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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Microsoft also showed us a Web app that apparently will ship a bit later: the Outlook Office Planner (which, in our testing environment, was referred to as the "Planner Hub"). Eventually, Office Planne will be one of the options that you can access from the “waffle” menu in the upper right-hand corner of Office365.com, along with Web-app versions of Outlook, Word, Excel, OneNote, Delve and more. In the preview build we were given, I had to navigate there from a fake email sent to my demo persona.

office 2016 review planner hub lots of wheels Mark Hachman

Office Planner’s overview screen shows you who is working on what, and how much has been accomplished.

Office Planner is Microsoft’s entry into simplified, collaborative project management. Its card-based format reminded me a bit of Trello, although the functionality is probably closer to Zoho Projects. Visually, it’s a stunner. On my demonstration Surface, I was able to create tasks, assign them to individuals to be due on a given date, and upload any files or links that would be relevant to the task at hand. I didn’t see a way to file a given task to a superior, though, or to apply any sort of metrics as to how well it performed.

Office Planner does provide a bright, informative set of “charts” that actually tracks the status of each project by task. Click on each category to drill down to the specific task at hand. A bar chart also allows you to see the number of tasks each individual has assigned to them, a nice way to ensure the available resources are used correctly. There doesn’t seem to be any limit to the number of projects that can be managed at a given time, and Office Planner is free with Office 2016, versus the monthly fee other services charge.

office 2016 review planner hub task Mark Hachman

Managing a task inside the Office Planner.

It's not immediately apparent how you connect Office Planner with Outlook; as it turns out, adding a task in the Office Planner sends an email to Outlook with the assignment.  And, of course, there’s a complete lack of mobile app integration for Office Planner at the moment, a shortcoming Microsoft will have to quickly rectify to compete in this space.

Many of the other applications within Office integrate quite closely with Skype for Business,  the app that essentially replaced Lync last year. Office Planner doesn’t. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any way to connect with someone involved with a task except for email. Skype offers you a nice, clean interface to chat with a colleague, share files, and even share your screen (although this feature lagged a bit when I was chatting with Microsoft representatives). In this sense, Office Planner feels unfinished—which I suppose it is.

Microsoft told me that it sees Office Planner and Groups as the avenues of private, intra-team conversation, and Yammer as the means to communicate hitting milestones to the rest of the company at large.

From my personal standpoint, I can see PCWorld using Groups to invite attendees to a CES planning session, sharing a meeting calendar, using a shared OneDrive folder for images and press materials, then dissolving it after the show finishes. That sounds very useful.

What worries me a bit, however, is that Groups seems to assume that one person equals one job. In a large organization, that may be true. But some of the appeal of Groups is the ability to form a Group as one needs it. At a business employing 60 people, you could conceivably have a number of groups with different combinations of a handful of people, but focused on different tasks.

Formalizing numerous, different interpersonal group relationships with shared calendars, emails and the like—and then trying to figure out what to do with them as time passes—well, it seems like it could all become very complex, very quickly. And that doesn’t even begin to take into account permissions: whether an engineer will need to be granted the appropriate permissions to see sales data, or if partners can be invited in to assist with a marketing campaign.

Sway

We’ve previously dubbed Sway one of the first of a new generation of “blended apps,” lifting elements from Word, PowerPoint, and more and combining them in a way that feels interesting and fresh. Sway allows you to create a newsletter-esque layout that emphasizes graphics, with photos used as backdrops and transitions sliding in to introduce new sections. It’s simplistic, yet effective. Here’s one I whipped up:

 

You create Sways in a layout or “storyline” mode, where you embed text, images, videos, tweets, and charts in a card-based motif that’s not altogether intuitive to someone used to laying out images and text in Word. It’s sort of a WYSIWYG approach, as you can see the changes applying themselves to the “final” document that’s visible to the right on the screen. There’s some noticeable lag, though, and I’m not a fan of the sliding transitions between the preview and storyline modes.

office 2016 sway construct Mark Hachman

Behind the scenes, Sway uses a card-based ‘Storyline” mode that takes a bit of getting used to.

Fortunately, you don’t have to think that much, as Sway itself selects what it thinks might be a good font or color scheme, even coordinating them to certain images. You can even select “focus points” for a given piece of art, though I’m not sure what that does, exactly. And if you don’t like it, you click Remix, and Sway will select a new font and design on the fly. As someone who doesn’t have a great eye for design, the additional suggestions were welcome. 

Sway starts out simply enough: You pick a title and a backdrop image. Embedding an image is as easy as typing a search term in a box, then letting Bing or PicSay find a Creative Commons image for you. (There’s no attribution, however—not a great lesson for up-and-coming students.) But if you want a subhead, or even a text box to put your name on the report, there’s no obvious way of doing so. Then again, if you’re sharing the Sway, and not printing it out, it should be fairly obvious who authored it.

