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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I mentioned collaborative editing - Word makes good use of it - but a few other new features in Word turned my head even more. In-document comments now work more like discussion threads, so you can pass detailed notes about changes back and forth without crowding the document. Markup can also be presented in an abbreviated form, and comments can be marked as "done" when you've responded to them. Another nice touch is the "pick up where you left off" function. When you reopen a previously edited document in Word, the program remembers the last edit point and offers to take you there.

Office 2013
One of Word's best new features is remembering what you were doing. When you return to a document, you're invited to pick up right where you left off when editing.
 

Excel's new features are a mix of goodies for the bean counter and tools for the average user. For everyone, there are helpful features like Flash Fill. Essentially Autocomplete 2.0, Flash Fill detects existing patterns in a spreadsheet and helps replicate them automatically, although it seems to only work in very specific cases. For more advanced users, there are PivotTable enhancements, such as the ability to suggest the best way to have selected data transmuted into a PivotTable, and a genuinely useful data visualisation feature called Quick Analysis Lens, which lets you preview charts and graphs of selected data in much the same way you've been able to preview applied text styles for Office documents.

Office 2013
Excel's new Quick Analysis Lens feature gives you immediate and multiple visualizations for selected ranges of data. 

Most of the changes in PowerPoint are minor, but handy. You'll find new alignment and object-placement tools to make presentations look consistent across slides, a revamped presenter's view (you can now navigate and rearrange slides via a presenter-only grid view, for instance), and automatic setup for multiple displays. I'm surprised Publisher hasn't been completely eclipsed by Word, but it remains popular with home and small-business users, so Microsoft has kept it for 2013. Access, too, remains in the suite, even if most of its functionality for end-users has been gradually eclipsed by everything from Outlook to web-based services like Remember the Milk. The final standout is OneNote (not available as an Office On Demand app), which faces stiff competition from the likes of Evernote these days but gets a major boost by allowing notes to be automatically synced via SkyDrive and SharePoint hosting.

Office 2013
The presentation view for slide decks is one of the few features that have been revamped for PowerPoint. 

An Office app store

One new feature I'm still on the fence about is Apps for Office, which lets you add various tools - dictionaries, textual analysers, bar code creators - that developers make available (generally for a fee) in the Office Store. Install an app, and it appears in a pane to one side of the current document. Not all of the apps I tried worked, unfortunately, and some of them were little more than repurposed websites. I suspect this feature needs a bit more polish and a better roster of apps before it can be taken seriously, but I like where it could go. With Excel, for instance, the add-ins encompass genuinely useful features, like tools for generating heat maps and other data visualisations.

The revised licensing methods, expanded integration with Microsoft's services, and unique deployment options all make Office 365 Home Premium a great value for households with up to five users. It remains to be seen whether consumers will opt for the rent-by-the-year model as opposed to buying the suite outright as a boxed product. It's clear, however, that this is the sweetest Microsoft Office suite yet. Further, Office 365 Home Premium bodes well for the Office 365 business editions, which Microsoft will launch on February 27.

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