Microsoft’s Office Online is a free, Web-based alternative to subscription-based Office 365. Fortunately, the formatting and feature updates it continually adds bring it closer to the paid experience, such as the new additions Microsoft added to Excel Online Tuesday.
To take advantage of them, all you need is a Microsoft account, which can be as trivial as an old Hotmail email address. All of the updates should already available; if they’re not, they should appear in Excel Online before the end of the month.
Two updates stand out as more advanced features that push the Online version closer to paid Excel: in-document hyperlinks, and better PivotTable summaries. If those are beyond your needs, Microsoft also added richer table formatting options as well as an easier way to access different currencies.
Why this matters: Office Online doesn’t offer all of the features that the paid versions do, but as Microsoft continually pushes toward ever more intelligent paid apps, the bar has been raised for its free versions as well. Note that you can only view and edit documents if you don’t already have an Office 365 subscription, but there’s nothing really stopping you from creating a document on a work computer (as well as a few blank “spares”) and using those spares as “new” documents.
Tweaked features for advanced users
We've all embedded hyperlinks, but fewer people have likely used hyperlinks as in-document navigation, such as a table of contents. You can now hyperlink a cell to another cell, so that you can create a summary table, for example, that links back to more detailed findings. Naturally, you can still connect your spreadsheet to an outside webpage.
PivotTables and PivotCharts are ways Excel spreadsheets can be used to “query” data, essentially asking the data basic questions whose answers you can act upon. Microsoft sells the more advanced versions of Excel as a medium for “business intelligence,” with more sophisticated tools to, say, track quarterly sales figures against a geographical map. Online, the tools are a bit more rudimentary.
Still, Microsoft tweaked the PivotTable > Value > Value Field Settings control to add two tabs: Summarize Value By, and Show Value As. As the names suggest, you can change the summarized value type as well as the type of calculation in the PivotTable value fields. Microsoft also added a handy search function so if you’re not exactly sure what you named a particular value, you can search against it in a filter list.
Some basic, useful updates as well
Office Online users often don’t need thousands of cells to create a spreadsheet, so some of Microsoft’s more basic updates my actually prove to be more useful. For example, Microsoft added additional number formats; all you need to do is click Number Format > More number formats or simply right-click a cell to open the Format option. If you click the dollar-sign currency option, you’ll be able to select quickly from a list of popular currencies.
Microsoft also promised you’ll be able to rejoin the same worksheet you were on in the PC version of the Excel app when you open the same document in Excel Online.