Review: In Office 2016 for Windows, collaboration takes center stage

Long available in rivals such as Google Docs, real-time collaborative editing finally comes to Microsoft Office, along with a handful of other useful improvements.

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Another new feature, Smart Lookup, makes it a bit easier to do research or fact-checking while you're working on a document. Right-click a word or group of words in Word, PowerPoint or Excel, and from the menu that appears, select Smart Lookup. Office then does a Bing search on the word or phrase and displays the results in a pane on the right-hand side of the page. In searching, Smart Lookup uses the context around the words, not just the words themselves, and so is designed to give you more relevant results.

For instance, in PowerPoint when I selected the word "carbon" in a slide about carbon bonds in organic compounds, it was smart enough to bring up results for carbon-carbon bonds and carbon-hydrogen bonds from Wikipedia. In a Word document about 3D printing, when I used Smart Lookup to look up the word "printer," it brought up Wikipedia results about 3D printing.

Office 2016 - Smart Lookup

Smart Lookup shows Bing search results when you right-click on a word or phrase in an Office 2016 document.

Other changes

There have been a number of other minor changes as well. In a cosmetic one, the Ribbon across the top of the program windows and in the title bars now has solid color in it rather than white. Each Office application has its own distinct color: blue for Word, green for Excel and red for PowerPoint, with Outlook a lighter shade of blue than Word's. In addition, the menu text for the Ribbon (File, Home, Insert and so on) is a mix of upper- and lowercase rather than all caps, and it's smaller than previously. Overall, I found it slightly more restful on the eyes than the previous version of Office.

Sway, the free presentation application for creating interactive presentations that Microsoft released in January, now ships with Office. It's no different than the current version of Sway, and there's no integration between the rest of Office and Sway, so it's a bit of an outlier. Microsoft says that eventually it will be integrated with the rest of the suite, but doesn't yet have any details about how that will work.

Spreadsheet jockeys will be pleased to see that Excel has six new charts, including a histogram (frequently used in statistics), one called "waterfall" that's effective at showing running financial totals, and a hierarchical treemap designed to visualize revenue sources.

Excel 2016 - waterfall chart

Excel offers six new types of charts.

I found a smaller addition quite useful as well. In what Microsoft calls the backstage area (it appears when you click "File" on the Ribbon), when you perform tasks such as opening a file, you see all of the cloud-based services you've connected to your account, such as SharePoint and OneDrive. That isn't new – the feature was already in the 2013 version of Office. What is new, though, is that each of those locations now shows the associated email address underneath it -- very helpful if you use a cloud service with more than one account. For example, I have two OneDrive accounts, one personal and one for business, and it lets me see at a glance which is which.

In addition, if an enterprise IT department configures Office to enable it, the Windows 10 digital assistant Cortana integrates with Office, and can do things such as tell you what meetings and tasks you have that day.

What's new for IT folks

IT will be pleased with a number of under-the-hood improvements made in Office 2016. Perhaps the one that IT will welcome most is the extension of data loss protection (DLP) features to Word, PowerPoint and Excel. Until now, DLP has been available only in communications-oriented tools, including Exchange, SharePoint, Outlook and OneDrive for Business. With Office 2016, DLP will allow IT administrators to create policies that govern document sharing and content authoring in Word, PowerPoint and Excel. So they'll be able to control what kinds of information different users and different groups can include in the documents they create, and can also limit whom the documents are shared with and where they can be shared.

Outlook gets a number of under-the-hood changes as well, including some that are designed to improve Outlook's stability on unreliable networks and others designed to reduce the download time of email. Also included are improvements to Outlook search speed and reliability and an updated MAPI-HTTP protocol that Microsoft claims is more Internet-friendly. Users can now also reduce the amount of storage space Outlook uses by choosing to keep one, three, seven, 14 or 30 days of email on their devices.

Other changes IT will welcome include improved traffic management with the introduction of a new service called Background Intelligence Transfer Service (BITS), which was designed to prevent network congestion during Office updates. There is also better integration with System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) so administrators can more efficiently distribute monthly updates as well as control the number and pace of feature updates and bug fixes.

Changes have also been made to the Office update model. With the Office 2016 rollout, organizations using Office 365 ProPlus had a new option for keeping Office updated, then called Current Branch for Business (now called Deferred Channel, as detailed below). This option delivers cumulative updates each year, rather than offering them monthly. It’s designed for businesses that typically wait several months before rolling out a new version of Office because they want to spend time testing it first.

In September 2017, Microsoft made changes to how it refers to update branches for Office. The Current Branch was renamed Current Channel. Current Branch for Business was renamed Deferred Channel. First Release for Current Branch was renamed First Release for Current Channel. First Release for Current Branch for Business was renamed First Release for Deferred Channel. Although the names changed, the servicing model for each channel remains the same.

The bottom line

If you work in groups and often collaborate with others, you'll find this version of Office a significant improvement over Office 2013, and potentially a big productivity booster. If you work by yourself most of the time, you'll still find some nice additions, notably in Outlook and the Tell Me feature.

Those with Office 365 subscriptions will likely be pleased with Office 2016 and the improvements to it that periodically roll out. If you buy the standalone version of Office and work only by yourself, it's a tougher decision. The few handy enhancements may or may not be worth the price.

This story was originally published in September 2015 and updated in August 2017 and September 2017.

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