Microsoft Office 2013 review: Designed for tablets, but great for everyone

Aside from the Ribbon, the interface is similar but much simpler than it was in Office 2010 and earlier. Newly added start pages for Word, PowerPoint, and Excel help you get to recent documents attached to your account and new templates immediately upon launch. Flat buttons and plenty of white space make the interface look less crowded. 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 press. The general feel of the suite is more streamlined and more cloud-integrated, and the new start pages for the core apps will be especially useful for those looking at the same documents on several devices.

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. 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. In Office 365 Home Premium you get all the most-used Office software including Outlook, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Access, and Publisher.

Microsoft has made using Office 2013 a smoother experience all around, which is evident 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 Word lets you flip through documents on a tablet as if turning pages in a book, 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 features that have been added in the new version of Word let you view video right within documents (with an online connection), making Word documents much more useful as a presentation tool. There are also other time-savers like the option to collapse sections of a document to get them out of the way while reading, 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 require only a couple of clicks or taps in Office 2013.

Office 2013
Whether you're creating a newsletter, a brochure, or a birthday card, Publisher has a ton of templates to help you along. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

The major theme is 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 highlighted data in a spreadsheet. From here it only takes one more click to apply formatting, create a Sparkline, or add a chart or table. Suppose you have been working on a presentation in one theme in PowerPoint, 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. PowerPoint also offers a new Presenter view that lets you interact with and look at your presentation with added notes, and perform actions like quickly switching slides, all behind the scenes. 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. You also have social connectors that show things like Facebook status if you're connected to a contact through Facebook as well. All of these quick features add convenience and cut out steps you would have had to perform in earlier versions of Microsoft Office.

Along with the tweaks and improvements to the more well-known Office software, Office 2013 gives you a way to distribute your work in Publisher, and a way to create custom databases (with little database experience) in Access. Publisher makes it easy to gather and lay out your content for use in brochures, fliers, calendars, and posters. You can quickly import images and click-and-drag to move them around to find the perfect look. The app comes with stylistic effects for text, and you can add soft shadows and reflections to give your project a more professional feel. When you're finished, Publisher also makes it easy to take your work to any print shop, with standards-compliant layouts and common image file formats that don't require special software on the part of the shop.

With Access, you get powerful database tools that you won't need extensive training to use. You can create complex customer contact lists, or use premade project management tools, and Access already has the templates ready so you almost never need to start from scratch. Like all of the software in the Office 365 Home Premium suite, Access provides you with several common starting points, leaving it up to you to fill in the blanks with your content and data.

By making the new Office ready for touch screens, Microsoft streamlined many of the most common tasks to require only 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. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Office in the clouds
Though you can only use Office 365 with a subscription on five machines, another new feature called Office on Demand will come in handy whenever you're away from your selected devices. This feature lets you download a full copy of the software you need (such as Word or Excel) on any PC running Windows 7 or later, and shows you your recent documents just as you'd see them at home. When you're finished making changes or edits to a document, you can close the application and it is removed from the PC you're working on.

Office 365 Home Premium tries to cover all the bases for personal productivity, and in my tests it did 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, and so it's easier to use in general, regardless of the type of device you are working on.

The subscription-based service might be hard to swallow for some, but there's always the standalone Office 2013 download. The only problem is, if you don't subscribe you won't get all the nifty cloud features like Office on Demand, and you'll miss out on major updates to the software as time goes on. Obviously, Microsoft would love to get you paying regularly for your Office suite, but it remains to be seen if people will get on board with the subscription-based model.

The question (much like with the launch of 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? Fortunately, Office works well on both touch-screen and desktop computers, so it's not a decision you'll need to make right away.

The other burning question is whether consumers will opt for the streamlined experience of Office or choose to use a suite such as Google Docs for free. Office is a better overall experience, but it's no secret that money can be the deciding factor for many people. From what I've seen, this new version is Microsoft's best Office suite yet for home users, if the company can convince people to discard the free-to-play options for a more polished, integrated, cloud-friendly, and streamlined experience.

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