Office 2013 beta review: Microsoft (almost) nails it

The new software sports a clean interface and excellent new features, but only so-so cloud integration.

The just-released beta of Microsoft's Office 2013 gives the application suite one of the biggest aesthetic facelifts the package has ever received, with a flatter, Windows 8 Metro-like look, Ribbonless operation for those who favor a cleaner interface, better integration with the cloud, and a number of features designed for tablets and touch devices. The look of the new suite fits right into Windows 8, but works just as well on earlier versions of Windows.

The changes Microsoft made go more than skin deep, with some very useful new features in many of the applications, such as improved markup and the ability to edit PDFs in Word, the ability to quickly find and insert graphics from the Web in PowerPoint, new data visualization tools in Excel and an improved Navigation pane in Outlook.

All in all, this is a worthy successor to Office 2010, and based on this first beta looks to be well worth the upgrade. On the whole, Microsoft has done most things right in this new Office version.

A cleaner, Metro-like look

The first thing you'll notice about Office 2013 across all its apps is its new look, which is cleaner, less cluttered, and more like a Metro app than a traditional desktop app.

Metro-like interface in Office 2013

The new version of Office sports a Metro-like interface, even though it's written as a desktop app.

Click to view larger image.

The Office Ribbon is flat-looking, rather than three-dimensional as it is in the current version of Office. The text on the tabs is gray rather than black, making it recede even further. Click a tab and its text turns blue.

Word 2013 Ribbon
The Office Ribbon now has a flat rather than three-dimensional look. The name of your current tab is highlighted in blue.
full-screen icon
Click the full-screen icon to make the Ribbon disappear.

Although the Ribbon is turned on by default, you can make it go away by clicking the full-screen icon located just to the right of the question mark icon on the screen's upper right.

When you do that, not only does the Ribbon go away, but so does everything else except the content area. Even the title bar at the top of the screen and the status bar across the bottom, with icons for tasks such as changing the view, disappear.

Working in Word with the Ribbon showing
Working in Word without the Ribbon

Working in Word with the Ribbon showing.

Click to view larger image.

Working in Word without the Ribbon -- content takes center stage. Click to view larger image.

The result is more screen real estate, which lets you focus on the work in front of you rather than on the application's interface.

To make the Ribbon come back, click the three small dots that appear at the top right of the screen when the Ribbon disappears. But there's a catch: If you start typing after you make the Ribbon return this way, the Ribbon again vanishes.

To make the Ribbon stay there, you have to first click the three buttons, then click the icon that you initially clicked to make the Ribbon vanish. It's quite confusing; I hope that Microsoft changes this behavior in later versions.

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