Reviewed: Microsoft Office 2013, should you upgrade?

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Reviewed: Microsoft Office 2013, should you upgrade?

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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Microsoft Excel
 
 
Verdict: Enhanced usability makes Excel’s superb data analysis accessible to all
 
There are good reasons why Excel is the world’s dominant spreadsheet tool, with each successive version of the program adding extra power and more features. The problem has always been that most average users would only skirt around the edges of what it could do. For 90% of people, Excel is simply somewhere to create lists and tot up figures.
 
With Excel 2013, Microsoft has made considerable leaps to break this deadlock. Its number one tactic has been to find the most powerful options and thrust them in front of users, rather than expecting them to stumble upon them via the ribbon.
 
Let’s say you select a range of data in your spreadsheet. Previously, you’d have to head to the ribbon to work out what to do with it – perhaps take advantage of the conditional formatting introduced in Excel 2007, or insert a chart. Now you select it and a button appears at the bottom right; click it and all the most obvious options appear. 
 
These comprise formatting, adding charts, using formulae to calculate totals, and even tapping into the Sparklines feature (where a summary graph of your data appears in the cells adjacent to each row).
 
Excel 2013 will evaluate your data and suggest the right chart – and the recommendations are usually correct. Even if it isn’t exactly what you want, as soon as you’ve created the chart, the ribbon changes so you can start tweaking right away.
 
This kind of feature is important, since data analysis is about far more than number crunching: you have to gain meaning from the data. A good graph can achieve this, and so can a number of other features that Excel 2013 brings to the fore.
 
Chief among these is PivotTables. Immensely powerful in the right hands, PivotTables provide an excellent way to analyse a scrambled mass of data. 
 
Imagine you have all the sales results for all your regions across the past eight quarters – a PivotTable allows you to strip out unnecessary data so you can focus on the area that’s of interest to you at that moment. It’s a great tool, which until now has never been that accessible. Excel 2013 makes it easier to get to grips with, recommending PivotTables based on the data at hand.
Slicers is another useful tool for making sense of data. In Excel 2010, it allowed you to show a slice of your data in a PivotTable with the click of a button. In Excel 2013, you don’t need to create a PivotTable to use it.
 
To illustrate this, imagine you geekily create a Christmas list in Excel. One column is the product name, the next the product type (such as book or DVD), the next the price, and the next the product’s desirability score out of ten. Position your cursor anywhere in the data and format it as a table. Then insert Slicers (found in the Table Tools Design tab) for each of those column headings. Viewers of your sheet can then jump to the relevant product type, price or level of desire, without fiddling with the table itself.
 
Then there are the new Apps for Office, which allow users to quickly add extra features via an online store. Apps are currently thin on the ground, but the Bing Maps tool shows what can be done, taking a list of locations and plotting them on a map for you.
 
It’s worth noting that you can share spreadsheets online via the Excel Web App by saving your work to a SkyDrive account and then clicking on Share. You can then invite people to take a look at them, send out a link (either for viewing or editing), or post them on Twitter and LinkedIn. All the Slicers you created are there too.
 
Annoyingly, it’s only by saving your spreadsheet to SkyDrive or SharePoint that two people can simultaneously work on a sheet. Even more annoyingly, you can’t work in Excel 2013 while someone else edits in the app – you both need to move to the Web App. This is in contrast to PowerPoint and Word, which both allow simultaneous collaboration in the desktop app.
Nevertheless, we do recommend Excel 2013. While there are no major new features for power users, those less familiar with the program should benefit from the additions. Plus, there’s the fact that Excel now launches files in their own windows rather than as tabs in the same window, a welcome change indeed.
 
Let’s not forget that Excel 2010, and Excel 2007 before it, were already excellent programs. Excel 2013 moves them a little further into the mainstream.
 
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Microsoft Outlook
 
 
Verdict: A hit-and-miss refresh of the interface and a paucity of new features doesn’t make for a compelling upgrade
 
When we first clapped eyes on the consumer preview of Outlook 2013, our initial reaction was that somebody had forgotten to colour it in. The whitewashed interface remains intact for the final release, with only thin rules and a very slight tint helping to distinguish between your inbox and the surrounding menus and panels. 
 
Mercifully, Microsoft has seen fit to add coloured themes to the final code - when we say coloured, that’s any colour as long as it’s grey. Light grey and dark grey are the only two options, although at least these provide a distinction between content and menus.
 
The other noticeable change to the interface is the way you navigate between email, calendar, tasks and contacts (now renamed People). Giant text labels for each of these modes appear at the foot of the Outlook window, and you can hover the cursor over them to have a peek at their contents, in much the same way as hovering over Windows taskbar icons provides a peek at the app.
 
It’s an efficient way of checking upcoming appointments or the availability of your “favourite” colleagues. However, you can also choose to have such listings appear in the To-Do bar running down the right of the Outlook window, so there’s a degree of unnecessary duplication.
 
Other visual tweaks have been made since the preview release. There’s now a thin rule between messages in the inbox, which looks neater. The delete and flag symbols, which appear when you run your mouse over messages in your inbox, now turn red when you hover over their icons. These are small but thoughtful changes that make it easier to quickly deal with the clump of messages in your inbox after a week off.
 
