The New Microsoft Office – Office suites – CNET Reviews

Even at this early stage, I really like The New Microsoft Office, but it’s important to point out that this suite of productivity apps is not free. So I wouldn’t blame you for asking why a business would pay for it when it could get a comparable set of office tools from Google Docs for a lot less or even free. But after using The New Microsoft Office (that’s the official name of the entire suite) for a few days, I can tell you that there are plenty of reasons for trading up.

For starters it’s available wherever you are, on whatever device you’re using at the time, and with full touch-screen support, the entire suite has been reinvented to work with Windows 8-driven tablets, regular keyboard-and-mouse desktop setups, and even smartphones. Along with a completely reinvented interface, all of these things come together to make it the best Office yet.

C is for convenience
Like most recent versions of Office, the suite comes in many versions with tiered packages from the cloud-supported Office 365 to the desktop standalone Office 2013. Whether you choose to pay for Office 2013 or sign up for a subscription to Office 365, the bigger challenge for Microsoft will be how it markets the suite to both businesses and individual consumers to show why they need to make the switch at all.

The New Microsoft Office (pictures)

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So how could Microsoft do it? In a word: convenience. I’m not just talking about the convenience of continuing to use what you’ve used before — I’m talking about the suite itself. What Microsoft has done in this latest version is make Office useable on a tablet running Windows 8 and, in converting the myriad productivity tools to support touch screens, the company had to make most actions only one click (or tap) away. So while it has streamlined the suite out of necessity, it’s now easier to use than ever before.

Office also offers an enormous number of templates across the suite (with even more available online) to fulfill almost any business need. Almost all have a polished and professional look so you’ll waste almost no time creating documents from scratch. In my testing, the suite of apps worked seamlessly together — and with Microsoft’s services — making collaboration, sharing, and internal communication much easier.

Microsoft Word

The Ribbon is still here and offers a wealth of tools across each tab as it detects the most common uses for the content you have selected. But if you don’t like the Ribbon, you now have the option to hide it and bring it back only when you need it.

(Credit: Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET)

The interface
The new interface across the entire suite of applications has been reinvented, mostly for the better. First off, the Ribbon, which disappointed many users when it first appeared in Office 2007, remains part of the new Office. But before you start grumbling, consider that Microsoft has made it optional this time around. So now you can show or hide the exhaustive collections of tools across every tab, and decide how much or how little you want to use them. In my review of Office 2010 I liked the Ribbon, but I’ve heard enough from users who disagree to know that Microsoft has made a wise change.

Aside from the Ribbon, the interface is similar but much simpler than it was in Office 2010 and earlier. Flat buttons and plenty of white space make the interface look less crowded. Newly added start pages for Word, PowerPoint, and Excel help you get to recent documents and new templates immediately upon launch. Other interface tweaks are tablet-focused such as the radial menus in OneNote that show options (like sharing, search, and zoom tools) in a circle around the area you pressed. The general feel of the suite is more streamlined and more cloud-integrated, and it seems like it will be useful to those looking at the same documents on several devices.

PowerPoint

The new Presenter View in PowerPoint shows you the next slide in the presentation on the right and offers tools (like a virtual laser pointer) and your notes on the left so you always know what’s coming up next.

(Credit: Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET)

The software
The main core apps of the suite have all been updated with the new look and several new features that can be used with touch-screen tablets, desktop computers, and smartphones.

Microsoft says it is trying to make a smoother experience all around, which is shown not just in the interface, but with tweaks to the apps that will make getting things done easier. As an example, a new Read Mode in Microsoft Word lets you flip through documents like a book (on a tablet) and offers only the features that help you with common reading actions such as controls for defining words, translations, and searching the Web. But flashier additions in the new version of Word also let you view video right within documents (with an online connection). There are also other time-savers like the option to collapse sections of a document to get them out of the way, and a navigation pane that lets you know at a glance where you are in the document. Some of these options probably just seem like common sense, but what Microsoft has done has made many complex actions in earlier versions of the suite only require a couple of clicks.