Sway is designed for the modern Web, and sometimes it becomes a bit pretentious in that regard. I’m totally on board with Sway’s autosave feature—in fact, you don’t save Sway with a file name; it simply shows up as a presentation in My Sways. But when ‘emphasize’ stands in for ‘boldface,’ and ‘accent’ for ‘italics,’ it’s a bit over the top. Loading the index and individual Sways also takes several seconds, and that’s annoying.

Sway seems geared at the education market, but it lacks a word-count feature—one metric most teachers use. I’d also add a legacy ‘print mode’ to allow students to hand in a physical copy of a Sway. Otherwise, Sway is a creative use of Microsoft’s development efforts.

Access and Publisher: Increasingly minor apps

Sway may be one of Microsoft’s first blended apps, but Publisher really feels like a subset of Word, not an app worth reserving for Office 365. Publisher’s territory is being encroached on, anyway. If you want to produce a flyer, or a brochure, or business cards, Publisher’s your app. There’s even a template for a baby photo album. But you can see that all of these products could be made in Word, or via a Web app or online service. 

The Access database app is to Excel as Publisher is to Word—a corollary app that I’m sure some people feel strongly about, yet nobody seems to use. Case in point: this unanswered Microsoft support thread, asking about what’s new in Access 2016 —with all of seven people chiming in. Access has the look and feel of the other Office 2016 apps, but that’s about all.

Microsoft also tells me that Project and Visio are in the full releases of Office 365, but we didn't have access to them to test. That's not the case for Office Mix, which is still in private preview.

I’m sure there are a number of people who can speak knowingly about how databases are more useful than a spreadsheet, but Microsoft seems to have put all of its effort into improving Excel. I was also a little concerned about this error message, which I discovered on checking a Microsoft-authored template for version information:

office 2016 access warning Mark Hachman

Access 2016 displayed this odd security warning. 

I mean, isn’t the whole point of Office 2016 to use live, active content?

A simpler alternative: Office Mobile, web apps

Office 2016 has another alternative: the Office Mobile apps. Free, ubiquitous, and simple to use, it’s often worth loading up the Excel, OneNote, PowerPoint and Word Mobile apps first, then dropping into Office 2016 only if necessary. After all, if your document is saved to OneDrive, you can easily pull it up in either Word Mobile as well as Word 2016. (Note: Editing documents on Word Mobile and the other apps is only free for Windows devices under 10 inches or less, unless you have an active Office 365 subscription. Editing is free for iOS and Android users. Otherwise, Windows users without an active Office 365 subscription can view documents. An alternative is to use Windows 10 Mobile's Continuum feature, which allows you to edit documents on a desktop monitor, powered by supported Windows 10 Mobile phones.)

office 2016 review word mobile Mark Hachman

No, the Office Mobile apps don’t have as much to offer as Office 2016. But there’s a lot there for the casual user, too.

Granted, you’re not going to find much of the nuance and complexity found in the more complex Office apps. But for my own use, I prefer using Excel Mobile to Excel 2016, precisely because my needs are basic. Summing a column is performed automatically, for example. In Word Mobile, I can track changes, check spelling, add footnotes, and even perform the Smart Lookup function built into the paid version of Word.

If you’d like, you can also visit Office.com and try out some of the Web-based versions of Office. Yes, it’s another version of Office, and largely redundant, too. But—and this is somewhat important—the Web apps will be one of the first platforms to receive new features, precisely because they can be updated on the fly. Features like Clutter, which I really like, debuted on the Web months before the dedicated apps. The same goes for saving documents into Dropbox: You can do that via the web apps, and even Office for iOS and Android, but not Office 2016, yet.

office 365 review security error Mark Hachman

I’m not sure what went on here, but apparently my browser felt there was a problem with Office365.com.

You do make a sacrifice or two in choosing the built-in Office Mobile apps. You can only work on one document at a time. The real-time collaboration Microsoft boasts about? Not there, although you can still track changes as before. OneNote Mobile also lacks one of my favorite features: voice recording. More and more features have trickled down to the free versions, but there’s still value in paying for the full Office suite.

The future of Office: what makes it great?

If you’ve skimmed through this review, I bet that you focused on just a section or two, because you don’t use all of Office to its full capabilities. Office has become siloed: Writers use Word religiously, while number-crunchers plumb the depths of Excel. Sales and marketing gurus live in PowerPoint. A generalist might be able to gin up a basic spreadsheet, but stop short of fancier techniques, such as pulling in live, disparate data sources to support a proposal.