Another new option allows you to hide all menus, leaving a narrow grey strip along the top of the screen that expands when clicked. However, this forces you to run Outlook maximised, so you have to devote the whole screen to a menu-free Outlook, or put up with menus in a smaller window.
 
The most significant new email feature is inline replies. This allows you to compose an instant reply from within the Reading Pane, instead of opening a New Message window. It’s more akin to the workings of a webmail service such as Gmail than a fully-fledged email client, but it’s efficient and cuts down on the clutter of multiple Outlook windows. It’s important on a touchscreen PC, where switching between windows can be tricky.
 
For consumers, Outlook no longer demands that you download a daft “connector” to access your Hotmail account, while businesses may well be interested in the new Site Mailboxes feature, which allows you to create a shared inbox, calendar and task list for members of the same team.
Calendar has had very few changes made to it: a timeline appears on the daily/weekly view; there’s a mini weather forecast nestled beneath the ribbon; and an option to create meetings in Lync – although Skype meetings are curiously omitted.
 
There’s more to the People slice of Outlook than a new name. It has a new default view that displays a sheet of details about your contacts, including various email addresses, phone numbers, birthdays and status updates, as well as a photo cribbed from linked social networks. However, unlike Windows 8’s People app, Outlook is, disappointingly, incapable of blending all your contacts from various address books and social networks into a single, deduplicated list. 
 
Finally, we arrive at the feature that should have the coders hanging their heads in shame: touch mode. Apparently designed to make Outlook usable on a touchscreen tablet, it does nothing of the sort. It’s been improved since the preview, with wider spacing between menu items and icons, and we’d be happy scanning our inbox using nothing more precise than our fingertips.
 
However, attempting to compose an email with the onscreen keyboard is a bizarre form of torture: we weren’t even able to write in the message field without resizing both the Outlook and onscreen keyboard windows. Outlook 2013 isn’t a touch-friendly application. 
 
For all our gripes, Outlook remains a powerful, invaluable business tool. We wouldn’t even contemplate running our business email and calendar in anything else. That said, there’s little in the 2013 iteration that makes it a tempting upgrade, and a couple of features – particularly touch mode – should never have passed Quality Assurance.
 
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Microsoft PowerPoint

Verdict: No major upgrades, but the clutch of small improvements and the addition of touch support are welcome

When Microsoft first announced PowerPoint 2013, it made great play of several key features. What it didn’t mention was that none of these features is completely new – they already existed in PowerPoint before.
 
PowerPoint 2013 is packed with smaller, less glitzy changes that make a big difference. The online video and picture search tools, for example, are brilliant and make it easy to add extra whizz to your slides.  
 
Presenter View may not be new, meanwhile, but it has been refined. There’s now the facility to smoothly zoom in and highlight an area of interest on slides, and the laser pointer gives presenters another slick tool for drawing the attention of the audience to bullet points, graphs or tables. 
 
And with PowerPoint 2013 now introducing touch support, those with a Windows 8 tablet need no longer worry about fiddling with a touchpad in the dark or finding room for a mouse on the lectern during a presentation – they can simply swipe, pinch and tap as they go.
 
Other small improvements include the ability to output presentations as MP4 files as well as WMVs, to play music in the background across multiple slides and to use an eyedropper tool to select colours for graphics from other elements on a slide. The addition of widescreen versions of the core templates, meanwhile, will help workers with widescreen laptops to make better use of the equipment at hand.
 
The user interface has changed for the better, too, and not only in terms of look and feel. The properties of design elements in particular may be adjusted far more quickly and intuitively. It’s also nice not to have to drag the dialog box out of the way to see what’s happening underneath. 
Finally, although it isn’t a new PowerPoint feature, the chart-formatting controls brought over from Excel make adjusting the appearance of graphs, and even filtering the data in them, a faster process than before.
 
Although touch works for presentation delivery, creating and editing slides is still best left to mouse and keyboard. Even with the ribbon and its tabs completely hidden from view, there’s simply too much going on in the average PowerPoint screen for touch operation to be practical for anything but basic edits. 
 
On balance, though, PowerPoint 2013 is an effective revamp and a big improvement. As with the rest of Microsoft’s core applications there aren’t any killer new features, but the UI tweaks, the addition of touch (for presenters) and a scattering of enhancements make it a worthwhile upgrade.
 
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Microsoft OneNote
 
 
Verdict: Few new features, but full touch support transforms this app
 
OneNote 2013 follows the trend set by the rest of the new Office applications, with only minor changes and few new features to play with. Beyond the new look and slightly rearranged notebook navigation, this initially doesn’t look like the most exciting release.
 
Excel spreadsheets can be created directly within OneNote, which is more powerful than using simple flat tables, especially if you’re tabulating lots of figures. Any embedded Excel tables can be edited and updated with a simple double-click. 
 
It still does everything it did before: it records audio while you’re taking notes, saves as you go along, and synchronises with SkyDrive. Microsoft also has apps available for Android, iOS and Windows 8, so you can access and take notes on multiple devices. However, there aren’t many new toys with which to play.
 
