Decoding Microsoft Office: Which Office version does what?

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Once upon a time, bright boxes of the latest Microsoft Office pleaded for your attention in big box stores. Now, as with music albums and best-selling books, Office is going the way of the download. With the debut of the new Office on Tuesday, Microsoft is pushing Office as a subscription service rather than as a physical product plucked from a shelf.

What this means is that there are even more versions and sub-versions of Office to choose from. Read on to cut through the cluttered branding so you can understand what each product is and does.

Which version of Office are you using now?

The new Office

The "new Office" is how Microsoft describes this year's release of a raft of products. The new Office encompasses Office 365, Office 2013, and more—bridging the gap between the software on your hard drive and your services and data in the cloud. Rather than leaving you dependent on Office software and docs that are tied to your PC and hard drive, Microsoft  aims for you to have Office wherever you need it: at work, at home, on your PC, on your phone, and on your tablet, whether you're online or offline. To get this experience, you sign in with your Microsoft identity, which follows you wherever you use Office.

Compare Word 2010, at left, with the new Word 2013, at right.

Office 2013

What you probably used to think of as Microsoft Office is now just the desktop software component—think Word, Excel, and PowerPoint and friends—of the new Office. Buy Office 2013 in a box, and all you'll get is a printed product key (only developing countries will get a disc in that box). You can either purchase Office 2013 local software alone or get it bundled along with an Office 365 subscription. Here's PCWorld's detailed review of Office 2013. If Office 2013 is all you want, you can get it three ways:

  • Office Home & Student for $140 (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote)
  • Office Home & Business for $220 (adds Outlook)
  • Office Professional for $400 (adds Publisher and Access)

Alternatively, you can get the applications with one of several Office 365 subscriptions, below. If you're one of the few people who work off the grid, Office 2013 is best for you. But for the majority of users—those who can't work without Internet access—Office 365 offers more practical options, and its options tend to be a better deal.

Office 365

Office 365 is the umbrella brand covering both Office 2013 software and its related online tools. It’s cloud-connected and always on, with updates released on a rolling basis. By default, you save your data to the cloud: Consumers share to the SkyDrive storage service, while businesses stash and share data via SharePoint. For Apple aficionados, Office 365 includes Office for Mac. Here's a guide to choosing the version of Office 365 that will best suit your needs:

Does your whole household use Office? This one's for you. Office 365 Home Premium costs $100 per year, with installs for five PCs or Macs in addition to mobile devices. Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher, and Access come with it, as doe 20GB of SkyDrive additional storage and an hour of monthly Skype calls.

Office 365 University includes all of the above but with two Office 2013 licenses per user. It comes at a steep discount for students, faculty, and staff: only $80 for four years.

Microsoft has not yet announced anything about Office 365 for government or nonprofits.

Office 365 Small Business Premium will be available "with new capabilities" on February 27, alongside the two following business packages. The apps included are Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook, OneNote, Access, Publisher, and Lync. It costs $150 per person annually.

Office 365 ProPlus is the same as Small Business Premium, but expanded for 25 user accounts, with five installations per user, available February 27, pricing to be announced.

Office 365 Enterprise: It's basically ProPlus, plus Exchange Online, with archiving for company email, as well as SharePoint and Lync for collaboration. Also available February 27, pricing to be announced.

Office for Mac

For those who haven't pledged allegiance to either Redmond or Cupertino exclusively, you'll get Office for Mac included with an Office 365 subscription. However, that means  you'll get Office for Mac 2011, which doesn't reflect its Office 2013 counterpart for Windows. Mac users can take advantage of Office Web Apps, but not Office on Demand.

Office Home & Student RT comes preinstalled on Microsoft's Surface RT slate.

Office RT

Microsoft’s Surface RT tablets include 2013 RT flavors of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote, optimized for touch gestures. Office RT generally offers more features than Office for Windows Phone 8 or Office Web Apps, but fewer than Office 2013 on a PC. Surface RT initially shipped with a preview of Office Home & Student RT, with the final version available last October. Microsoft's beefier Surface Pro tablets, on the other hand, can run any iteration of the latest Office software you want to purchase.

Here's Word on a Windows phone.

Office for Windows Phone 8

All Windows 8 phones run mobile editions of Office software, updated in October 2012. You get to Word, Excel, and PowerPoint through the mobile Office Hub. You'll also get the OneNote note-taking app. Office docs render beautifully on Windows handsets, and they're easy to open from or attach to email messages. Since documents are stored in SkyDrive, they'll display your latest changes and time stamp, whether you've last worked on them from a PC, a Windows phone, or a Windows 8 tablet.

Office Web Apps

These are pared-down versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote that run in a browser. Panned as weak in the past, they were updated last fall. They're not meant to serve as your primary document tool; rather, they're built to let you access and edit Office files on the go.

Office on Demand

Need to jump onto someone else's computer and work on an Office project? Maybe you need more functions than the Office Web Apps provide. Microsoft tailored Office on Demand for exactly this scenario. Through the magic of virtualization, it lets you run your personalized, full Office applications on PCs where they're already not installed. You just need to be on a Windows 7 or 8 computer, and have a subscription to Office 365. The programs include Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, Publisher, Visio, and Project. You log in to your Microsoft account at to get started; this video explains more.

You can stream Office apps to any PC with Office on Demand.

Office for iOS and Android

Remember when I said that Microsoft wants you to access Office from wherever you're working, including on your tablet and phone? Let's limit that to your Windows 8 phone and your Windows tablet, at least for now. Although Microsoft is proud of its OneNote app for iOS and Android, you won't get officially sanctioned Word, Excel, and PowerPoint on those platforms. Rumors abound that that's likely to change soon, but Redmond’s is staying mum on the subject for the time being. In November the Verge predicted that you'd find Office for the iPad in the wild early in 2013. We’re still waiting.

In the meantime, startups have been offering tablet-friendly workarounds for several years, notably QuickOffice and Documents To Go. You can stream virtualized Office software on your iPad or Android device with the CloudOn app. These third-party apps let you save your work to Dropbox, Box, or Google Drive, bypassing SkyDrive and Microsoft's lineup altogether.

Build more reference tools into Word with Apps for Office.

Office Store

Microsoft invites third-party developers to build apps on top of Office. The Office Store is where you can purchase these add-ons, which include such tools as a Brittanica reference guide, a LinkedIn social media hub, and a digital signature manager.

This website is where you sign in to access everything Office-related. Here, you can access SkyDrive and jump to the Office Web Apps.

Editor's note: This story was updated with additional details about Office for Mac.

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