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. That's not to say that all is perfect, because surprisingly, cloud integration still leaves something to be desired. Still, aside from that, 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.

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.

The Office Ribbon now has a flat rather than three-dimensional look. The name of your current tab is highlighted in blue. 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.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.

You'll find a variety of other cosmetic changes in Office, many designed to make Office 2013 look like a Metro app, even though it isn't one -- it runs on the desktop, not Metro. Perhaps the biggest of these changes is to the screen that opens when you click the File tab. (Microsoft called this area Backstage in Office 2010 but seems to have dropped the name in Office 2013.)

The File tab in Word and all the other Office apps has gotten a cosmetic makeover as well as some new features, such as easier ways to share with others. Click to view larger image.

This screen looks fully Metro-ized, with attractive flat tiles for a variety of commands. Most of the features offered here were available in Office 2010's Backstage, but some have been updated. For instance, when you create a new document from this screen, you can see thumbnails previewing the various templates.

Office 2013 and the cloud

Like Windows 8, Office 2013 was designed with the cloud in mind -- specifically Microsoft's cloud-based storage service SkyDrive, which is central to the company's cloud strategy. So it's a surprise that even with the Office 2013 beta installed on a PC running the Windows 8 Consumer Preview, Microsoft still hasn't gotten the cloud right.

On the plus side, Office 2013 includes direct links to SkyDrive throughout -- you can easily open any document that's on SkyDrive from inside any Office application; likewise, you can easily save any document to SkyDrive. But only OneNote has an automated sync feature; Microsoft hasn't taken the next step of ensuring that all Office applications automatically sync the latest version of your documents to every device you use.

Files don't automatically get saved to SkyDrive from your local PC; you have to remember to save them there. Let's say, for example, that you're at your office and you create a document and save it locally, but not to SkyDrive. That document is available only on your local PC, so if you're on another computer, you won't be able to open the document.

Consider this more troublesome scenario: You save the document on your local computer and decide that you might want to work on it elsewhere, so you also save it to SkyDrive. At some point later, you work on it from another computer, accessing it from SkyDrive and saving it to SkyDrive. Then you go back to your original computer, but you forget that you last worked on the document on SkyDrive, so you open up the local copy. You make local changes, which means that you now have two different versions of the same document, one on SkyDrive and one on your local PC.

What makes this confusion all the more surprising is that Microsoft has an easy solution at hand: a SkyDrive client app, which can be installed on Windows devices and Macs, as well as on Windows Phone, iOS and Android devices. With the SkyDrive app, all documents in local and Web-based SkyDrive folders automatically sync to the cloud and to other devices. When you make a change on a local PC, the file automatically syncs to SkyDrive in the cloud, and from there to all your other devices. You're always working with the latest version of your document, no matter where you made the change.

Microsoft only had to include the SkyDrive app in Office 2103 to enable this feature. But for some reason, it hasn't done that. It currently appears as if the SkyDrive app won't be included in the shipping version of Office 2013, although that may change between now and then. There is a simple workaround, though: Install it manually yourself.

Other global Office changes

Office has also been touch-enabled so that it's usable on a tablet -- surprisingly usable, in fact. Navigation using touch is simple, although you'll need to turn on the Ribbon in many cases to perform tasks by tapping the appropriate command. Office is also smart enough to know when you're in an area that requires text input, and pops up an on-screen keyboard at the appropriate times.

Also new are the many devices that Office 2013 will be available on, including not just PCs, but also Windows RT-based tablets and phones. (Only the PC version of Office 2013 is currently available for testing.) RT-based tablets won't have the entire Office suite, only Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote.

Another big change has to do with the way that Office will be able to be bought and accessed. For the first time, home customers will be able to purchase Office 365, the subscription version of Office currently sold and priced for businesses. It includes the standard version of Office plus additional features, which vary according to whether it's for home users, small office users, enterprise users and so on.

Office 365 offers a number of benefits that the standard version doesn't, including licenses for up to five different computers and the ability to keep settings such as Ribbon arrangements and preferred templates synced across all devices. It can also stream an Office application to an Internet-connected Windows 7 or Windows 8 device using the Office on Demand feature. When you finish using the application, it's removed from the computer.

