9 / 10

Microsoft Office 365 Home Premium review

Microsoft Office 365 Home Premium review

Company

Microsoft

Price

£79.99 per year

Office 365 Home Premium is Microsoft’s name for one of its many varieties of Office 2013 – in this case, the subscription-based affair that you download from the cloud and use on your disk in exactly the same way you’ve used earlier versions of Office.

The difference is that the new Office is designed to make it as easy to store documents in the cloud as it is on your disk, and Microsoft is pushing the idea that with Office 365, you can now edit Office documents anywhere – on any Windows-based desktop or tablet, on a Windows phone, in a web browser, and even on your Mac, because your Office 365 subscription lets you have Office installed on five devices at any one time.

This means you get Office 2013 on your Windows machines and Office 2011 for the Mac on your OS X machines. Office 2013 is an impressive upgrade to the world’s most powerful office application suite, with new features that are so smoothly built in that it requires almost no new learning or training. Office 365 is the best argument I’ve seen for moving documents into the cloud without any compromise in features and flexibility compared to desktop-only applications.

Versions

Home users can buy Office 365 Home Premium for a £79.99 annual subscription, which installs Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, Publisher, OneNote, and Access on Windows 7 or Windows 8 machines (but not on Vista or XP) and the full Office 2011 suite on Macs. Alternatively, if you’d prefer to pay monthly, you can do so at the slightly more expensive rate of £7.99 per month (which works out at £96 over the course of a year).

University students, faculty, and staff can get a similar Office 365 University subscription for a single payment of £59.99 for a full four years, usable on two devices – which as we noted in our Deals section today, works out at just £15 per year. Both services come with 27GB of cloud-based storage on Microsoft’s SkyDrive – 20GB added to the 7GB that anyone can get for free. Office 365 packages pitched for businesses are due at the end of next month.

Office forever

Starting from this week, you can also buy what Microsoft calls “perpetual” versions of Office 2013, meaning the traditional kind that are licensed forever but are only licensed to one machine. What you won’t be able to do is purchase Office 2013 on a DVD as you could with earlier versions. If you buy the “perpetual” Office 2013 in a box, what you get is a 25-character code that you can use after downloading the installer; if you want a DVD, you’ll have to buy it in one of the “developing countries” where Microsoft still sells them.

Traditional retail versions of Office 2013 come in Microsoft’s typically confusing array of versions: Home & Student, Home & Business, Professional, and, for volume-license customers only, Professional Plus. And don’t forget Office 2013 Home & Student RT, a reduced version of Office that only ships preloaded on ARM-based Windows 8 RT tablets, and which we plan to review when the current “preview” version gets updated to the final version at some unspecified future date.

We should also note one minor detail that won’t affect the way you work, but will slightly reduce the clutter on the desktop and Start menu: The names of the Office apps used to be Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, and so forth, but now they’re Word, Excel, etc.

Office in the cloud

Microsoft has dabbled in cloud-based application services before, using the same Office 365 service name, but with this new version, Microsoft has shifted Office’s focus from the desktop to the cloud, in more or less the same way Windows 8 shifts Microsoft’s focus from the desktop to the tablet.

If you want to save your documents to the desktop by default, instead of the cloud-based SkyDrive linked to your Microsoft account, you have to dig into the Options menu and check a box next to “Save to Computer by default.”

Office 365 works in different ways depending on the device you’re using. When you run it on a desktop or an Intel-based tablet like Microsoft’s Surface Pro (due to ship in February), a complete set of full-featured, no compromise Office apps are installed on your disk, so that Word, Excel, Outlook, and the rest are all exactly the same as the versions you get from the traditional one-machine-only versions of Office 2013.

I asked Microsoft if we could expect versions of Office for Android or the iPad and iPhone. Microsoft’s answer was that they were “not announcing” Office versions for non-Windows platforms at this time. It’s pretty easy to guess that they might announce something in the future, but I couldn’t say when.

Just as Windows 8 is Microsoft’s answer to Apple in the tablet market, the latest Office 365 is Microsoft’s answer to the cloud-based competition from Google Docs (which runs on every device you can think of) and Apple’s Pages, Numbers, and Keynote apps, which run in different versions on OS X and iOS. Google Docs has big one advantage for home users – it’s free. But business users and universities have to pay to get Google Docs, and Microsoft is offering a far more powerful product, with all the advanced features that Microsoft has been building into Office for the past twenty years.

When you buy an Office 365 subscription, you get a 25-character product key that you only need to enter once. You’ll need a Microsoft account, which can use any email address you already have or a new address that you create at Office.com. After entering the product key on the setup page, you click a couple of buttons to install Office on your system. Unlike the traditional versions of Office, you can’t customise your installation by choosing not to install some features – the whole suite gets installed, whether or not you plan to use, for example, Access or Publisher.

