Microsoft Office follows the cloud

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Office 2013 (rating: 4/5)

While profits from Office productivity software such as Word, PowerPoint and Excel are a main driver of its business, Microsoft has a challenge in getting people to upgrade to new versions. Not only to do the previous iterations still work well, there are also free alternatives available from rivals such as Google.

Boxed copies of Office 2003 and Office 2007 still stand on my bookshelf
and have lasted me well enough through successive computers for word processing, spreadsheet tasks and the occasional card made on the Publisher program – so much so that I felt no need for Office 2010 when it came along.

I had abandoned Outlook for Gmail long before then and was writing mostly in Google Docs – it was much handier to have everything all in one place in the cloud, available from any computer, and I didn’t use a lot of extra features available in Office. But Excel still seemed far superior to Google’s spreadsheets – perhaps it was worth having Office for that alone – and the 2007 version was just fine.

With Office 2013, Microsoft has done away with the boxes in Europe and the US altogether. The three versions of the software – Home & Student ($140, £110), Home & Business ($220, £220) and Office Professional ($400, £390) – can only be downloaded to your PC over the internet. Alternatively, for $10 a month or $100 (£80) a year you can subscribe to Office 365 Home Premium. This has the same programs, but if you cancel the subscription no new documents can be created and your existing ones can’t be edited, although you can still view and print them.

Clearly, Microsoft is pushing all of us towards subscriptions – it needs a steadier income stream and a better way of locking in users who might be tempted away by services such as Google’s.

There are sweeteners for choosing a 365 subscription over Office 2013. You can install it on up to five devices (PCs, tablets and Macs) rather than just one PC. It comes with 60 free phone minutes on Skype and 20Gb of extra cloud storage – enough for years of accumulated documents. Office 365 University also represents a great deal for university students at $80 (£60) for a four-year subscription.

My download and installation took a couple of hours on my PC despite a fast connection. A Mac version has yet to be updated for 2013 but the advantage of the subscription model is that once it does appear, I should get an update and immediate access to it.

The new Office applications have a fresh look, a simpler interface and seamless saving of files to Microsoft’s SkyDrive in the cloud. Once you log in to Office with your Microsoft account (the new name for Windows Live ID, which gives access to Microsoft’s online services), your settings and recent documents look the same on any device you use.

Everything is optimised for a touchscreen device.I enjoyed the way Word documents flowed as I stroked them and the ease of flicking through PowerPoint slides. It is possible to do light editing with a digital pen, such as the one provided with Microsoft’s new Surface Pro tablet (see below).

You can also double-tap on spreadsheet cells to edit them and pinch and stretch fingers to zoom a view.

Yet there is no killer app to persuade users of non-touch devices that Office at $100 a year is a much better option than Google Drive, old copies of Office or Microsoft’s own free Office web apps.

This could come later, of course. Under the subscription model, incremental improvements are, in theory, being added all the time.

The fundamental shift with Office 13 is not so much the new features but how we access them. If Microsoft can take us through the transition to using touch and always being online, Office 2013 could still prove to be an essential update.

Hardware review

Surface Windows 8 Pro (rating: 3/5)

This tablet from Microsoft, which runs a full version of Windows 8, is classier and more powerful than the stripped-down Surface RTlaunched last October. While it has the same design, the Pro has a better, Full HD display and a digital pen. Its USB 3.0 port also makes it faster to transfer data such as photos and video.

However, the Pro is heavier, with poor battery life and an uncomfortably angled kickstand. Starting at $900 (UK price to be announced) it also costs $200 more than a comparable iPad.

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