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Office 2013 beta review: Microsoft (almost) nails it

July 16, 2012 03:30 PM ET


The new version of Outlook offers only moderate changes from the previous version of Outlook, which made a big splash with its full-blown use of the Ribbon. The changes in this version are useful, although not nearly as significant as that.

The Navigation pane has been streamlined so that it takes up less space, giving you more screen real estate for the rest of Outlook; in fact, it's so much smaller that Microsoft has renamed it the Navigation bar. As with other Office 2013 apps, the overall design is Metro-like, and you can easily go into full-screen mode to hide the Ribbon.

Those who use SharePoint and Exchange can create special email folders for team projects and give everyone on a team access to them. These folders can include not just mail, but also calendars and task lists.

Searching has been improved considerably. You can now search across all folders and mail accounts in a single search, rather than having to search folder by folder or mailbox by mailbox. It's another example of a small change being a big productivity booster; given how often I search through my mail, it'll probably be the most significant addition to Outlook for me.

There's also a useful new "peek" feature embedded in the Navigation bar. When you're reading mail, hover your mouse over what you want to peek at -- for example, your calendar that day -- and a thumbnail of your schedule appears, large enough to read, but not so large that it obscures the entire screen.

Outlook navigation bar peek feature
The "peek" feature lets you see thumbnails of other Outlook activities when reading mail.
Click to view larger image.

Other Office apps

Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook form the core of the Office suite, but depending on the version you get, there are a number of other applications in it as well, including OneNote, Visio, Publisher and Project. They have all been visually redesigned to be more Metro-like, and all have gotten new online sharing capabilities and other new features, none of them revolutionary.

OneNote now lets you capture screens and portions of screens, and save them to your notebooks. It also syncs automatically to SkyDrive and is accessible not only on other PCs, but via a variety of OneNote apps for mobile devices. I'm a big OneNote fan and find this feature particularly compelling. I was able to easily incorporate my existing OneNote notebooks from OneNote 2010 onto a Windows 8 tablet merely by launching OneNote -- it automatically synced from the cloud.

Publisher has been given the same feature as PowerPoint for finding photos and graphics online and embedding them in documents. Visio has gotten new shapes and new organizational chart styles. And there's a new Web-based version of Project, called Project Online, that's simpler to use than the full-blown Project.

The bottom line

Office 2013's streamlined look and feel may take some getting used to, but I believe it's a step forward for the suite. After using it for a while, I found that Office 2010 started to look dowdy by comparison. Add to that a slew of new features in each Office app, including several big productivity boosters, and Office 2013 is clearly a worthy upgrade, even in this initial beta release.

In fact, I found the beta to be surprisingly stable. The only issues I encountered were occasional problems fetching files from SkyDrive and saving files there. (Of course, all the usual caveats about installing beta software on a production machine still apply.)

[Update:The final version of Office 2013 shipped on January 29, 2013 and was not appreciably different from this version; I've reviewed the Office 365 Home Premium subscription version here.]

Next: Visual tour: Microsoft Office 2013 beta

is a contributing editor for and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

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