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Microsoft Office 2013: A closer look

Last week, we presented our first impressions of the new version of Microsoft Office, which is now in preview (Microsoft doesn't say "beta"). Broadly, long-time Office users can look forward to three major changes to the product, as well as a design refresh and a select few new features in the programs that make up the suite, including Word, Excel, Outlook, and PowerPoint.

Given that a lot of computer-using professionals – myself included – and students spend hours every day staring at these apps, the visual refresh is pretty much reason enough to want the new Office. Anyone running Windows 7 or Windows 8 Release Preview can try Office 365 as the Home Premium release (recommended for individuals), Small Business Premium, and ProPlus Preview (enterprise-level).

Office users may be happy to see a new design, but will they want to pay for it? One of the major changes affecting the new Office is how Microsoft charges for it. You can now subscribe to Microsoft Office as a service, called Office 365, instead of buying the traditional shrink-wrapped Office 2013 software on discs. Another huge change for Office is that the apps now work on tablets and Windows phones. Finally, the new Office integrates tightly with SkyDrive, Microsoft's cloud storage system.

Aside from these three big announcements, the individual Office apps contain a handful of new features that sound pretty spectacular, like the ability to edit PDFs in Word. Now that I've spent a little more time with the preview, I have some more insight and details that I thought I would share regarding each of these new features.

Office 365 as a service

Not all the facts concerning the subscription-based Office 365 are clear, yet. Microsoft hasn't announced the price or payment plan, for example. A logical guess is that you'll be able to pay for Office 365 either monthly or yearly, with a slight discount applied to the latter. That's how most companies charge for their software-as-a-service.

What we do know is the subscription fee will allow you to install copies of Office 365 on up to five machines, which can include desktop and laptop PCs, Mac computers, Windows tablets, and Windows phones. We do not yet know if Microsoft will roll out a set of apps for iPhones and iPads, but the company has confirmed that a Mac OS version is on the horizon. It sounds as if you'll be able to uninstall or deactivate a device at any time to free up one of the licenses for another machine. That way, Office won't be a reason for you to hold off on buying a new computer or smartphone, for example.

Office 365 will include some automated syncing capabilities across the five machines on which you install it. And, of course, SkyDrive will allow you to access all your docs from all your devices, but more on that in a bit.

Software-as-a-service can be confusing in that it sounds like you need to be connected to the Internet to use it, as you do for web apps. That's not always true, however, especially for very large applications, and it's not the case with Office 365 either.

When you sign up for the service and make your first payment, you'll download and install software on your computer. This software can run whether you're connected to the Internet or not. To use the software, you are in essence renting rather than buying a license from the company. The software periodically checks that you have paid the rent, as it were, by asking you to sign in regularly. If you don't pay when your rent is due, the license expires and changes the installed software on your machine so that you can only use it to read and print documents, but not edit them or create new ones. Your files remain intact, and you still own them and have complete access to them, but you can't do anything to them in Word, Excel, and the other apps.

Another perk of Office 365 is that users will get more frequent updates to their software. When a new upgrade is available, Microsoft says it will notify consumers of the release and give them the option to install the upgrade at that time or when it's more convenient. Smaller updates to the software will automatically happen in the background by default. For businesses on Office 365, IT administrators will have the choice to allow employees to get upgrades automatically, or defer them to a later time. Notifications will look similar to what customers are familiar with today, according to Microsoft.

The short version is that the new Microsoft Office will be available as a subscription. The apps will work offline. You'll be able to install Office on five devices, and the software will get updates automatically and more frequently than if you purchased the software. Depending on which version of Office 365 you buy, such as Home Premium, Microsoft offers other perks, too, such as more cloud storage space and Skype credits.

Microsoft Office 365 on a tablet

I tested Microsoft Office 365 on a Samsung Series 7 Slate tablet PC running Windows 8 Release Preview. Having not yet had much experience with PC tablets, or the new Office, or Windows 8 for that matter, I was sure this foray would prove interesting, to say the least. And I was right.

The setup involved a stand for the tablet, wireless keyboard, stylus, and mouse. In theory, you can use Office without all these accessories, relying on your finger as a cursor control and the on-screen keyboard for typing, but it's a little tricky, as I'll explain. I ended up using a combination of my fingers, the stylus, and the external keyboard. Finger input works better than I expected, with the on-screen keyboard being the weakest link.

Setup took about 30 minutes, with most of that time spent trying to figure out how to find applications on Windows 8 because they're not on the desktop or in the system directory. They're on the home screen, showing up like "apps" in the Apple sense, in larger square icons. That's how Windows 8 works. But getting to the home screen is a slightly odd affair. Once you've reached the desktop, you have to press the Windows button to get to the home screen. There is a Windows button on the external wireless keyboard, but not on the virtual keyboard. Why the round button on the tablet doesn't put you on the home screen, as it would on an iPad, I have no idea.

