Microsoft Office 2013 Preview: More Cloud, More Social, So-So Touch


It’s like the McDonald’s of productivity apps: According to Microsoft, Office now serves more than 1 billion people around the world. Still, that doesn’t mean that the Redmond giant can rest on its laurels. The latest version of Office places a much greater emphasis on the cloud: Not only can you store documents to SkyDrive (in fact, it’s the default storage spot) and share them with colleagues, but you can connect the Office apps themselves to established social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn, adding further context to your contacts. And, with Windows 8 on the horizon, Office now includes some touch capabilities as well.

Microsoft has yet to announce pricing or availability, but the customer preview version can be downloaded starting today. We tested the new Office on a Samsung Series 7 Slate PC running Windows 8. Here’s our take on the biggest changes and what they mean for Office users everywhere.

Interface

 

In general, Office has a cleaner, more Spartan look than before. Instead of gray or blue menu bars, everything is white with gray text. We wish it were black, because we associate the gray color with an application that’s running in the background. We had to click on the menu bar just to make sure we were in the active window.

When you first open an app, you’re presented with a page showing a number of templates ranging from a blog post to a calendar in Word, to family budgets and currency converters in Excel. Considering all the different ways these apps are used, these templates are helpful starting points for the uninitiated. Of course, you can also open a blank document.

In all of the apps, you can go into a full-screen view by pressing the icon just to the right of the “?” When hidden, three dots appear at the upper right which, when pressed, reveal the toolbar temporarily until you start typing in the body of whatever document you’re working on.

Considering the limited real estate on tablets, this feature should come in handy. However, if you move the mouse over too far to the right, Windows 8’s Charms menu pops up if you’re not too careful.

Present throughout all the apps in Office are Contact Cards. Whenever a person’s name appears, you can either click or mouse over his or her name, and a pop-up window will appear. The card shows not only that person’s name and email address, but also Facebook and LinkedIn Status updates, as well as a multitude of ways to contact that person, such as IM, call, or video chat—provided that they have a Lync account. It was smart on the part of Microsoft to realize that there’s more than one method of communication. We only wish that we could link even more social networks, such as Twitter.

Gone is the circular Office button, which we suspect people will be clamoring for once they see its replacement. Click on File, and instead of a drop-down menu, you’re taken to an entirely different screen (shown above). Here, you’re given info on the document itself, as well as options to create a new document, print, save, and so forth. While it’s a bit more information than you’d get from a drop-down menu, switching to an entirely new screen is very jarring.

By default, documents are saved to SkyDrive, so you can access them anywhere, but even saving a document is a little counterintuitive. Instead of a pop-up window, you first have to choose where you want the file to be saved, either on SkyDrive or locally.

When we selected our SkyDrive folder, we did get the familiar pop-up Windows Explorer window, but this, too, proved to be less than clear. Instead of a folder that said “Mike Prospero’s SkyDrive,” as on the previous page, it was a string of numbers and letters, which made us wonder just where the file was being saved.

Throughout Office, you’ll see a smiley face icon, usually in the upper right-hand corner. Click this and you can send feedback to Microsoft on a particular feature or bug.

Touch-friendly features

Of course, one of the central tenets of Windows 8 is that it merges a traditional desktop environment with one that’s more touch-friendly. To that end, Office 2013 boasts some features designed to appeal to tablet users, though we’re not about to ditch our keyboard and mouse just yet.

Activating the touch mode (a small blue circle icon at the top of the screen) makes icons and menu items slightly larger, so that it was somewhat easier for us to select things from the ribbon. It’s such a mild difference in size that it feels like lip service. Even in touch mode, it was still difficult to resize windows using just a finger.

If you touch on a word in Word, a small circle appears just below; press and hold it, and you can select a block of text, which you can then edit or re-format. All in all, we didn’t mis-touch anything, but the resolution on the tablet we were using was 1366 x 768; we wonder how easy this will be on a tablet with a 1080p display.

OneNote has a feature called Radial menus, which weren’t available while we were testing Office. These circular menus–which are somewhat reminiscent of Acer’s Ring Interface–appear to let you adjust settings using just your thumb. We hope that Microsoft implements this feature into the other Office apps as well.

We were worried that using our finger on a right-hand slider bar would accidentally open the Charms menu, but fortunately, that didn’t happen once while we were using Office. However, we did find that, when using Read Mode in Word, our natural inclination to swipe from the right-hand bezel did, in fact, bring up the Charms menu instead of advancing the page.

When using a mouse, moving the cursor to the upper right or upper left-hand corner of the screen to close windows would sometimes result in us opening the Windows 8 menus, which was also slightly annoying.

