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Hands On The New Microsoft Office: It's Finally Getting Better

Does anyone really want to use Microsoft Office? Of course not. It’s a work tool. It’s a utility. But does it have to be so utilitarian? So bleak? No — not anymore. The new Office is also the best Office.

Office 2013, unveiled today as a “Consumer Preview” for the upcoming Windows 8, is in a tough place. Office has sucked for quite a while now — bloated, encrusted with features like barnacles, and nightmarishly designed. Microsoft’s attempt to streamline everything with a “ribbon” UI only confused most people, spreading the mess into new piles rather than actually tidying anything up. This is good for nobody.

But things are changing at Microsoft, right? Without warning, the company is making beautiful, modern software, radically different from anything it’s done before. Windows Phone! Windows Phone 8! Metro! It’s all very exciting and pleasing to the eye, which is never the way we’d describe word processors and spreadsheets. So how does Microsoft bring this new spirit of pixel respect to Office without alienating everyone who considers it a tool and nothing more? People don’t like their routines molested — if you’ve been using the same screwdriver for 15 years and suddenly it looks and feels entirely different, you might be thrown.

And so Microsoft has taken a subtle, smart route to pulling Office out of the 20th century. It realises we’re going to be using it on tablets as well as desktops — or perhaps even desktops we can touch. It realises we’ll be using a new Office alongside a profoundly new Metro Start Menu. It realises people only have a tolerance for so much ugly — that our daily workplace software shouldn’t have the same psychological effect as staring at a fluorescent tube.

So here’s the newest attempt to make Office tolerable, but furthermore, to make it feel like part of Microsoft’s aesthetic renaissance. Does it work? Kind of.

Office is still Office, through and through. Word is a tool for writing, Excel is a tool for spreadsheeting, and PowerPoint is a tool for boring everyone with presentations. None of them have been entirely overhauled — you’ll still be in warm, familiar waters when you load part of Office up — but each has been at least partially redesigned. It sounds superficial because it is, but each app at least resembles Metro, though falls short of sucking up any of its sweeping new functionality. Again, this is probably a good thing that’ll keep Office users from clawing their faces off in shock, but it’s a little disappointing to see a lack of imagination here when the same company has been so audacious with the rest of its software. The brave minds that decided Windows 8 aren’t present here.

That doesn’t stop Office from being the best version you’ve ever used. Those ghastly ribbons are minimized, and formatting boxes can be hidden entirely with a click (or tap!). Yes, taps. With a touch-enabled system, you’ll find yourself not only able but willing and excited to touch your work in tandem with a mouse, largely thanks to a menu button that switches each program into a “touch mode”, with chubbier UI pieces and wider menus that are easier to strike — though the software keyboard presents an ever-popping pain in the arse, and ironically, the touch mode button is quite small and hard to touch.

Sometimes it just feels better to fondle the screen. Sometimes it’s super-functional, as is the case with the new PowerPoint, in which you can pinch and spread to zoom in and out of a slide overview, rather than having to hammer the arrow keys to get where you want to go. It’s a small change, but small changes like these abound. Word makes placing images within text a delight (either via touch or mouse), Excel is whip smart, auto-filling cells in new and clever ways, and PowerPoint does its damndest to keep you from making a multimedia nightmares. Instead, the new PowerPoint focuses on making your slides easier to navigate and narrate, rather than embellish with laser sound effects and dissolve fades.

But even if you end up using Office 15 on a traditional desktop and never once smudge its monitor, this is still even subtly, the best way to do word processing (and the rest) on a PC. Its interface is tuned more tightly than ever before, it’s jacked straight in to Microsoft’s SkyDrive — so all of your work will be safely backed up, forever, quietly, automatically — and Microsoft’s file formats are still the universal standard. And if you do take Office 15 on the road, you’ll have a damn good shot at actually getting serious work done on a tablet — a rare claim.

All of this is really pointless. A humungous swath of you are going to be using Office no matter what, simply because you don’t have a choice, or because it’s just easier than trying something new. But today’s new release works out well for that swath, since the obligated or apathetic will end up using the best version of the taken-for-granted workplace screwdriver they’ve ever seen. If if they don’t really realise it.