When you visit Office.com from a different system, all you need to do is sign in with your Microsoft account, and you’ll be able to install Office on this second system – and the site will tell you how many of your five installs you have remaining. If you run out of installs, you can deactivate Office on one machine and install it on another. When your subscription runs out, if you decide not to renew, then the Office 365 apps switch into read-only mode, but you can still edit your documents with an older version of Office or via the free and feature-limited Office Web Apps available through a web browser.

If you don’t want to install the full Office (and use up one of your five installs), you can run Office On Demand. This is a service that temporarily installs a full copy of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, or Publisher on any Windows 7 or 8 machine, lets you open or create documents on your cloud-based SkyDrive, and then deletes the app from the system after you close it. Office On Demand doesn’t use up any of your five full installs. I was surprised, by the way, to see how quickly the full set of Office apps or Office On Demand installed even on machines connected by a wireless network.

Gorgeous Office

I tried Office 365 on a Windows 7 desktop, a Windows 8 desktop, a Windows 7 laptop, and an Intel-based Windows 8 tablet. On the whole, I was deeply impressed by the new Office version on my desktops and laptops. Sadly, I was underwhelmed by it on the tablet, but I’ll save that experience for later in this write-up.

First of all, Office 2013 looks gorgeous. The new, blocky, flat-style design, matching the simplified design of Windows 8, is easy on the eyes and easier to navigate than any previous version of Office. Everything looks more elegant and clearer. Unfortunately, by default Office installs with a silly but unobtrusive image of clouds in the background of the title bar (presumably to remind you that Office 365 is designed for the cloud), but you can choose from a range of even sillier images (sandwiches, for instance) during installation or from the Options menu. Alternatively, you can choose my own personal favourite, the blank one called “No Background.”

If you prefer the keyboard to the mouse, it’s possible to simply tap the Alt key and then tap the letters that pop up on the ribbon and menus so you can navigate to any feature without touching the mouse. This feature was in earlier versions, but the new flat design makes it easier to see and use. Other visual improvements are subtle but significant: For example, in earlier versions the text cursor (the “insertion point”) would disappear and reappear distractingly while you typed, but in Office 2013, it moves smoothly across the page without disappearing.

Word’s new look

The ribbon interface includes subtle changes that make the whole suite easier to manage. For example, in Word, a new Design tab contains icons and controls that used to be packed confusingly into the Page Layout tab, meaning that the Page Layout tab is now less cluttered and doesn’t waste space on design-heavy features like page borders that business users and students probably don’t need.

Word’s commenting and review feature used to be the app’s ugly duckling, with clunky comment boxes filling the right hand side of the screen. Now the ugly duckling has grown into a swan, with elegant tree-structured comment boxes that you can minimise or mark as “done” so they are greyed out and not distracting. One effect of these improvements is that cloud-based collaboration, already built into older versions of Office 365, has considerably less to distract and annoy users than it used to.

One change that’s long overdue puts the spell-check dialog in a panel at the right of the editing window, so it doesn’t get in the way of your text or jump around the screen the way it did in the past. Impatient keyboard users like me can still use the same keystrokes employed in earlier versions to zip through spell-checking and everything else, but this interface change makes the whole process far less annoying.

Word has now caught up with Corel’s WordPerfect by adding the ability to import PDF documents, but the feature isn’t quite as smooth as it ought to be. Word does an excellent job of importing a PDF and converting it into a Word document you can edit, albeit with the inevitable changes in pagination and formatting.

What is odd is what happens when you try to save the imported file as a PDF with the same name as the original: Word tells you that the original PDF is a read-only file, so you have to save your edited file as a PDF with a different name, then delete the original PDF, then rename the newly saved PDF so that it has the same name as the original file. WordPerfect, in contrast, simply lets you import a PDF file, edit the imported file, and save it back to PDF under its original name.

Word’s non-editable Reading view (which you can switch to from normal editing mode) is also improved, and lets you click (or, on a tablet, tap) on an image or table to enlarge it for a closer look, then click or tap again to restore it.

If you close a document while it is in Reading view, when you open it next time, it displays a small badge at the foot of the window that you can click to go back to the page you were looking at when you closed the document. If you store your documents in the cloud, that means you can close a document in Reading view on your desktop machine, open it again on a tablet, and start reading where you left out. I’d like to see a similar feature that works in ordinary editing mode, so fingers crossed that Microsoft provides it in the near future.

Pros

  • Designed from scratch for the cloud
  • Smart, clear interface
  • Lots of subtle improvements to the suite
  • Unmatched power for editing and sharing
  • One license covers five machines

Cons

  • Clumsy to use on a touchscreen

Company

Microsoft

Price

£79.99 per year

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