The Windows 8 on-screen keyboard, at least on the Samsung Series 7 PC Tablet, is plenty large, and can either be free-floating, or docked to the lower half of the screen. Just like any onscreen keyboard, it’s fine for banging out quick memos or emails, but you’ll want a physical keyboard for anything longer.


Office 365

When you sign into Office 365 — Microsoft’s software and services platform — you’re presented with a row of icons at the top of the screen for Outlook, Calendar, People, Newsfeed, SkyDrive, and Sites.

Newsfeed feels a little like Microsoft’s mashup of Facebook and Twitter. In the center of the screen is a feed of the people, documents and sites you’re following. Here, you can also make comments, and Like and post replies. It’s laid out very cleanly, though we wish we could click on a person’s name and have their Contact Card appear, as with the other apps in Office (this will be added by the time Office is released). To the right of the news feed is a column showing how many people, documents, sites, and tags you’re following. It’s a nice quick summary, but the font used for the numbers is so thin, they can be hard to select with a mouse.

SkyDrive lets you view documents and create or edit them. By default, Office opens the Web-based version of the apps, but you can choose to use the desktop version. In some respects, we prefer the Web version, if only for the fact that clicking File merely opens a drop-down menu, and doesn’t bring you to an entirely new page.

Teams collaborating on a particular document or project can create a Site, where they can gather all the pertinent documents in one place. It’s presented attractively, and we especially like that, when you mouse over an image, a gray translucent box appears showing the size and resolution of the image. Three small dots at the bottom of the box opens a pop-up window with an extended description as well as a URL for the image and options to Share or Download it. You can also receive alerts when a particular document is modified.

When we tested the pre-release version of Office, clicking on a person’s name in the Newsfeed or Sites did not bring up a Contact Card, as in Outlook–so we couldn’t IM or chat with them–but Microsoft said that this feature would be added in the final version.

SkyDrive and Shared Documents

As mentioned, all documents by default are stored in SkyDrive, Microsoft’s answer to Google Docs. However, it operates a bit differently. When you open the SkyDrive app, it shows you the files you have stored in the cloud, divided into three categories: Documents, Pictures, and Public. Like the rest of Office, the desktop app is very Spartan, especially if you only have a few documents. Right-clicking a document lets you share it via email; if you open the document in its native desktop app, you get more sharing options, such as posting to a social network, IM, or as a blog post.

If you have Office installed locally, you can edit documents using native apps such as Word or Excel. However, if you’re away from your home computer, you can also use Web apps, which provide much of the same functionality as the desktop versions. While you will get a small warning when you first open a document that others are editing it, it won’t show their edits in real-time; they must save first. And, in order to see their changes, you must save your version, as well. We much prefer the real-time editing process in Google Docs. Edits made by others show up as highlighted text until you start typing, at which point the highlighting disappears.

When we tested it, the collaboration tools were only available on Windows 8 systems. On a Windows 7 PC, you can only use the Web apps to edit documents that don’t have any tracked changes or comments. Otherwise, you have to open them in the full desktop app. When we tried to open a document on our Windows 7 PC that was already open on the tablet, we received a message saying that we could open a read-only version, create a local copy, or wait until the original was available. A Microsoft representative told us this would be resolved with the new Office Web apps.

Even if someone doesn’t have Office, you can still share documents by sending them a link via email. This opens a page in their web browser, from which they can follow along. However, they’ll need to have a Windows Live account as well.

Remote Access

One of the neat tricks offered by Office 365 is the ability to stream any of its apps to a remote PC running Windows 7 or Windows 8. After signing into Office 365 through a web browser on a Samsung Series 9 running Windows 7, we selected the SkyDrive tab (you can also choose Sites). At the bottom of the lefthand column was a link that says “Use Office 2013.” We clicked on it, and after a plugin automatically installed on the notebook, Word opened, with all the options and features available to the full desktop version.

Oddly, once we were in Word, we had to re-sign into SkyDrive to access our documents. It seems very redundant, since we had to sign into our Office account to get Word to stream to the computer in the first place. 

Still, for those who have notebooks with limited space or small SSDs–or are using someone else’s computer–this is a very clever feature that takes remote access a whole step further.


Word 2013

 

No major changes have been made to Word, but some welcome tweaks improve its overall use. Read mode will especially appeal to tablet users who are interested in reading, rather than editing, a document. This setting presents documents in a full-screen view, with a minimized toolbar at the top, and two arrow keys on either side to move forward or back through a document. Don’t try swiping from the right side though on a Windows 8 tablet, or you’ll activate the Charms menu.

A Tools drop-down menu also lets you search through documents quickly, as well as perform a Bing search.