Despite the comparative dearth of additions, however, it’s in OneNote that Office 2013’s touch features make most sense. There’s support for finger-based zooming, panning and scrolling, as with every other Office 2013 application – but here it feels less tacked on. Items can be quickly selected and rearranged with a tap and drag, and notes can be scribbled freely anywhere you like, either with a stylus or a finger.
 
OneNote’s continued support for styluses means turning your tablet or hybrid into a fully fledged handwriting-based note-taker is an enticing proposition, and subtle extension of the handwriting recognition in OneNote makes it even more so; it now automatically indexes recognised words, so you don’t have to use “Ink to Text” to make your scrawl searchable.
 
A new full-page view, in addition to the auto-hide ribbon option available elsewhere in Office, makes it an even better note-taker. This dispenses with the note tabs that usually run along the top of the screen, and places all note navigation and the search tool in one dropdown menu in the top right-hand corner of the screen.
 
The new OneNote isn’t perfect. It still has the potential to confuse, with its mishmash of notebooks, pages and sections, and the ribbon doesn’t make the ideal touch interface. However, simply by adding the ability to manipulate notes with your fingers, and providing seamless stylus integration, Microsoft has given OneNote a new lease of life.
 
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Office 2013: the verdict
 
 
Microsoft’s approach to Office 2013 is similar to the tack it has taken with Windows 8. Its stated aim is to produce a “modern Office” usable across the whole gamut of today’s computing hardware. This means tablets and hybrids, as well as traditional laptops and desktop PCs.
 
Has it succeeded? As our review reveals, it’s a hit-and-miss affair. Microsoft has put some serious work into touch, and has improved matters since Office 2013’s first preview outing in mid-2012. This sees new ribbon-hiding options introduced alongside bigger buttons for the touch mode. Don’t for one moment think this office suite is geared for creating and editing using touch, however.
 
Office’s desktop heritage means many icons and options remain small and fiddly to access with a fingertip, and the sheer size of Windows 8’s onscreen keyboard means whenever you do bring the ribbon into play, there’s barely anything left of the app underneath. We’re not entirely sure why Microsoft didn’t do with Office what it did with Internet Explorer and produce a Windows Store version for Windows 8. It would have given users the best of both worlds.
 
Microsoft’s vision of collaborating and working seamlessly through the cloud is a move about which we’re not convinced. The intention is laudable, but many features aren’t up to real-world use. 
 
Collaborating on a spreadsheet isn’t possible without encountering all sorts of limitations, for instance, and in other apps the way changes and clashes from different sources are resolved differs wildly. It’s far from a tidy experience.
 
Given its stated aim of making this the most connected Office yet, we can understand why Microsoft has placed SkyDrive front and centre. But we wish it had taken more care with the reworking of Open and Save. It’s a mess, and months after installing the Office 2013 preview, we’re still not used to having to look for a location, or the Browse button, before getting the opportunity to select our desired folder.
 
That’s not to say Office 2013 is a failure. It isn’t. There are aspects of touch mode, for instance, that work very well: OneNote’s refined handwriting recognition and full-page mode, for instance, and the ability to use touch to deliver presentations in PowerPoint is a significant step forward. There are numerous small tweaks that are really worth having, such as Excel’s improved charting and PivotTable tools, PowerPoint’s Object Properties pane, Word’s improved comments, and the suite-wide improvement to the template browser.
 
Meanwhile, we can’t wait to see what the new apps model brings. The decision to extend Office using web standards, and the promise of making money for developers, could bring powerful third-party tools to Office.
 
The key question, as ever, is should you upgrade? If you’ve purchased a Windows 8 touchscreen device, the answer has to be yes: although Office 2013 is far from the perfect touch-based office suite, it’s likely to be far less aggravating than attempting to use Office 2010 or an earlier incarnation of the software.
 
Office remains the most powerful all-round suite for business, and we like the changes Microsoft has made to the way you can buy it. The ability to subscribe on a monthly basis, gaining rolling updates and a multi-user, multidevice licence in the process is a big step forward, and for enthusiasts wanting to install the software on a number of devices, who upgrade regularly, it’s demonstrably better value than buying multiple copies.
 
But, at the same time, Microsoft risks alienating a large proportion of home users. With Office 2013, boxed-copy prices are notably higher than they were when Office 2010 was released. At the time of writing Microsoft still hadn’t revealed local pricing, but it will almost certainly follow the US pattern, which makes Home & Student 17% more expensive than last time; Home & Business 10% pricier; and Professional 14% dearer.
 
All of the above makes Office 2013 tricky to deliver a decisive verdict upon. It remains, without doubt, the best office suite on the market, with many improvements – and despite its flaws, this is the first Office to really get to grips with touch devices.
 
For small- and medium-sized businesses, and enthusiasts needing to install the suite on more than one PC, it’s better value than ever too. It isn’t for everyone, though, and for individuals still running Office 2010 on a standard PC, it’s far from an essential upgrade.
 

 

Microsoft Office 2013
5 6
Verdict
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.
Performance
Features & Design
Value for Money
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