Microsoft Office 2016 review: It's all about collaboration

Go team! That's what Office 2016 is built to encourage, with new collaborative tools and other ways to tie workers and content together.

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With PowerPoint, however, most of that goes out the window. You can ask coworkers to collaborate, and you can still send them links by which they can edit your shared presentations. You can still comment, and coworkers can still make changes to the text as they wish. But you can’t really manage their changes, or restrict what they can or can’t do. (You can compare and reconcile versions of the same document that a coworker has worked upon separately, however, which is vaguely similar.) 

office 2016 review powerpoint commentsMARK HACHMAN

In PowerPoint, you can still make changes and add comments, but the overall collaboration experience is slightly different than Word.

But—and this is a big but—any revisions to a document show up only if you click a teeny-tiny Save icon, way down at the bottom of the screen, that serves as a sort of CB-radio-style ‘Over’ command. It’s almost impossible to find unless you know what you’re looking for. Click it, and changes made by others show up. When your colleague makes another change, you have to click it again. It’s a pain.

office 2016 review updates avaiableMARK HACHMAN

The “Updates available” gear is way down at the bottom. Click it to view updates to the document.

Granted, collaborative editing wasn’t in the Office 2016 preview Microsoft released earlier this year. And, given that there’s an enormous blank space in the ribbon header to the right half of the screen, you have to imagine that more managed sharing is heading to PowerPoint. (Microsoft tells me it is, shortly.)

OneNote

Here’s the news on OneNote: linked OneNote notes. The feature’s actually been around since Office 2013, but it seems to be more prominently displayed under the Review tab of apps like Word.

office 2016 onenote linkingMARK HACHMAN

Linking documents to OneNote is easy, but you have to link the source document (in this case, PowerPoint) to OneNote, instead of the other way around.

A linked OneNote note can be a bit confusing. In a OneNote note, you can add a hypertext link to a Web page that allows you to jump directly to that site. But what a linked OneNote note does is create a separate window pane that allows you to reference another document or Web page as you’re reviewing your notes.

In some sense, this duplicates your working environment. Imagine your boss discussing a grant proposal. (“Oh yeah, he was talking about this Word document when he said this.”) With Linked Notes, you can open that document, link it to a note, then begin typing commentary. When you review those notes, OneNote knows that you were referring to the Word document and can bring it up. If your boss then moved on to a PowerPoint document, you can link that too: moving your focus as your boss shifts gears. (Excel isn’t supported, yet.)

OneNote linking doesn’t apparently allow you to highlight a word or page of a document. It links to the document, which opens in a separate window, not a pane. And, of course, it would be nice if the feature were ubiquitous across Office. But with markup, live collaboration, and OneNote linking, Office 2016 should make it easier to recall earlier meetings that have blurred together.

Outlook has a new job: The collaboration hub

Normally, Outlook would seem to pale compared to the leading lights of Office. At one time, email was both the medium and the metaphor for managing business relationships. Now, however, modern social networks threaten that model—and Microsoft has no answer to that. Nevertheless, Outlook remains the connective tissue for many of the Office apps, and now it’s the hub of Microsoft’s collaborative vision.

Microsoft has added a number of small conveniences to Outlook 2016. For one thing, if you want to add an attachment, Outlook pulls down a list of recently used and modified files across all of the Office applications. If you want to email an enormous file (say, 700 megabytes) Outlook will email a link to the file stored in OneDrive, rather than clogging your network and mail folders by emailing the file itself.

office 2016 review outlook groups Mark Hachman

The new Outlook Groups, within Outlook 2016.

Microsoft also added a more important addition, Clutter, a sort of second-level spam folder. Clutter, which has been available on the Outlook.com Web app for months, takes work email it deems unnecessary (notices for a fun run; “donuts in the break room!” and the like) and puts them in a dedicated Clutter folder.

Clutter isn’t perfect: It tries to determine what you want to save and what’s irrelevant, but you’ll tend to find some email you’d want to read in the Clutter folder. (You can turn it off entirely if you so choose.) 

