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

As the flagship release of the new Microsoft Office, Office 365 Home Edition has all the tools you're familiar with along with new features that make getting work done much easier. The elimination of steps across the board was necessary to make it fit with Windows 8 tablets, but everyone benefits regardless of what hardware you use.

Jason Parker Senior Editor / Reviews - Software
Jason Parker has been at CNET for nearly 15 years. He is the senior editor in charge of iOS software and has become an expert reviewer of the software that runs on each new Apple device. He now spends most of his time covering Apple iOS releases and third-party apps.
Jason Parker
10 min read

Editor's note: This review has been updated with new information regarding stand-alone licenses.


Microsoft Office 2013

The Good

<b>Microsoft Office 365 Home Edition</b> is a significant update that delivers all the familiar software, with a reinvented interface, tools that make common processes easier, and a cloud-friendly system that lets you work from anywhere.

The Bad

The $100-a-year subscription will be hard for many people to swallow. The upgraded apps are not available for Mac at this time, and won't be for 12 to 18 months.

The Bottom Line

Familiar tools coupled with new features and a simplified and redesigned interface make Office 2013 well worth the paid upgrade.

I really like the new Microsoft Office 2013, even knowing there are several free productivity suites available out there. I wouldn't blame you for asking why you would pay for it when you could get a comparable set of office tools from Google Docs and several other services for a lot less or even free. But after using Office 365 Home Premium on both a tablet and a desktop PC for the last few days, I can tell you that there are plenty of reasons to trade up.

A note about nomenclature: there are an enormous number of versions of the Microsoft Office suite available across the home and business categories. You can purchase and download standalone versions with either Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013 ($139) or Microsoft Office Home and Business 2013 ($219). There are additional versions with volume pricing for small and large businesses. But what Microsoft is banking on are the subscription services that have a few more perks, such as endless upgrades as they become available, and still offer most of the same downloadable software. These are Office 365 Home Premium ($99.99 per year) and Office 365 Small Business Premium ($150 per year). There's also a great deal for current students, Office 365 University at only about $40 per year (with a minimum two-year subscription). The pricing breakdown and naming conventions are highly confusing, but ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley tries to make sense of it all here.

Update: Microsoft announced on March 6, 2013 it has changed the license for stand-alone versions of Office 2013. At launch, if you bought Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013 or Home and Business 2013, you would be able to use the suite on only one computer, for the life of that computer. After understandable grumbling from users about the restrictive license, Microsoft has changed it to allow users to transfer Office 2013 to another computer once every 90 days. This way, if you need to buy a new computer, you'll now be able to transfer Office 2013, where before you would need to buy another copy. CNET Blog Network author Lance Whitney has more information about Microsoft's license changes here.

With all that said, what I'm reviewing here is Office 365 Home Premium, and I definitely like what I see -- especially when I can put it on five machines for $100 per year. For starters it's available wherever you are, on whatever device you're using at the time. With full touch-screen support, the entire suite has been reinvented to work with Windows 8-driven tablets and smartphones, making much of the work flow much easier than before regardless of the hardware you're using. Along with a redesigned interface, all of these things come together to make the best Office yet.

Office as a subscription
As I said above, the cloud-connected Office 365 suite comes in separate versions for home and business, with the home version available today and the business version available at the end of February. You can get one of the desktop standalone versions of the new Office, but I don't think it's the best way to experience Office. With today's release, it's clear Microsoft would prefer you sign up for the subscription because the standalone versions won't receive all the upgrades over time that you would get with Office 365 Home Premium. In fact, with a subscription plan, Microsoft says you'll never have to buy another new version of Office again. But whether you choose to pay one time for the new Office or sign up for a subscription to Office 365, you'll mostly get the exact same experience I'm writing about here. It's only later, when Office gets upgraded again, that the standalone versions will become out-of-date.

Microsoft Office 2013 gets a whole new look (pictures)

See all photos

So why should you get the new Office? 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 usable 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 for Windows 8 and use on tablets, it's now easier to use than ever before regardless of the hardware you're using it on. It's important to note that the software works equally as well if you're running Windows 7, but does not work with earlier versions of Windows. Setting up a subscription for the Mac version will only let you install Office 2011 on five Macs, with updates to the Mac version coming in the next year. In other words, Mac users will see no improvement right now.

On Windows, Microsoft lets you install Office 365 on five different computers with your single subscription, each with its own customizable experience that is tied to each Microsoft account. This means you could be creating a PowerPoint presentation in one room on your account, while your daughter writes an essay in another on hers, and each of you can give the Office apps personalized themes, and each will see the most recent documents tied to your personal account. All of your work is attached to your Microsoft account and backed up to Microsoft's SkyDrive, so you'll be able to access your work anywhere. You can already get 7GB of space on SkyDrive now for free, but with these Office 365 Home Premium subscription plans you get an additional 20GB.

The features that set Office 365 apart from most free offerings are the integration between the apps in the suite and an enormous collection of premade templates to fulfill almost any productivity need. The templates all have a polished and professional look so you'll waste almost no time creating documents from scratch. The suite of apps works seamlessly together -- and with Microsoft's services -- making collaboration, sharing, and communications much easier.

Installing Office is the same whether you bought a standalone copy or signed up for the subscription -- it begins with a quick trip to Office.com. Simply enter the product key you received from the retailer (Microsoft, Amazon, or any of several others) and follow the step-by-step process from there. You'll then download the digital copies of the software in the suite to use straight off your hard drive.

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.

Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

The interface
The 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. 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.


Microsoft Office 2013

Score Breakdown

Setup 9Features 8Interface 8Performance 8