Reviewed: Microsoft Office 2013, should you upgrade?

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Reviewed: Microsoft Office 2013, should you upgrade?
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Microsoft Office 2013 is better value than ever for small and medium businesses with more than one computer. As this review explains, it isn’t for everyone, though.

A major part of Office 2013 is incorporating support for fingers and thumbs, and the brigade of tablets, sliders, hybrids and touchscreen laptops that is now beginning to swamp the market.

Every app in the Microsoft Office stable now allows users to scroll, zoom and pan using gestures, and every one benefits from ribbon-hiding capabilities and touch mode, enlarging icons in the interface, and creating space between icons to make them easier to tap.

With broadband continuing to increase in speed and availability, and falling in cost, Office 2013 also attempts to bring the cloud into its all-encompassing embrace. And we aren’t talking just about integration with Microsoft’s cloud storage service SkyDrive here, although there are many new features on that front.
 
For the first time, Microsoft itself is offering its suite as a service for which you pay a yearly subscription (click here to see how much you pay for Office 2013 and 365 in Australia), in addition to the traditional boxed copies.
 
The business version of Office 365 is not yet on sale at the time of writing. Here is our summary of the different versions of Office 2013 and 365.
 
There’s also a slew of new features, user interface tweaks and, inevitably, a handful of new frustrations; we’ve been testing the suite to find out what they are and how they work. 
 
Is Office 2013 a triumph? Should you stick with what you have or consider upgrading? Read on.
 
Microsoft Word
 
Verdict: A mishmash of small, useful additions and pointless features means this isn’t an essential upgrade
 
Microsoft Word is probably the most commonly installed productivity app on the planet and, as such, any upgrade is a sensitive subject. Yet despite major cosmetic alterations, our working days have barely changed since installing Word 2013.
 
In some ways, that’s a good thing. With a word processor, you want the main focus to be the document, and the new minimalist design certainly does nothing to change that. If anything, it’s a little better, with a new, flatter and more streamlined design than before, and the ability to entirely hide the ribbon, leaving just a grey strip across the top of the screen.
 
In other ways, it isn’t so good. Many of the new features are aimed at making Office better for touchscreen devices, yet we’ve found ourselves rarely wanting to use them, even while working on a tablet. That isn’t necessarily because they’re badly implemented – the new read mode makes touchscreen reading more pleasant – but we bypassed it most of the time, especially since you can now pan, zoom and scroll just as easily in edit mode. The inking system is awkward, too, allowing notes only to be written on the page or in margins. It’s also a pain to remove notes from a document if you want to clean it up.
 
The touch mode has been hugely improved since we first looked at the software; it enlarges icons significantly, instead of merely adding space between them. However, we still found ourselves poking daintily at tiny icons on the screen, and reaching for a mouse and keyboard as soon as any serious work came calling. Typing and editing documents using the onscreen keyboard isn’t a bad experience, especially with the ribbon entirely minimised, but as soon as you pull it down to access a menu feature, you’re left with a tiny strip of document between it and the keyboard.
 
The non-touch-specific changes are more successful. We like Simple Markup. Tracked changes are now indicated with coloured vertical lines in the margins. The ability to lock tracked changes with a password is handy as well.
 
Microsoft’s new collaborative comments and editing system is a boon, allowing users to respond to comments on shared documents via SkyDrive, mark them as closed, and edit those documents simultaneously. 
 
When you reopen a document, you’re now able to pick up where you left off with a tap or a click. Present Online provides a fast and straightforward way of showing documents over the internet to anyone with a browser. It could be more fully featured, but works well.
 
You can now add apps to Word, via the Apps for Office option. Add the Encyclopaedia Britannica app to a document and every time you select a word, related entries are automatically displayed in a side panel. We can’t wait until someone develops one of these for Wikipedia.
 
Meanwhile, the online picture tool is excellent; at a stroke, it provides a way to add impact to documents without the rigmarole of having to switch to your web browser, search for an image, save it and then import it into Word. 
 
Again, though, there are issues. Anyone who uses Word as a glorified DTP tool will be pleased to discover that the layout tools have been improved. Text reflows as you drag images and graphics around, and new alignment guides fade into view when images and graphics are dragged in line with major page and text structures. The changes don’t go far enough, however. We expected to be able to align graphical elements with each other in this way, and resize them too, but to do this you have to use the old alignment tools.
 
Word 2013 can now open PDFs and reformat them as Word documents, but it copes poorly with complex layouts. It’s best viewed as a means for importing text and/or graphics from PDF files, rather than a business PDF workflow tool.
 
Finally, the new File screen, which places SkyDrive at the front and centre of the open-and-save-file process, is a disaster. It wouldn’t be so bad if Microsoft had gone wholesale over to a full-screen file browser. It looks as though it has at first, but after selecting the destination where you want to open or save files, you’re punted off to a dialog box.
 
Word 2013 is a strange mix. It remains the most powerful word processor around, and there are a lot of new features in this version. If you have a touchscreen device, it’s your only option. And yet not all of these new features are successful – and some, in fact, are aggravating. Ultimately, if you already run the previous version and don’t have a touchscreen, there isn’t enough here to warrant the outlay.
 
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