The flagship feature of Outlook 2016 is a new Groups feature, which carves out a portion of Outlook—and Office, to a lesser extent—into a series of small, flexible teams that you or a colleague can create. Instead of exchanging emails, the dynamic here is more conversational. But that’s not all: Groups interacts with a Web app that Microsoft calls the Planning Hub (sort of an online version of Trello) as well as its new app for surfacing enterprise content, Delve. So it probably makes the most sense to view them as a cohesive whole.

But wait, there’s more collaboration: Outlook Groups, Office Planner, and Delve

If you’re a typical Outlook user, your left rail in Outlook is already jammed with various folders: Sent Items, Deleted Items, Important, Starred, and many more. At the bottom, Outlook now adds Groups.

Groups can represent an ad-hoc team formed to hammer out a feature request, an entire sales organization, or anything in between. In previous versions of Office, you could create an email alias, such as “West Coast Edit,” that stood in for this. But with Groups, you can create a shared calendar and OneDrive, then track the progress of various group projects via the Planning Hub.

office 2016 review create group Mark Hachman

Creating a Group inside Office 2016.

It’s not immediately obvious how to form a Group. I right-clicked the Group label to form one. (An admin can also take care of this for you.) Outlook asks you to create a group name, and at least in my organization, assigned it its own email address. For now, much of this takes place at Outlook.com, in a Web browser. Using it via Chrome gave my boss some problems, but Edge worked fine.

In general, I like Groups, if managed appropriately. Microsoft put some thought into how Groups messages are passed, allowing you to send in-Group email (known as Conversations) into your general Outlook inbox—or in its own workflow. Outlook already offers a number of ways to connect with contacts, via messaging Skype, email, or phone. Some people want to see all that communication in a single, unified interface; others want to break it out into discrete conversations. Groups allows you to do both.

office 2016 review arglebargle group Mark Hachman

This took me just a few minutes to create, and it looks great. But there’s a formality to it, too. You’d probably still want to use Facebook or a social network to plan a lunch outing, while Groups works better in a business environment.

As you and your teammates plan and move forward on your various projects, Delve and Outlook’s Office Planner help manage the effort. Both are (or will be) web apps, available from the Office "waffle" menu in the upper corner of Office365.com.

Delve is sort of an odd fusion of OneDrive and Lync. One portion of it is devoted to surfacing relevant documents that you know are buried somewhere in your Outlook folders, while the other will show you more information about a particular colleague, such as her resume and where she sits in the organizational hierarchy. (If you open a contact card in Outlook and view the Sharepoint profile, it will open this Delve page.) I couldn’t care less about where a coworker went to school. But in my own workflow, Delve automatically shows me the documents I use most frequently.

office 2016 review delve Mark Hachman

Delve’s profile view.

I’m torn on Delve’s usefulness. Quite frankly, I think that there’s a case to be made that if Delve needs to exist, then something in modern business (or in Office) is broken. Delve does find documents I need, and I like that—but it also displayed a flurry of test documents I had created and will never use again. Not so great. And I really don’t understand the concept of the standalone Delve mobile app—I can surface relevant documents, but I have to go to another app to contact people about them? Finally, Delve is also only good for finding attached documents—if a co-worker dropped a critical bit of information into an email, you’re out of luck.

Keep reading: There's this new thing called Office Planner.

At a Glance
  • Microsoft adds two new apps to Office 2016: Sway and Delve. But while Microsoft's newfound focus on collaboration makes real sense for businesses, home users should also consider Microsoft's free, excellent Office Mobile apps for mobile devices.

    Pros

    • Microsoft adds two new apps: Sway and Delve
    • Outlook Groups forms foundation of new collaborative focus
    • Business intelligence now integrated inside Excel

    Cons

    • Real-time editing still to come in Excel, PowerPoint
    • Free Office Mobile apps make paying for Office a tough choice
    • Office's collaborative vision works best for businesses, not consumers
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