. All in all, I would rate PowerPoint even higher than Excel in terms of which apps have benefitted most from the upgrades.
Outlook is simplified somewhat from its last major version, It now moves from a four-pane view in email mode to two panes -- an inbox list and a reading pane -- while adding a navigation bar for selecting between folders. With the redesign, Outlook now looks faintly reminiscent of GMail.
One nifty new feature is a built-in weather report in the scheduler view which shows you the current conditions and the forecast for the next two days for your selected location. This can come in very handy if you're planning an activity that might be weather sensitive, like a field excursion.
You can get reports for up to five locations, but you have to switch between them manually. It would be kind of nice for business travelers if Outlook would automatically guess the proper weather report based on the locations of business appointments.
Microsoft talks up faster syncing, but that's one of those things that's in the eye of the beholder. OneNote 13 does add automatic bookmarking, so you can immediately reopen notes where you left them.
For an app which could lend itself so well to touchscreens, OneNote is still heavily pen based. This might seem a little "retro" these days when everything is about the fingertip.
Yet this pen orientation does work, since when you're jotting down notes and sketches, a pen is vastly quicker and more accurate. All in all, OneNote continues to account for itself well.
It's easy to use but still smart enough to do perform tasks such as optical character recognition (OCR) on imported images.
Most of the changes to Access center around making it easier to create database-driven Web apps. Microsoft contends that this can now be done in as little as a minute.
Microsoft also promises closer integration with SQL, as well as the ability to make Access Web apps available through your own inhouse Web servers.
Not being a web developer, I can't really speak to these points. However, I can say that in order to appreciate these technical changes, you would have to be... well, the kind of person who uses Microsoft Access a lot. The UI in Access has improved a little too, but it's still very much technically bent.
Publisher is widely regarded as Word's cousin for more polished productions. Publisher 13, though, sits alongside OneNote 2013 in the "not much new to say about it" category.
Publishers gets the same UI overhaul that the rest of the suite does. There's a bit of a boost in ease of use, and Web integration is a little better, but there's very little in terms of new options.
You do get the same new ability as in Word to import images from online services like Flickr, but you don't have Word's ability to import videos, not even if the content you're creating is designed for an Internet environment. That's kind of disappointing.
Overall, I would say that Office 365 shows the kind of gradual improvements that new versions of Microsoft Office are known for, anyway. There's something for everyone, although PowerPoint and Excel users probably have the most to be happy about in terms of new features. But each app is nicely streamlined, with more templates and an improved UI that make it easier to get work done.
When it comes to a buying decision, though, I'd encourage you to very carefully evaluate what you want. Office 365 makes sense if you absolutely need the most current and up-to-date version of Office; if you have a large stable of PCs you need to work with; or if you're an extremely on-the-go professional who often accesses your documents from PCs you come across in your travels.
However, if you only want basic office functionality, if you only own a couple of PCs, or if you're looking to cut costs, you might be better served by other options such as OpenOffice, Google Docs, sticking with Office 10, or even just buying an upfront license for Office 2013.
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