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.



    I don't agree with any of your comments about MS Office or the ribbon. It remains the best tool for producing professional looking documents, which is why competitor never took off.

    The ribbon required a readjustment, but the fact is, as a business user I was scurrying around menus and wizards like a rodent. Now 90% of what I need to do is within two clicks within a clear mostly logical menu structure.

      If I want to make any document look good, I would use an adobe product link inDesign, if I I don't then I would use open office, notepad or GoogleDocs. I don't see any need to use Microsoft office...

        Are you serious? InDesign is every bit as bad as any part of Office. Go to www.xara.com and see how easy it really can be with decent software.

        I think your mistaking professional for pretty. Office produces professional, clear, documents much faster than any of those programs. I wouldn't touch inDesign unless I was making something "designy" like a brochure or whatever (and frankly I don't think its a great tool anyway).

          Two words for this entire thread: PostScript Support.

          I know making hardcopies of anything is old school, but as soon as you try to output anything to a postscript device for press use, especially anything complex or using unusual vector shapes (type to outlines, for instance), you're in for a world of pain.

          I know. I get asked to manage people's shitty, un-professional and un-pretty office files all too often.

    I have no love for Metro UI - it is ugly and lazy

      Thank god I'm not the only one who thinks so, it just looks like the first draft copy of an application UI. It's like Microsoft have gone from using Photoshop to using Paint to design their graphics.

    The video proves that touch still isn't working hard enough yet. Look at how many times the guy had to re-press the screen to select the right option...

      +1. I can't beleive they released that video. It makes the interface look painful to use. The poor guy had to double press almost everything.

    I see a lot of Metro hate in Win 8 comments... For what it's worth, I really like it.

    I've been a mac user since Mac OS 7.6.1, and since Microsoft seems to me to be the only company innovating, I'm seriously considering a switch. It's actually the traditional Windows desktop that's the only thing stopping me from switching right away.

    Does this version of Office run in the Metro UI - or do you have to switch to the traditional desktop mode to use it?

    Thanks for posting the video. :)


      In the video it is running on the desktop and as things aren't switchable, I'd say that's where it will live. They might do a Metro version based on Office for WinPhone or something, though, who knows?

        That's disappointing. Until I can use Windows without having to see the traditional Windows desktop (I personally can't stand the file system - drives me mad!), it's not worth the effort of switching for me.

        I suppose I could always use google docs... is there a Microsoft web based equivalent?

        Also - does anyone know if you can actually turn the traditional desktop mode completely Off in Windows 8?

          I feel exactly the same way about Finder. It infuriates me on a daily basis. You can already run Office from the cloud if you have a Hotmail or Windows Live account. Its the only way I can open any Office documents.

          Yup. Like Google you'll need to sign in with your MS account (hotmail, windows live) but MS has Skydrive and Office Live which are similar to Google Drive and Google Docs. Skydrive came along before Google Drive; Office Live (IIRC) came along after Google Docs.

          As for turning the desktop off - not as far as I know. Most people who are accustomed to using regular Windows applications will require the Desktop from time to time. If you only ever plan to use Metro apps, just remove the shortcut to Desktop from your Start screen :D. The applications I use (like Handbrake and Minecraft) haven't been redesigned for Metro, so I'm glad Desktop is still there myself.

      I agree Luke. I am absolutely positive that windows 8 will cause lots of problems for people and create a lot of negativity. However, a lot of what they're doing is rip the band-aid kind of stuff. It won't be 100% from the first version but the direction they're taking is fantastic. For the first time, they're really embracing a move away from traditional keyboard, mouse computers and providing a cross-platform environment. it takes a lot of balls for a company with such an established product and to go in a new direction. i hope they don't get the same hate that's directed towards apple every time something doesn't appear just the way THEY want it. remember all the Micro$oft hate before apple became the target? i have a feeling windows 8 SP1 will be the best windows yet - better than 7. MS are certainly making the right noises.

        Allow me to give that an emphatic plus one: +1

        You hit the nail on the head though when you said "It won’t be 100% from the first version" - I might stay with OS X till Windows 9 rips off a few more of those band-aids.

        I wonder what Apple has in the pipeline in the area of OS - surely they're not just sitting on their hands... are they?

    It's so... WHITE!

    how is that better than using a mouse??
    that just looked awkward reaching over the keyboard like that.
    office looked nice, although im just a casual home user so i have been using open office and now libreoffice for a very long time.
    one way or another i cant wait to see how well 8 goes.

    Mouse is still the best. Office is still the best... touch is handy but not the best.


    Hurray Metro!
    Annoying onscreen keyboard was the best part of this demo)))
    At one point this demo-man realized that his hands are not transparent enough to use metro crapterface and went back to mouse. ha-ha-ha

    Seems that M$ Office finally won't look like 11-years old girl's media player.

    I bet minimum requirements (just to simple text) will look something like hex-core i100, 256GB RAM, 32 GB Video card supporting DirectX 20, 10Gbit internet.

      and 3 power outlets to supply "the text editor"

    My God, did you notice how he had to keep hitting the same menu items twice to get them to register?!

    How slow is it touching the screen! I am thinking of closing my computer shop and re-opening it selling the devils apple computers if this is the future of Microsoft!

    Have the got rid of VBA yet? It's really time to move onto .NET scripting for office macros surely!

    First it was the mouse to slow you down, then it was that ^%$#!! ribbon obviously designed to increase the mouse use and now tapping on dodgy screen to make life harder again. Get out the Wordstar disks!!

    How did the video above get released? Bad press with so many double button presses on the touch screen. Seriously can't believe they see this as a positive marketing move...

      Dude. It's not a marketing video - the gizmodo guys made it themselves using hardware that was originally designed for the not-so-touch-friendly windows 7. When the software and hardware are built from the ground up the experience will be much better.

      As you saw, he was using a mouse and keyboard as well. For me the beauty of it is that you can do the heavy editing with a KB & mouse but leave those at home when you're on the road making presentations etc and still have enough power through the touch UI to make smaller edits on the move. Awesomeness.

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