The future of Office 365, then, depends on compelling as many potential Office customers as it can to say, “I didn’t even know it could do that.” Alas, Office 2016 barely, barely accomplishes that goal.

I can tell you what’s new in Office 2016—and if you look closely enough, you can notice many of the new features yourself. But what are they? And what are they good for? These are two questions Microsoft simply assumes you already understand, and that’s a dangerous assumption to hang a multi-billion-dollar business upon.

office 2016 review whats new in word online Mark Hachman

Word Online tells you what’s new. So why don’t the Office apps?

Microsoft would love for you to subscribe to Office 365, and the company promises a steady stream of monthly improvements to keep you hooked. But what are they? Office 2013 never told you. You’ll have to dig out Office 365’s upcoming feature roadmap to find out—and what’s on the list seems awfully trivial. Office 365 Home allows you a license to install on five devices, five tablets, and five phones, plus a terabyte of free storage. But it’s been almost a year since Microsoft promised unlimited OneDrive storage, and it still hasn’t happened.

Office 2016 continues to leave you in the dark about what it’s adding, although a slightly tweaked dashboard will apparently serve to introduce you to Office’s improvements. But Microsoft needs to sell Office to you, rather than simply assume you’ll buy it.

How? By educating the user on how to use Office.

Office 2013 and Office 2016 do a nice job of explaining what random menu items actually do via tooltips: In Word 2016, for example, you can hover over “Theme fonts,” for example, and be told “This is an easy way to change all of your text at once. For this to work, your text must be formatted using the ‘body’ and ‘heading’ fonts.” Then there’s a “tell me more” link that provides a fuller explanation, using text and graphics, on how to change theme colors, create your own, et cetera. It’s just a help file, but a pretty good one. 

office 2016 review word 2013 video Mark Hachman

This Microsoft tutorial video is somewhat of an ugly example. But with better promotion of what you can do with Office, adoption should only increase.

I think that Microsoft needs to take the next step, though, and start showing, rather than telling, how users can use these features to best effect. The obvious tool, of course, is video – whether they be just generic MP4 videos or something a bit more interactive, such as Microsoft’s own Office Mix. In any event, I’d like to see a list of document templates when I open Word – but also a video tutorial on how to create my own.

If Office is now online and connected, take advantage of it! Let me open up Word and see a list of videos next to those templates: the basics, such as “What is a pivot table, and why should I use it?”; to more advanced topics, such as “Why live data should be included in your paper – and where to find it.” Rotate them. Add new ones. Microsoft has a stable of how-to videos – here are video tutorials for Word 2013 – but very little education on how to use the features they describe. Show me how, but also why to use Office. Put those videos in Word itself, showcasing what’s live and useful. Connect those videos to the tooltips. Consider embedding a live video thumbnail in the app itself.

You begin to see this verve, this liveliness, in Delve and Sway. Documents breathe. But in the stock apps—Excel, PowerPoint, Word—that legacy feels like a boat anchor. Office is 27 years old, people, and it still feels that way.

A tough call for the average user

That’s why I’m reluctant to advise you to rush out and buy Office 2016. Windows 10 offered a number of capabilities, and for free. That makes it a no-brainer. Microsoft wants you to buy Office 2016, and the company already provides a suite of Office Mobile apps that doesn’t make that decision easy for casual users.

But the second choice Microsoft really wants you to make is to throw your cares aside and subscribe to Office 365, paying year after year after year for continual updates. From a product standpoint, it’s a tough call to justify it; Access and Publisher simply aren’t worth it, and I’m not sure I see the value in a terabyte of online OneDrive storage. The addition of Outlook makes it far more attractive.

Financially... well, Microsoft’s doing everything it can to hook you. Spending $10 per month for Office on five devices isn’t that bad of a deal. Individuals can subscribe to Office 365 Personal for 21 months before they’ve paid off the standalone version of Office, or 32 months before they’ve paid off Office 2016 Home & Business. By that time, I’d expect Office 2018 to be on the horizon.

Here’s the way I see it: Enterprises should definitely invest in Office 2016 and Office 365; large and medium businesses should as well. Smaller businesses and home users should take careful stock of their own needs before buying Office 2016. But as to the second question: whether to invest in Office 365... I’m torn. Over time, you many in fact see the steady stream of updates and improvements that Microsoft has promised—but not now.

Buying Office 2016 means investing in collaboration, and subscribing to Office 365 means insuring yourself for the future. If both of these appeal to you, then get out your credit cards. If not, then you might try Microsoft’s free alternative, Office Mobile.

Clarification: In our testing environment, Microsoft had labeled the Office Planner as the "Planner Hub". But "Office Planner" is the final branding, and the terms you'll use to find it when it eventually rolls out. The story also tries to clarify what you can and can't do with Office Mobile.

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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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