We especially like the Comments tool, which lets you leave notes in the margins for others to read, and comment on themselves. When you create a comment, it shows up as a small dialogue box in the right margin, and the section of text you’re commenting on is highlighted. Click on the box, and you can read the full comment, or answer it as a threaded conversation. What’s also nice here is that you can communicate with the person who left a comment in a variety of ways, such as emailing, calling, or video chat, provided that info is in their contact card.

Microsoft also made it much easier to insert photos and multimedia into Word, even going so far as to include options for adding online sources. Sadly, while you can insert video from YouTube and images from Flickr, you can’t pull in multimedia from Facebook, a curious oversight given its integration in many other facets of Office.

Once added to a document, dragging multimedia elements around re-flows text in real-time, making it much easier to see what the final product will look like. Even better, you can play the videos, too, although you can’t edit the document while the video is playing.

Outlook 2013

We especially like Outlook’s streamlined interface. By default, the left third of the screen shows the header and subject line of your emails, and to the right, the full text of the email selected. Along the left edge is a minimized folder view, and icons for Mail, Calendar, People, and Tasks. Mousing over Calendar, for instance, brings up a small window showing the month, with the current day highlighted, and a summary of any events scheduled for that day. It’s very easy to customize the view to your liking, too.

In the Calendar, a nice addition is the local weather for the next three days. Mousing over the day’s forecast provides greater detail, and a link to view even more info online.

Another perk is that you can now sync several email accounts to Outlook, so you don’t have to go back and forth from Google to check your personal and work email.

You can also link Outlook to other social networks, such as Facebook and LinkedIn, so that contacts’ information from those networks—including their profile photo– appears below the email. It’s a neat way to see updates at a glance, and will presumably keep workers from going to Facebook constantly on their web browsers. However, you can only see friends’ updates, not comment on them. And, clicking on a name will open up the Facebook web page, where, annoyingly, you have to sign in again. As of this writing, only those two, plus Xing, Windows Live Messenger, and Viadeo were available. Hopefully, Twitter will be integrated soon, too.

Right above the pane showing email headers is a small search box. When we searched for the word “marathon,” it quickly brought up all the emails with that word in it, and highlighted the term in each.

One of the greatest annoyances is having to re-send an email if you forgot to include an attachment the first time. A new feature, called MailTips, alerts you to goofs such as this, as well as if you’re emailing someone who’s out of the office, or outside your organization. Sure enough, when we tried to send an email that, to Outlook, should have had an attachment, a warning message appeared on screen.

Excel 2013

Microsoft’s venerable spreadsheet app gains a few new tricks designed to tease out greater insights from your mounds of data, and save you time in the process.

Flash Fill makes the job of entering data much less tedious, as Excel learns your input patterns and automatically fills out the text boxes with the correct info.

When you select data from a table, the Quick Analysis icon appears on the lower right; press it, and it you can automatically create any number of charts or illustrate your data sets. It’s much faster than going up to the Insert menu and selecting a chart there. However, even here, Microsoft has added another timesaver: Select Recommended Charts, and Excel will show you several chart types it thinks will best represent your data.

With Office Professional Plus come other built-in efficiencies, including Spreadsheet Inquire & Compare, which scans spreadsheets for errors, broken links, and the like; and Quick Trend, which can show trends based on historical data.

Regardless of which version of Excel you use, you’ll want to keep the keyboard handy. When we clicked on a cell with the stylus, nothing happened. The on-screen keyboard didn’t appear, or even a box to write something using the stylus. By comparison, in Word, whenever we touched the screen with our finger or the stylus, the on-screen keyboard would appear. This inconsistency between apps proved frustrating.

One nice collaboration feature in Excel lets you share a workbook via a Lync conversation or meeting, even letting others take control of the workbook to make edits.

PowerPoint 2013

Like Word, this ubiquitous presentation tool has some new features that make it easier to create multimedia-rich documents, and show them in a more dynamic format.

You can add photos and video from online sources such as YouTube and photos from Flickr, or from the Internet in general via a Bing search. Also like Word, you can create threaded comments among collaborators, and respond either in the presentation itself, or via email, IM, etc.

In the Presenter View, you can see all of your slides to one side, while the audience sees just the one slide you’re showing. This makes it a lot easier to skip ahead, of jump back to an earlier slide without having to scroll through all of them.

We also like that you can give your presentations the Rick Burns treatment by zooming in on a particular item in any slide. You can swipe forward and back by dragging your finger across the screen, but here again, you have to watch for the bezel, lest you activate the Windows 8 menus.

OneNote 2013

OneNote seems to be the most touch-friendly of all the Office apps, in that it’s designed to be used primarily with your finger or stylus. Still, it’s a work in progress. OneNote is good for jotting down notes (natch) or for exploring your more creative side, by letting you draw and sketch.

