Office 2013 review - New Microsoft suite is best Office yet

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.

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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.

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 licence at work includes home use.

Cloud connections

Microsoft 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 dialogue 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 improvements

The 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.

Office 2013
Outlook's cleaned up Modern UI makes dealing with piles of mail (and contacts, and events) far less suffocating.

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