I wouldn't call using Office on a tablet smooth sailing, exactly, but the functionality is what you'd expect on a PC. You get the full Office experience on a tablet. A finger or stylus works the same as a mouse to move the cursor, select text, highlight tables, and so forth. When I hold a stylus, I look like the first Western person who ever encountered chopsticks. I feel terribly awkward. I don't have the fine motor skills to point the pen tip where I want it, while also applying the right pressure to the screen, or pressing the button on the side of the pen.

Finger input, to me, is much more precise, though it takes patience and concentration to use in Office because menus, buttons, and text or table cells are small when it comes to highlighting them. You can't fly through Office with ease using just your fingers or a stylus. To get a desktop feel with Office on a tablet, you definitely want the whole kit and caboodle: Tablet stand, wireless mouse, and external keyboard.

The wireless keyboard provides the same functionality you'd find on a PC. But – surprise! – when I tapped the screen with the stylus or my finger, the virtual on-screen keyboard almost always popped up. I have yet to find a way to lock it out of sight while I use the wireless keyboard. (If you know how, please comment at the end of the article!) Every time the keyboard popped onto the screen, I had to tap the “x” on screen to close it. The main reason I didn't want to use the on-screen keyboard, aside from it being uncomfortable to type with, is that it's huge, taking up almost half the screen. It also seems to be limited in functionality. There's no Windows button on the main keyboard, leading me to believe there must be another way to reach the Windows 8 home screen (again, a little help in the comments, please?) than pressing the Windows button on the external keyboard.

The on-screen keyboard doesn't have buttons for taking screenshots either. I tried the iPad standard screenshot trick, pressing the round button and power button simultaneously, but it didn't get me anywhere. All my screenshots came from the Print Screen function, and pasting the image into another program.

On the plus side, and to make another Apple comparison, Office lets you save your files wherever you want. You can stick them in SkyDrive, Microsoft's free cloud storage solution, or you can save them locally, or to an attached drive, anywhere your heart desires. If you work on an iPad using comparable Apple iWork apps, like Pages and Numbers, you have no option where to save the file. Apple puts it in iCloud, end of story. If you're not connected to the Internet at the time, Apple saves it to a hidden directory on your device and syncs it to iCloud the next time it connects. Anyone married to folder structures and systemised file management will appreciate Office for keeping it old-school.

The new Microsoft Office does give you full PC and Office capabilities on a tablet, or very nearly considering the few on-screen keyboard quirks I pointed out, and that’s impressive. It does indeed seem viable to use a tablet PC for a lot of business productivity tasks.

Microsoft Office and SkyDrive

After the ability to work on tablets, the next major difference with Microsoft Office in version 2013/365 is that the suite is integrated with SkyDrive. SkyDrive itself isn't new, but its integration with Office is.

Think of SkyDrive as you would Google Docs. The two have a lot in common. Both are repositories for files that you can access from any web browser. Each has its own online versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, meaning you can create new documents or edit existing files directly in a web browser that imitates the program you need.

SkyDrive's suite of apps has all the core features you'll find in the desktop version of the software, but not more advanced features, such as macros, formulas, or track changes. Both Google Docs (which is now being expanded and rebranded as Google Drive) and SkyDrive are free if you sign up for an account with the affiliated service, either Google or Windows Live (which includes Hotmail, so if you have a Hotmail account, you already have SkyDrive).

While testing Office 365, I used SkyDrive to transfer my files from the tablet PC to my primary office computer. I would open the app in question, such as Word or Excel, do a little work, and save the file to SkyDrive, which is an option the moment you hit Save. In fact, it's the first option. If you want to save the file elsewhere, you can, but SkyDrive is the default location. Microsoft wants you to rely on it for more of the services you need for working on office documents. If SkyDrive is so seamlessly built into your Office experience, maybe you'll no longer need Dropbox to sync your files, or Google Docs to edit something quickly when you're on someone else's computer that lacks Office. But SkyDrive came too late for many of us. I'm unlikely to replace other apps in favour of SkyDrive because I already have those apps set up. I know how to use them, and they work.

While I was testing Office 365 and SkyDrive, I did switch between the Windows 8 tablet running the new Office and my much older primary computer, to see how easy SkyDrive made it to get files wherever I needed them. On the older machine, I logged into my Hotmail account, and clicked SkyDrive at the top of the page. I found the folder where I had saved the documents and clicked on it. There were my files, listed neatly with all their associated Office app icons next to them so I could quickly tell which were Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files. I downloaded what I needed and opened the files using an older version of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint without a hitch.

Another aspect of SkyDrive, and an app that's included with Office 365, is OneNote. To be frank, Microsoft OneNote is not my favourite note-taking application, but it's not bad. I just don't really see the point in using it rather than Word to write notes. One feature in OneNote that works specifically on tablets is support for drawing, and thus, handwritten notes. Grab a stylus or just use your finger to sketch or write out a quick idea. OneNote does not translate handwritten notes into text (in other words, it doesn’t do OCR) but people who sketch their ideas as diagrams or do a lot of mind-mapping will love having OneNote on the tablet.

