Microsoft Word 2013 review

Pros

  • Superbly feature-rich
  • The gold standard for text documents
  • Large number of refinements
  • Useful interface tweaks, new design tab

Cons

  • A few features are confusing

Microsoft Office is like a hardware store packed with everything from power drills to light bulbs – in other words, packed with everything from Word and Outlook to Publisher and OneNote – and Microsoft wants you to buy everything in the store even if you only need one or two tools.

Go to Microsoft's online Office store, and the top of the page displays options for buying the whole suite in various combinations including the Office 365 subscription service, plus separate editions for home, business, and professional use. But scroll down the page, and you'll see tiny icons that let you buy the Office apps separately. Microsoft has always offered this option, but you need to look for it. Many Office users only need Word, so it makes sense to buy just Word for a one-time fee of £109.99.

If you don't count web browsers, Word is the most-used app on the planet – and probably the most complex and full-featured as well – so we're posting this full-scale review of the latest version, Word 2013. I'll focus first on what's new in Word, and then on some long-standing features that are hard to find in recent versions – or hard to understand even after you find them.

What's new and different

Word for Windows has gone through 15 versions since its first Windows release in 1989, and recent versions tend to improve on existing features rather than adding new ones. Aside from interface changes, the biggest new feature in Word 2013 is its ability to import PDF files, and unfortunately, Microsoft's implementation of this has some major flaws.

Word does an impressive job of converting a PDF file into a Word document so that you can edit it in Word like any other document, but Word doesn't let you overwrite the original PDF with your edited version. If you want to save the edited version in PDF format, you have to export it to a PDF file with a different name from the original – and then, if you want to replace the original with the edited version, you have to delete the original and rename the revised version so that it has the same name as the original one.

I can see why Microsoft did this: It's almost inevitable that an imported and edited PDF will end up with different formatting and layout from the original PDF, simply because Word and other applications have different ways of laying out a page, and Microsoft didn't want you to lose the original PDF formatting when you merely edited a few sentences. But Microsoft should at least have given expert users an option to overwrite the existing PDF file. (Like Word, the open source LibreOffice suite produces an error message when you try to overwrite an edited PDF, but Corel's WordPerfect Office has the advantage of letting you save over the existing file).

One new feature reflects the fact that Word documents are likely to be read on screen as well as on paper. An Online Video tool in the Ribbon's Insert tab lets you place a "live" YouTube or other video in the middle of the document.

Unlike the pictures in newspapers that Harry Potter reads, the videos won't be live on paper, but anyone who opens the document on screen will be able to click the video to play it. Another feature cleans up Word's display of comments, making it possible to place a comment within an existing comment, and collapse a whole block of comments to save screen space.

Other new features in Word 2013 mostly provide easier ways of doing things that you could do already. For example, you get new alignment guides – green horizontal and vertical lines that appear on the page as you move an image or chart around a document, so you can line it up exactly where you want to. I used to bang my head on the table while trying to figure out where Word was placing an image that I moved through a document, and sometimes needed to dig deep into the menu structure to find the layout option I wanted.

Another new feature that protects my desk and forehead from damage: The positioning options that now appear on an image's right click menu – this means no more digging into a dialog box to set layout options that place an image in-line with text or with text flowing around or above it. The pen tools provide similar abilities for drawing borders on tables or table cells. Instead of diving into complex dialog boxes for setting table borders, I can now click on a Border Painter tool in the Ribbon and click on the border that I want to paint with a special colour or line thickness.

At long last, Microsoft moved Word's spell-check dialog to a panel at the side of the screen instead of letting it hover over my documents and jump from one position to another to avoid hiding the word it was checking. I only wish Microsoft had done the same thing with the Find and Replace dialog, which still hovers and bounces as it jumps from one search string to the next. A minor but welcome interface improvement puts many formatting options on a new Design tab, so you can choose among design themes (colour-coordinated sets of fonts and colours for headlines and text) or choose a background colour or page border.

