This is a heady time for Microsoft as it rolls out an ambitious OS and polishes off its productivity suite, billed as "the new Office." At the suite's core is Office 2013—the desktop applications. Changes include a sleek appearance that reflects the look of Windows 8, functional improvements, and tie-ins to SharePoint and SkyDrive for storing documents online. In addition, the various components of Office Web Apps improve productivity in the cloud, while Windows 8 Surface RT tablets get their own flavor of Office.
You'll be able to get Office 2013 desktop software on its own (as usual) or as part of an Office 365 subscription that's newly open to consumers, and not just to small businesses. Though the software shipped to manufacturers this month, the final edition won't reach customers until sometime in the first half of 2013. A consumer preview of the subscription-based Office has been available in preview mode for public download since mid-July
Should you be planning to upgrade? Based on my experiences so far with the previews of the new Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, ten features make the move worthwhile.
1. Modern Style Interface
In keeping with the “Modern” (previously called "Metro") style interface that you'll see in Windows 8, Office 2013 is getting a new look. Gone are the multiple shades of color that decorated the older interface, as well as the shadows and shading that suggested three dimensions. Instead, everything is minimalist, flat, and stark—mimicking the tiles on the Windows 8 start screen. The only hint of frivolity exists in a watermark design in the top right corner of the screen. The idea is that the new look will help you focus on your work rather than being distracted by the objects decorating your screen. Whether the redesign will achieve this goal or not—time will tell one way or the other—I certainly like the crisper look.
2. Start Screens
Each app supports a new color-coded start screen—blue for Word, green for Excel, orange for PowerPoint, green for Publisher. Like the other applications' start screens, the one for Word displays a list of recent documents. Though creating a blank document is the default option, you can alternatively select a template, search online for templates, or click Open Other Documents to search for a document on disk or in a SkyDrive folder. These screens will help new users find their way around more easily, and experienced users will appreciate having all of their options in one place at startup. The top right of the screen shows details of the SkyDrive account that you are currently logged in to use.
3. SkyDrive Integration
Office 2013 is designed to integrate with the cloud—with SkyDrive and SharePoint, in particular. That's good news if you prefer to save your work online for anywhere-access, though most small businesses and individuals still save files locally. If you use SkyDrive, the account details will appear in the top left corner of all the application screens, as well as on their start screens. Click your account details to switch accounts and to manage them. When you save a document, worksheet, or presentation, the application will default to saving to your SkyDrive account, but you can save to your local disk if you wish.
4. Syncing Across Devices
When you save your Office documents online, they’ll be available to you (and others) from any device at any time, via Office 2013 on a PC or tablet, or via the WebApps. Microsoft has already upgraded the WebApps for Word, Excel, OneNote, and PowerPoint with the new Modern-style look and Office application color coding. In addition, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint will save the last location where you were working before you saved--down to the letter, cell, or image. This feature makes it easier to pick up where you left off working, even if you open the file on a different device than you last used.
5. Touchscreen use
Some new Office 2013 features are designed to make working with a touchscreen easier. The new Read Mode in Word opens a document in reading view, which lets you scroll through the document by swiping horizontally with your finger. On a desktop with a touchscreen monitor, you can change this behavior back to the more traditional page navigation mode if you wish. Click the Touch Mode button on the Quick Access Toolbar—to the right of the program logo of each application—and the ribbon toolbar spreads its icons further apart for easier access to fingers.
Apart from these useful changes, however, touch integration in Office is somewhat erratic. You can use gestures such as tap, pinch, stretch, slide, and swipe for various features. But on a 24-inch touchscreen monitor, unfortunately, the text formatting icons were too small for me to use accurately. So, right now, though the suite is usable on a touchscreen device—which is a step in the right direction—it is still far from touch-friendly.
6. PDF Editing
In the past you could save a Word document as a PDF file, but until now you couldn't edit PDFs in Word without first converting them to Doc or DocX format. The new Word 2013 can open PDF files, edit them there, and then save them as either DocX files or PDFs. When opened in Word, the file retains the structure of the PDF file, even for elements such as tables. This advance will be a big plus for many users, who can simply open a PDF and get straight to work.
7. Formatting Task Panes in PowerPoint
Formatting images, shapes, and other objects in PowerPoint is now more intuitive. Right-click an image and choose Format Picture to open the new Format Picture task pane, which shows the formatting options available for that object. Click another object, and the options in the task pane change to show only the options available for that object. You can leave the pane open as you work, so that it’s visible without cluttering your workspace.
8. Easier Charting
For users confused by the plethora of charting options in previous versions of Excel, the new Recommended Charts feature is useful. Select the data to chart and click Insert > Recommended Chart to see options such as line, bar, and pie charts that the program recommends for your data. Click each chart to preview what your data will look like in that form. After you select and create a chart, small icons will appear outside its top right corner when you select it, giving you access to work with chart elements, styles, and colors, and with the chart data itself.
9. More Graphics Options
In Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Publisher, and even Outlook, new icons on the Insert tab of the ribbon toolbar let you insert pictures from your local PC or from various online sources. The online options include inserting images within the Office Clipart collection online, via a Bing search, or from your own SkyDrive or Flickr account. (To access your Flickr account, you must first need to authorize Office to connect to it.)
10. Account Login
The Backstage View in Office 2013 applications (accessed via the File tab) includes a new tab called Account (or 'Office Account', in Outlook). Here you can log in to your SkyDrive account or switch accounts. You can also see a list of connected services, such as Twitter and Facebook, and add services, such as LinkedIn and SkyDrive. The Office Updates area gives you information about the status of any available updates. Click Update Options to disable or enable updates and to view a history of Office 2013 updates.
Additional reporting by Elsa Wenzel