All that said, when I was writing this very document in SkyDrive, for the first few hours I repeatedly saw "Can't Connect to Server" crop up in the upper right corner of the screen, even though I was online (as all open browser tabs worked fine). I also got an error message when I tried to save the file. There isn't an "export" feature directly within the SkyDrive Word app either, although it's possible to export or download a file from the file directory page. To safeguard myself, I started copying and pasting the contents of this document into a Google Docs file. Irony?

Editing PDFs in Word

Of all the new features, the ability to edit PDFs in Word takes the cake – for me, anyway. For years I have avoided the expensive Acrobat X Pro, which lets you edit PDFs, by using all kinds of workaround magic to get the job done. Adding PDF editing functionality right into Word is downright dreamy.

How well does it work, though?

Microsoft's press kit included a cherry-picked document on which I could test PDF Editing. Fat chance. I wanted to know how an impartial file would hold up, so I zipped over to a US government website and grabbed a W9 tax document. Nothing says impartial like a tax form.

Opening the PDF in Word was a quick process which worked like a charm, producing a note at the bottom of the screen suggesting the document was being processed in some way (more on that in a bit). A message at the bottom of the screen indicated the file was being "converted," but didn't specify from what to what. Opening the PDF did result in one error message: "This PDF contains interactive features that are not supported by PDF reflow. Word will not display this content."

Without fully understanding what that message meant, I fiddled with the document anyway, opening and closing it a few times with different results.

The W9 form contains two main areas on its first page: A top portion of mostly text fields (name, address, and so forth) and a lower section with written instructions and other verbiage. The first time I opened the PDF and zoomed in on the document, the lower text area grew larger, but the upper part remained as it was. I could zoom in on the top area only by double-clicking it, as if Word were interpreting it as a non-text object, perhaps an image. I could edit the lower text, but not the top. I could not type directly into the form fields, but I didn't necessarily expect to. "Editing" should not be confused with "filling out" a PDF. Options to "comment" and "ink comment" on top of the form fields did appear, however. Still, we haven't got to the exciting part.

Then Word quit on me, and I started over.

The second time (and every subsequent time) I opened the document, I saw the same error message, but this time, I could zoom in on any section of the document with equal results. Word was now parsing the top section as numerous text boxes with content (correctly so, as I assume that's how the PDF was originally designed). Again, I couldn't actually fill out the form, but I could now edit anything typed on the page, from the form field labels to the document title.

Editing becomes a remarkably smooth process, when you reach it. In my trials, Word matched typefaces, point sizes, and other formatting flawlessly. Every text box resizes, realigns, and slides around with a finger stroke on a tablet or with the drag of a mouse on a PC.

Saving an edited PDF document gives you much greater insight into what Word is really doing to the files. Hit Save and Word offers to save the file in the .docx format. In other words, the PDF is no longer a PDF the moment you open it in Word. The original PDF remains wherever you saved it, however, so if you don't change the file name, you'll now have two files, a PDF and a .docx file with the same name (but a different extension, of course). To turn your edited "PDF" (really a .docx file) back into a real PDF, you must change the file type when you hit save. It's no big deal to do, but it helps to understand what steps Word takes when you edit PDFs. You might want to change the file name before converting it back out to a PDF to avoid overwriting the original, of course.

Final thoughts

The new Microsoft Office, whether the one-time purchased Office 2013 or subscription-based Office 365, does offer some compelling changes. However, when you dig into the details of how well they work, most are far from perfect. We do have to remember, though, that everything is still currently in "preview" release and could be changed before going to market.

Full tablet support will take time to hone. A lot of unknowns plague the software-as-a-service version of Office, making it hard to tell whether subscribing will be worthwhile just yet. It may well come down to how responsive Microsoft proves when making necessary corrections to apps and pushing updated versions of the software to users. Just because an update comes out, doesn't mean it came fast enough, depending on what problem it's solving. SkyDrive isn't a new service, but using it as a location to save Office documents is, and so far it caters to the Windows crowd by sticking to some basic PC file management strategies - a good differentiator for those who don't want to work by Apple's methods. Editing PDFs in Word, the biggest single new app-level feature for me, looks promising and so far seems to get better the more you use it.

The only area where I'm still quite sceptical is how well Office 365 will work on tablets and smartphones. As I mentioned, I faced a bit of a learning curve trying to wrap my head around the whole shebang – Windows 8 and a PC tablet and Office 365 – at the same time. If you've been on the fence about ditching Microsoft Office in favour of an alternative, I would recommend rolling around the preview release to get a taste for it. The new design, which embraces white space, has already grown on me quite a bit.