When we clicked on the Plus sign to add a new tab, the app gave us the option to change the tab’s name. Annoyingly, if you click on the text (“New Section”) with the stylus, it becomes highlighted, waiting for you to change it, but the on-screen keyboard doesn’t pop up.

OneNote was good at translating our chicken scratch into text, which appeared in a column along the right-hand side of the page. However, it didn’t automatically convert all of our writing. Sometimes it would, and sometimes it wouldn’t. If we pressed and held the button on the stylus while pressing it against the screen, a contextual menu popped up, giving us the option to convert Ink to text, but we wish the automatic conversion was more consistent.

When we clicked Draw at the top, the Ribbon appeared to let us choose different brush sizes and colors, among other things. As soon as we starting drawing, though, it would disappear. We wish it would remain on-screen until we deselected it.

As with Word, here you can also insert pictures and record video and audio (useful if you’re in a presentation), there’s no mechanism for inserting a video from another source. The video recording we made showed up as a black-and-white icon, a bit of a letdown considering the much richer multimedia integration in Word.

The potential for sharing these documents is even greater, considering that Microsoft also said that there will be OneNote apps for Android, iOS, Symbian, and Windows Phone devices.

Publisher

Somewhere between Word and Adobe InDesign is Microsoft Publisher, which lets you create everything from leaflets to calendars. As with the other Office apps, you can start from a template or a blank document, import pictures directly from Facebook or Flickr, and edit them using effects filters.

In addition to the sharing features, you can also save your projects as PDFs or other photo formats, to make it easier if you have it printed at a professional facility.


Versions

Although Microsoft hasn’t released pricing information yet, it will offer several different versions of Office.

Office 365, which will be offered as a subscription service, is the complete package, and takes the most advantage of the cloud. In addition to the full-fledged desktop versions of Office apps (Word, Excel, etc), users will be able to have their preferences–such as Ribbon configuration, settings, and the like–follow them from computer to computer. With this version, users will also be able to stream Office to another Windows 7 or Windows 8 Machine. Additionally, it will automatically be updated with any improvements Microsoft rolls out.

Microsoft will offer five different subscription plans for Office 365:

  • Home Premium Preview, includes Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook, OneNote, Access and Publisher. Consumers who choose this can install Office on up to 5 computers, and get an additional 20GB of online storage in SkyDrive.
  • Small Business Premium Preview provides 10 installations, and gets you InfoPath and Lync, in addition to Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook, OneNote, Access, and Publisher.
  • ProPlus Preview lets you create up to 25 accounts.
  • Enterprise Preview offers all the benefits of ProPlus, and adds Exchange, SharePoint, and Lync Online services.

Office 2013 is most like the traditional environment, in that users will get the desktop apps, as well as online document storage and sharing via Windows Live, but not streaming Office.

Microsoft will also make a version of Office for Windows RT, which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, but the comapny hasn’t offered any more specifics as of yet.

For businesses, Office Servers will offer Exchange, SharePoint, Project and Lync hosting either in the cloud on-site, or a combination of both.

And, yes, Microsoft said there will be a version of Office for Mac.


Verdict

The fact that work is becoming increasingly social has not been lost on Microsoft. It’s not just the small stuff–such as the integration of Facebook and LinkedIn–but the way it has designed collaboration tools with SharePoints and Sites that points to the way teams will work together in the future.

But still, there’s work to be done. The touch-friendly features of the new Office feel a bit tacked on, almost as if Microsoft believes the majority of people who will use the new Office will do so in a traditional PC setup. Having used the on-screen keyboard in Windows 8, it’s hard to blame them. A few minor things also need to be worked out, such as the inconsistencies in what social networks can work with a given app, as well as multiple sign-in issues.

The tools people use for work now extend well beyond word processors and spreadsheet apps. They now include videoconferencing, social networking, and real-time collaboration. The new Office is the toolbox that brings them all together in one place. Aside from the enhanced editing tools in Word, PowerPoint, Excel, et. al, teams will find it even easier to accommodate individual members’ schedules and work habits, which is perhaps the greatest aspect of Office.

Pros:

  • Cleaner interface
  • Enhanced sharing features
  • Integrates with Facebook and LinkedIn
  • SharePoints adds useful collaboration tools

Cons:

  • Separate screen to save and share documents is jarring
  • Not as touch friendly as we’d like
  • Can’t view others’ edits in real-time




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  1. Don Says:

    After hearing all the complaints from users about eye strain from trying to read the ugly gray text in Word and Outlook, my company reverted back to Office 2007 which had a much cleaner appearance. The ribbon and toolbars in Office 2013 appear dingy and smudgy – – NOT crisp and sharp. If someone sent a business proosal to me printed in gray text on some dingy background paper, I would throw it away. Why does Microsoft and some websites believe those colors are appropriate for anything on a computer screen?

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