Pricing isn't yet available, but presumably Office 365 will have annual or monthly fees rather than a one-time payment for a perpetual license, which you'll get when you purchase the non-subscription version. Until pricing is announced, there's no way to know how affordable Office 365 will be compared to Office 2013.

Also worth noting is that if you subscribe to Office, you get 60 minutes of Skype world minutes every month. And Office 2013 includes Yammer, a private, social network for businesses that was recently purchased by Microsoft.

Aside from those major global changes, there have also been changes -- some considerable, some not so much -- in each of the major Office applications, as you'll see in the next sections.


Word's new features fall into two main categories: making it easier to read documents and making it easier to share them. One change is clearly targeted at tablets rather than traditional PCs -- a new way to view documents called Read Mode. In this mode, reading becomes a horizontal experience suited to tablets and swiping, rather than a vertical experience suited to PCs and mouse scrolling.

Word's new Read Mode lets you swipe through pages horizontally rather than scroll through them vertically. Click to view larger image.

Choose it by selecting it from the View toolbar at the bottom right of the screen. In Read Mode, the Ribbon disappears, but the View toolbar remains. Text fills the screen horizontally, widening the margins and reaching nearly each side of the screen.

To move to the next or previous page, swipe the screen or else touch (or click) an arrow at the right or left edge of the screen. The horizontal orientation is well suited to the wide screen of a tablet but feels somewhat uncomfortable on a traditional PC.

Read Mode does more than just change the orientation of text; it also adds a very useful zoom feature. When you're in Read Mode, you can right-click a table, chart or graphic, and you'll be able to zoom in on it -- and then zoom further if you want so that it takes up the whole screen. This is particularly useful for viewing detailed information in a table.

Unfortunately, the new zoom is available only in Read Mode. It would be far more useful if it were available in other viewing modes as well.

In Read Mode you can zoom in on pictures and tables, but you can't use zoom in any other of Word's modes. Click to view larger image.

Read Mode also comes at a cost: In Office 2013, Microsoft has killed Draft Mode, which dispenses with displaying how the document will look when printed, and instead focuses on the text. I'll miss Draft Mode, because I primarily work with text rather than a combination of text and graphics. I'm sure others will miss it as well.

With Word 2013, Microsoft seems to have finally recognized that PDF files are here to stay, and has added a feature that will be exceedingly useful to anyone who works regularly with them. In this new version of Word, you can open PDFs and work on them just as if they were Word documents, including full editing capabilities.

When you work on the document, you get all of Word's normal features, such as markup, formatting tools and so on -- it's like working with a native Word document. You can save the document in any Word format, as well as in PDF.

There have been plenty of other changes in Word, including alignment guides that make it easier to precisely position photos, charts, pictures and diagrams. There's also a new Design tab in the Ribbon that puts all design feature and functions in a single location -- you can choose from a variety of document templates, and also change text colors, fonts and paragraph spacing; add watermarks; and change page colors and page borders. The Navigation Pane has also gotten a slight facelift, with a simpler, cleaner-looking layout that makes it less confusing to navigate around documents.

One change shows that sometimes the smallest and simplest alteration can be a big time-saver. Word finally has the feature I've been wanting for years: When you stop reading or editing a document, a bookmark is automatically placed in the last location you scrolled to, even if your cursor wasn't there. The next time you open the document, you're asked if you want to jump to the place where you left off. If the document has been synced to SkyDrive, when you next open the document from SkyDrive you can go to that same bookmarked spot as well.

People who share documents, make changes and comment on others' documents, or have them make changes or comment on theirs will welcome several improvements to Word's review features. One particularly useful one is Simple Mode, which makes it easy to review the changes and suggestions that others have made to a document.

In this mode, you see a clean version of your document with others' changes incorporated, but you also see indications where changes have been made -- for example, a red horizontal line indicating that text has been deleted. In this way, it's easy to do two things at once: see how the document will read with the changes made, but also see where edits have been made. To see the actual edits, just choose All Markup from the dropdown box on the Review tab.

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