Roughly three years since its last major update, Microsoft has finally brought Office into the modern working world.
This new version, called Office 2016 on both Mac and PC, is the first to have collaboration and sharing tools that closely match what Google Docs has had for years. You can finally work with other people on a document, spreadsheet or presentation in real time, seeing what they are editing as they make changes.
Microsoft also added integrations with its search engine Bing and messaging and video-calling app Skype. These welcome additions blend seamlessly into the apps and continue Office's tradition of having special extra features that it's competitors don't.
For Office, which in recent years has been challenged by cheaper (or free) alternatives, the news is a big deal. It keeps Microsoft ahead of the pack, especially for customers who can't get by with another application. But can the updates do anything to win back folks who switched to the apps that Google and Apple have?
There's no definitive answer to that question, because it all comes down to what you need from these kinds of programs. Office and Google Docs, the two apps I'll focus on here, both have pluses and minuses. I'll explore the features in both that make them worth your while so you can ultimately decide which program to pick.
Five Office 2016 features that beat Google Docs
Built-in research with Bing
In Office 2016, Microsoft added Smart Lookup, a new research tool powered by its Bing search engine. Using it, you can right click on a word to run a Bing search and get more information, without leaving Word, Excel or PowerPoint.
Search results pop up in window on the right side, next to whatever you're working on, and include results from Wikipedia, Bing images and Web results. Click any of the links to open your browser and read more. The best part of Smart Lookup is that uses the context of the words around the one you selected to get the best search results. For instance, if you run Smart Lookup on the word "dating" in sentence about carbon dating, Bing will show results for carbon dating, not romance.
Google Docs has had a similar research tool for years, but it's nowhere near as powerful as a this new Smart Lookup feature or even a regular Google search.
Office finds the tools you need
Microsoft acknowledges that the Office apps have so many features that it can be hard to remember where to find all of them in their various menus. So Microsoft's Office team created a new search tool to help you find them. Think of it as a far less annoying and more helpful Clippy.
In the ribbon (main menu bar at the top) for Word, Excel and PowerPoint, click on "Tell me what you want to do" and start typing the name of a feature you need. The app will find it and display the exact menu you need, without needing to dig around for it. It's a simple addition, but one that would have come in handy for me many years ago writing college papers and constantly forgetting where to find the footnote tool.
Built-in Skype calling
Hoping to make collaboration easier, Microsoft added Skype for Business to Word, Powerpoint and Excel. The new Share menu in each app shows everyone who has access to that file. Hover over a name and you'll see a pop-up menu with quick links to send a message or start a voice or video call with Skype, without opening the Skype app on your computer. The only downside to this feature is that it only works if you have the Skype app installed on your machine and use Skype for Business.
Pick up where you left off
While it includes several big changes, Office 2016 is all about the small touches. One little new feature that adds a lot of functionality is the ability to pick up where you left off in a document. When you reopen a file you've been working on, Word shows you where you last worked and lets to jump to that place with one click.
It's essentially a bookmark for your documents, and it's a fantastic tool for anyone working on a lengthy project over several days or weeks.
Office's history of advanced tools
Microsoft Office has long been the standard for those who use word processors, spreadsheet tools and presentation builders at work. That's because Word, Excel and PowerPoint are packed with advanced features, like mail merge, detailed charts and animated slides that are missing or limited with other programs. And for many people, Excel is the gold standard program for crunching large amounts of data. Not to mention, Office was designed to work both online and off, so you can do your work no matter where you go. Google Docs can work offline, but you'll need to have opened your file before you go off the grid.
Google has improved Docs over the years, adding new features and making it work better, it still pales in comparison to what Office has been able to do for the last decade. If your work requires a full range of features and offline editing, it's still very hard to beat Office.
Three things Google Docs does better
Office 2016 introduces real-time typing to Word, where two or more people can work on a document at once, and you can see what everyone is typing. Each person is shown as a colored text cursor with their name that moves as they type. This works well, and as long as every person editing has a stable Internet connection, you'll see changes and additions almost immediately. Multiple people can work at once, but this feature is only available in Word.
Google Docs has had this same feature for several years now, and what makes it better is that it works in Google's presentation app Slides and in Sheets, the spreadsheet app. That gives Google the upper hand here -- at least for the time being.
Microsoft has worked hard to make sharing much more seamless in Office 2016, but unfortunately, it still doesn't feel as easy as sharing in Google Docs. With Office 2016, you can share files directly from the new Share menu in Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Type in an email address and decide if that person can only view the file or edit it, and click share to send them a link to the file.
In my tests, sharing a file send an email to recipient, with a link to that file, instead of sharing an attachment. Microsoft designed it that way to make sharing easier, without requiring that you download the file before you open it. However, clicking the link opens Office.com, Microsoft's free site with pared-down versions of the Office apps where you can make most edits. You can then open the file in the desktop versions of Word, Excel or PowerPoint for more advanced editing tools. The whole process feels like more work and more steps than sharing a file created in Google Docs.
Free tools for all
For students, teachers, workers or anyone who just needs to write, edit, build spreadsheets and create presentations, it's hard to beat Google Docs' free tools. Google Docs, Sheets and Slides don't have as many features as Office, but for many people they have enough to get the job done.
The full version of Office is going to cost you. You'll either need a subscription to Office 365, which starts at $6.99 per month, or $69.99 per year and gets you Office 2016, 1TB of cloud storage in OneDrive and other tools. Alternatively, you can purchase a one-time license of Office for $139.99. Now, that's what you'll pay for the full version of Office, but Microsoft also has free tools with Office.com and the Office mobile apps.
Office.com has slightly limited versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint that work exclusively online, so you'll need to have an Internet connection to use those apps. You only need a free Microsoft account to use them. They offer all of the basic tools you'd need in each, and in most cases are only missing advanced features like tracking changes and a few chart types in Excel.
The Office apps for Android and iOS are a bit more limited, but still free. Even without an Office 365 subscription, you can use them to create documents and make minor edits. If you have a subscription, you get advanced features, like tracking changes.
Is Office 2016 worth it for you?
Office 2016 isn't just a fresh coat of paint -- it's a significant upgrade to Microsoft's iconic productivity software. It makes meaningful changes to how you can work together with others on a single file or an entire project. Office has come a long way since in the last few years and the extras you get with the 2016 versions are enticing, if you're willing to pay.
If you're already an Office 365 subscriber, you're getting Office 2016 for free, included with your membership cost. There's no reason not to upgrade, since you're keeping all the same features from Office 2013 (on PC) and Office 2011 (on Mac), plus getting the new features added in Office 2016.
For those who don't have an Office 365 subscription and are considering getting one, Office 2016 might be the reason to bite the bullet. It's already brimming with every feature you could need, and now it's especially useful for collaborating with others. Plus, with 365, you get 1TB of online cloud storage space, where you can save the files you create in Office so they're accessible everywhere. It's a good deal if you really need the extra features that Office has.
If money is a factor in your decision, check out Office.com before you reach for your wallet. Though it doesn't have every single feature that the desktop apps do, the free online versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint have been updated for Office 2016 too. Many of the sharing and collaboration tools I outlined above are included, and using those tools can help you decide if you need to spend the money for the full versions.
Like Google Docs and Apple's iWork productivity suite, Office 2016 and the cloud-based tools included with Office 365 will continue to evolve, changing how we work. These three systems are getting closer in features and function with every new update, making it harder to deem one the best.
We'll be revisiting Office, Google Docs and other office suites in the near future, to explore them further and help you determine which one is right fit for your needs.