With Office 365 Home Premium, available today, Microsoft's office productivity suite inches as close to the cloud as possible without actually running in the cloud. The cloud orientation is reflected in the new Office 365 branding (borrowed from Microsoft's online services for business), the new application streaming delivery model (no installation discs), and new subscription-based pricing (whereby you can pay per month or year). For those who like having installation discs or who prefer to buy rather than rent, more traditional SKUs of Office 2013 are also available.
Office 365 Home Premium has been crafted to make the rent-as-you-go plan as appealing as possible to the masses who haven't yet abandoned Microsoft Office for OpenOffice, LibreOffice, or Google Docs. For $100 a year, you get five installations of Office 2013 Home Premium (traditional SKUs limit you to one installation) and access to Office resources in the cloud. These cloud resources include not only SkyDrive and the browser-based Office apps, but also personalized settings that follow you wherever you happen to be working and the ability to install temporary copies of the Office 2013 programs on demand on a PC that doesn't have it.
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Every Office 365 Home Premium subscription also includes 60 monthly minutes of international calls via Skype and 20GB of SkyDrive storage. At the end of the licensing period, all programs revert to read-only status unless you renew. The biggest drawback to Office 365 Home Premium is that it's licensed for noncommercial use only; if you use Office 365 for "revenue-generating activity," you must use the Office 365 Small Business Premium SKU or higher. According to Microsoft, you're likewise covered if your Office license at work includes home use.
Cloud connectionsMicrosoft prides itself on the way Office 365 is delivered to PCs. Instead of running the traditional .MSI installer from media, you download a 500K installation stub from the Web. The stub triggers a "streamed" download that fetches components of Office on-demand and installs them in a virtual file system using Microsoft's application virtualization technology (App-V). One benefit is that Home Premium can be installed side by side with previous versions of Office.
Another benefit is a fast install. On my connection, the entire Office 2013 suite -- Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, Access, Publisher, and OneNote -- took about five minutes to get installed and running, with a PowerPoint slide deck unfolding in the foreground to walk me through the new features. If installing a portion of the suite threatens to slow down proceedings, a dialog box pops up from the tray to alert you. I saw this warning a couple of times, but only during the first usage of a given program. Everything after that was snappy.
Office 2013 integrates closely with Microsoft's online services, both for the sake of making one's own work portable and for enhancing collaboration. You don't have to use a Microsoft sign-in identity to use the suite, but doing so gives you automatic access to files in SkyDrive, through which you can collaboratively edit documents with other users in real time. Plus, any Office settings you have will move with you between systems -- not just cosmetic preferences like visual styles for the program, but also low-level settings like custom dictionaries in Word.
A particularly snazzy feature, Office On Demand can "stream" a copy of Office 365 Home Premium to a PC for provisional use. Once you're finished, you simply close the program; it uninstalls itself without a trace. I used Office on Demand to run Word 2013 on a Dell Latitude 6430u Ultrabook, and while the program sometimes stalled to download additional pieces as needed, I was able to get completely up and running in about five minutes. The installers are cached locally, so even after a reboot I was able to fire up fresh instances of Word from Office On Demand in seconds. It doesn't remember any user settings, but that makes sense if you're trying not to leave anything behind. (A consequent downside: Custom dictionaries aren't streamed to Office On Demand setups.)
Meaningful improvementsThe biggest visible change to each app is the Modern UI-style theme, plus a setting to make visual elements more useful on a touch display by ramping up their size. Outlook contrasts most dramatically with its previous versions, and it looks far less crowded and busy. But the changes to Outlook don't stop there: It has a more efficient mail-storage format; lets you reply to emails "inline," meaning directly from the inbox (a nice way to avoid cluttering your screen with open windows); and finally lets you view appointments or contact information without having to switch away from email.
Outlook's cleaned up Modern UI makes dealing with piles of mail (and contacts, and events) far less suffocating.
I mentioned collaborative editing -- Word makes good use of it -- but a few other new features in Word turned my head even more. In-document comments now work more like discussion threads, so you can pass detailed notes about changes back and forth without crowding the document. Markup can also be presented in an abbreviated form, and comments can be marked as "done" when you've responded to them. Another nice touch is the "pick up where you left off" function. When you reopen a previously edited document in Word, the program remembers the last edit point and offers to take you there.
One of Word's best new features is remembering what you were doing. When you return to a document, you're invited to pick up right where you left off when editing.
Excel's new features are a mix of goodies for the bean counter and tools for the average user. For everyone, there are helpful features like Flash Fill. Essentially Autocomplete 2.0, Flash Fill detects existing patterns in a spreadsheet and helps replicate them automatically, although it seems to only work in very specific cases. For more advanced users, there are PivotTable enhancements, such as the ability to suggest the best way to have selected data transmuted into a PivotTable, and a genuinely useful data visualization feature called Quick Analysis Lens, which lets you preview charts and graphs of selected data in much the same way you've been able to preview applied text styles for Office documents.
Excel's new Quick Analysis Lens feature gives you immediate and multiple visualizations for selected ranges of data.
Most of the changes in PowerPoint are minor, but handy. You'll find new alignment and object-placement tools to make presentations look consistent across slides, a revamped presenter's view (you can now navigate and rearrange slides via a presenter-only grid view, for instance), and automatic setup for multiple displays. I'm surprised Publisher hasn't been completely eclipsed by Word, but it remains popular with home and small-business users, so Microsoft has kept it for 2013. Access, too, remains in the suite, even if most of its functionality for end-users has been gradually eclipsed by everything from Outlook to Web-based services like Remember the Milk. The final standout is OneNote (not available as an Office On Demand app), which faces stiff competition from the likes of Evernote these days but gets a major boost by allowing notes to be automatically synced via SkyDrive and SharePoint hosting.
The presentation view for slide decks is one of the few features that have been revamped for PowerPoint.
An Office app storeOne new feature I'm still on the fence about is Apps for Office, which lets you add various tools -- dictionaries, textual analyzers, bar code creators -- that developers make available (generally for a fee) in the Office Store. Install an app, and it appears in a pane to one side of the current document. Not all of the apps I tried worked, unfortunately, and some of them were little more than repurposed websites. I suspect this feature needs a bit more polish and a better roster of apps before it can be taken seriously, but I like where it could go. With Excel, for instance, the add-ins encompass genuinely useful features, like tools for generating heat maps and other data visualizations.
The revised licensing methods, expanded integration with Microsoft's services, and unique deployment options all make Office 365 Home Premium a great value for households with up to five users. It remains to be seen whether consumers will opt for the rent-by-the-year model as opposed to buying the suite outright as a boxed product. It's clear, however, that this is the sweetest Microsoft Office suite yet. Further, Office 365 Home Premium bodes well for the Office 365 business editions, which Microsoft will launch on Feb. 27.
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This story, "Office 2013 is the best Office yet" was originally published by InfoWorld.