The major theme remains that the most useful features are only a click (or tap) away. In Excel, for example, you have the Quick Analysis Lens that lets you click a small tab to view several recommended ways of visualizing your data. From here it only takes one more click to apply formatting, create a Sparkline, or add a chart or table to make your data clearer. In PowerPoint, you may have been working on a presentation in one theme, but want to give it a new look. With only a couple of clicks, you can change themes (and flip through variants of themes) and your content will move to fit the new style. Outlook has time-savers as well, with a new feature called Peeks that lets you peek at your schedule or a specific appointment without the interruption of leaving a message window. All of these quick features add convenience and cut out steps you would have had to perform in earlier versions of the suite.

Microsoft unveils The New Microsoft Office (pictures)

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In the more business-oriented apps, the theme is the same: cutting out steps to streamline your work flow. For example, Microsoft’s diagramming app, Visio, helps you create diagrams more easily with more options to collaborate with others in fewer steps. Like the one-click changes already mentioned in Word, PowerPoint, and Excel, Visio offers quick customizations so you can diagram shapes and themes in only a couple of clicks. The software is tightly integrated with the other apps in the suite as well, letting you easily link diagram shapes from common data sources including Excel, SQL Server, SQL Azure, and SharePoint External Lists. What you’re getting with the new Microsoft Office is a suite that plays together nicely and that will likely mean you can complete projects in less time.

Excel

By making the new Office ready for touch screens, Microsoft streamlined many of the most common tasks to only require a couple of clicks. One of the new features of Excel is the ability to highlight data, and have the software recommend the best chart or graph to represent that data.

(Credit: Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET)

The services
Microsoft’s enterprise services, including Exchange, SharePoint, and Lync, are the glue that holds the whole enterprise suite together and a number of improvements make communication between the moving parts of an organization more streamlined and secure in the new suite. In Exchange, new Data Loss Prevention features help you monitor and protect sensitive data, and a new Exchange eDiscovery Center lets you monitor and analyze SharePoint, Lync, and Exchange data from a single interface. SharePoint has been improved as well to help you share ideas and get instant feedback on projects using improved customizable team sites where you can stay in sync with coworkers. Lync offers a unified client for voice and video calls along with instant messaging for a consistent experience across all devices, from your Web browser to your smartphone. All of the services attempt to make collaboration easier and Microsoft has succeeded in streamlining every service so diving in is not as daunting as it was in earlier versions of suite.

Conclusions
The new Microsoft Office tries to cover all the bases for productivity, and in my early tests, it does an admirable job. With the focus on making the suite available on Windows 8 tablets, the company made many actions easier across the suite out of necessity, making it easier to learn how to use by both businesses and individual consumers regardless of the device they are working on.

With that said, one of my biggest early challenges in testing the software was learning how to navigate Windows 8 before I could even get to the Office apps. This is important because if you’re going to follow Microsoft into the world of the touch-screen OS, you may run into the same challenges I did. After a couple of days of testing I was able to navigate the OS quickly, but I think it’s worth noting that there is an additional learning curve with Windows 8 before you take the leap.

The question (much like with Windows 8) is how people will receive the new interface, and whether users will embrace the touch-screen technology. Are we going to see a surge in Windows 8 tablets purchased as a result, or will people ignore the new tech and stick with their desktops?

Another question I have is whether businesses will opt for the cheaper Google Docs experience, and if consumers will continue to use Google Docs for free. Office may be a better overall experience, but it’s no secret money can be the deciding factor for many people. In the end, we won’t know for sure until early next year when The New Microsoft Office is released, but from what I’ve seen, this version could be the must-have office suite, if Microsoft can convince businesses and users to discard the free-to-play options for a more polished, integrated, and streamlined experience.

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One thought on “The New Microsoft Office – Office suites – CNET Reviews

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