Like everything else in Office 2013, Word has a new, flat, square-cornered look that simplifies the interface. By default, documents appear against a blinding white background, but you can change that to light or dark grey (I prefer light grey) by using File, Options, General, and selecting from the "Office Theme" dropdown. While you're there, keep in mind that Office has always been keyboard-friendly. Instead of clicking File, Options, you can simply tap Alt; Word displays boxed letters that you can tap to zero in on what you want. Tap F, then T, and then use the Tab and arrow keys to navigate the Options menu.

Microsoft makes a big deal of the fact that you can now save by default to the cloud-based SkyDrive service, and I agree that this is convenient if you want to access the same files from different computers and devices, but you could have done the same thing with a few more steps in earlier versions.

What's hidden and what’s the same

Some of the most powerful features that Microsoft built into Word twenty years ago are still there, but now you have to look for them. For example, Word is the only current word processor that lets you split a document window into two panes so that you can (for example) edit page 1 in the top pane and page 100 in the bottom pane, while your edits in both panes are instantly reflected in the document.

Until now, Word's vertical scroll bar had a "split" tool at the top – you simply dragged on that tool to split the window into two panes. Now you have to go to the View tab on the Ribbon and select Split. Only a tiny percentage of users bothered with the split-screen feature, but it seems unfair to penalise them by hiding a useful tool.

Word still keeps up the bad habit of changing your documents in ways you may not have intended. Unless you change the settings under File, Options, Proofings, AutoCorrect Options, Word will indent a whole paragraph when you press the Tab key – even if you grew up with a typewriter and expect the Tab to indent only the current line. I don't like Word's habit of formatting ordinals like the "st" in 21st as superscripts. Every time I install Word, I have to go to the Proofing options to turn that off.

If you've ever found an apparently non-removable horizontal line in the middle of your document, that's because Word applied a paragraph border when you typed a line of dashes. Again, you need to go to the AutoCorrect options to make Word stop doing this, and other things you didn't ask it to do.

Two decades back, Microsoft made a big deal of Word's uniquely powerful Field feature, which let you perform dozens of automated tricks such as creating index entries for terms that were listed in the index even if the exact word didn't appear on the page, or forcing some text in a document to contain the name of the document even if you changed the name while editing. This feature was intellectually demanding and Microsoft hid it so well that it took me a while to find it on the Insert tab, hidden under the Quick Parts dropdown.

Microsoft still hasn't sorted out some features that have bamboozled users for years, such as its confusing "sections" feature that controls changes in page margins and similar layout options. One notorious source of frustration is the powerful Styles feature that lets you select a style such as "Heading 1" and apply it to an existing line of text so that, with one click, the line receives complicated formatting such as 18-point bold Constantia type with tightly spaced letters, formatting that you want to apply to multiple lines throughout your document. This feature is prominently visible on the Home tab, but Word doesn't prepare you for the unpredictable way it works.

Here's what I mean – and pay close attention, class, because this is somewhat convoluted. If I apply Word's "Heading 4" style to a line of text that reads "ITProPortal, 2013" the italics disappear and "ITProPortal" appears in Roman type. But if I apply the same "Heading 4" style to a line of text that reads "ITProPortal, 4 March 2013," then the italics are preserved.

The reason for this is that Word overrides existing formatting (for example, removing the italics in the first example) if more than 50 per cent of the text has what Microsoft calls "direct formatting," like the italics which appear in more than 50 per cent of my first example. However, Word does not override the existing formatting if less than 50 per cent of the text has "direct formatting," like the italics in my second example.

Chances are you didn't know about Word's 50 per cent rule, but unless you pay careful attention when applying styles to existing text, it's almost guaranteed to bite you sooner or later by removing formatting that you wanted to preserve. Word has other obscure rules and features that we hope to explore in detail in the future.

Verdict

I could go on and on about Word's quirks, but I know perfectly well that Word, despite everything, is the most powerful and flexible word processor ever invented. After more than 20 years of using it almost every day, I'm still discovering its powers and conveniences.

I get a lot of use out of Corel's WordPerfect, which has strengths in the few places where Word is awkward or weak, and I sometimes use Apple's Pages for its stunning layout features, or LibreOffice for its ability to convert dozens of document formats. But Word is still the one indispensable application for anyone who writes anything longer than an email, and it's one of the few apps that, for all its minor faults, deserves to be called a work of genius.