Microsoft Office 2016 For Windows Has Been ReleasedRich
Microsoft made massive changes in Office 2016 for Windows but has hidden most of the changes beneath a reassuringly familiar-looking surface. With the new version, the world’s most-powerful and widely used office application suite leaves its online and desktop-based competition even further in the dust, especially in its convenient and deeply integrated collaboration features.
As always with Microsoft Office, it’s vastly better than anything else out there, and only a few advanced users will find odd corners of inconvenience that Microsoft hasn’t bothered to fix. So far only available to Microsoft Office 365 subscribers, traditional buyers of standalone perpetual license versions of Office will have to wait until an unspecified date to buy Office 2016, but Office 365 subscribers will be offered the option to upgrade immediately. There are a wide variety of Office 365 pricing schemes, but the personal edition of Office 365 starts at $6.99 per month or $69.99 per year for use on one PC, one tablet, and one phone.
The final release of Office 2016 offers no big surprises for adventurous users who’ve been working with the preview version that Microsoft released back in May, and offers an almost flat learning curve for longtime users who feel at home editing documents in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, and taking notes in OneNote. The big changes appear when you start editing collaboratively in Word, PowerPoint, and OneNote, with two or more users editing the same document simultaneously and optionally exchanging text, voice, or video chat via Skype, with the Skype functions accessible directly from the document.
The new features get even more elaborate when you start working with other team members using timesaving Group functions built into Outlook. In all these changes, Microsoft isn’t merely playing catch-up with collaborative services like Google Apps or Zoho Office. Some of Office’s collaboration features are so effective and intuitive that you may wonder why no one thought of them before.
Other changes that Desktop users won’t notice include handwriting support for equations, so tablet users can draw an equation on a touch screen and see Office transform it into typeset form—impressively but not always perfectly accurately in my ham-fisted testing. Another change brings the traditional Office apps closely in line with new mobile versions for iOS and Android. Office 2016 is now the first more-or-less universal office application suite, with consistent versions available via any modern Web browser and every standard desktop and mobile platform except Linux.
I’ll get back to Outlook’s Group features after surveying what’s new in Office’s traditional big three apps—Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. A major new convenience is a “Tell me what you want to do” box in the top-line menu that lets you find a feature without opening various tabs until you find it. You either click in the Tell Me box or type Alt-Q to start typing in the box, and a drop-down menu lists likely matches for the words you type.
So if you can’t remember that you record a macro from the View menu (Microsoft’s totally irrational location for the macro feature), just type “Record macro” in the Tell Me box, and let Word open the macro-recording dialog for you. Unfortunately, the Tell Me feature won’t find what you’re looking for in the Options menu, which is just as cluttered and confusing as it was in older versions.
The New and the Old
The ribbon also gets a new online research feature called Smart Lookup, accessible from a button on the Review menu or from the context menu that pops up when you right-click on a document. These open an Insights pane at the right of the screen with two tabs: Explore, containing Wikipedia and other Web-search information on the currently selected text, and Define, showing definitions from the Oxford dictionaries.
Long-time Office users will remember an old Research pane that performed similar functions, but disappeared from the interface in Office 2013. The new Insights pane is a supercharged Web-based update of the old Research pane, but if you want the old Research pane in addition to, or instead of, the new Insights pane, you can still reach it by holding down the Alt key and clicking on a word you want to look up. As in the case of the Research pane, and other expert-level features like split-screen editing, multi-chapter Master Documents, and updateable fields, Office tends to bury older functions instead of removing them entirely.
The entire Office 2016 user interface gets the vivid solid-color treatment familiar from Windows 10, and you can now choose a black background for the menu that helps you focus your attention on your document instead of on the application. The top-line menu also features some minor tweaks like lowercase labels on tabs instead of the old all-capital style.
Word continues to make it easier to create highly styled documents using Microsoft’s suggested headline styles than to create your own custom layouts. Corel WordPefect is the only current word processor that offers more straightforward controls over formatting, but WordPerfect remains a niche product used almost entirely by long-term loyalists and legal users who need its special features.
Microsoft has learned that Excel users love charts, so the new version includes some show-stoppers formerly available from third-party add-ins—Pareto charts, sunbursts, and waterfall charts that show the effects of cumulative changes in a series of floating blocks like in the Super Mario Bros. video games. Expert Excel users know the laborious trick of building a waterfall chart by making the lower part of a block invisible, but Microsoft’s one-click version is a lot more elegant.
Among rival spreadsheet programs, only Apple’s Numbers offers comparably good-looking charts, but in far fewer types, while Google Docs and LibreOffice 5.0 have only a barebones selection—though Google’s charts display Google’s characteristically simple elegance.
Microsoft promises to add new chart styles every month for Office 365 subscribers. Meanwhile, Excel gets a built-in Forecasting feature that creates forecast charts based on existing data, and gee-whiz graphic features like an animated transformation of one chart type to another when you decide to use a different charting style.
PowerPoint hasn’t had any major changes beyond the enhanced collaboration features added everywhere in the suite, but a Microsoft rep hinted that some big new PowerPoint features will be coming to Office 365 subscribers in the relatively near future. Meanwhile, PowerPoint slightly lags behind Apple’s Keynote in graphic razzle-dazzle, but only slightly, and not enough to make anyone choose Apple’s iWork over Microsoft Office as their preferred office suite.
Learning to Share Nicely
In addition to the Tell Me box, the other new feature on Office’s top-line menu is the Share button at the far right. This opens a sharing pane (or, if you prefer, a floating menu) in which you can invite collaborators to view or edit your document, and multiple users can now edit the same document at the same time.
Office seems to block two users from editing the same sentence or paragraph at the same time, though this wasn’t consistent in my testing, and when I tried collaborative editing with one user working in a browser and the other in desktop Office, sometimes the two versions of the document took more than a minute to get into sync. As in the similar feature pioneered by Google Docs, a colored flag in the document indicates where each collaborator is editing, but desktop Office 2016 spells out the full name of your co-editors while Google only shows you an initial (and Office in a browser only shows a colored flag).
One benefit of this feature is that it’s easy to create a collaborative Team Notebook in OneNote. Simply create a new notebook on a Microsoft cloud drive, and click the Share button to make it accessible to collaborators.
As you’d expect, collaborative documents must be stored on a Microsoft cloud server, either OneDrive, OneDrive for Business, or an Office 365 SharePoint site.
You can fine-tune permissions for collaborative editors either by right-clicking their names in the list under the Share button, or you can control sharing without opening the document itself by clicking on it in a browser window open to a list of your OneDrive files. Inside a document, when you click on a remote user’s name in the Share menu, icons let you send a Skype IM, make a Skype call, or send an email message via your mail program.
One benefit of storing documents in Microsoft’s cloud services is that you get easy access to previous versions, as in Google Docs, including the names of the different editors who saved collaborative documents at different times. A new History tab on the File menu opens a pane that lists saved versions; click on an item in the list, and that previous version opens in a new window so you can edit it as a separate file or copy text and graphics into the current version.
A Group Outlook for Outlook
Outlook gets the most thorough makeover to accommodate Office’s collaboration features, and some new features are only visible if you use an Office 365 Business account or SharePoint services, though other new features are available to anyone with a Microsoft account, business-level or not.
For example, one feature available to everyone lets you attach a link to a file on your OneDrive drive instead of attaching the file itself, and do this with a single click. When you click the Attach File button while composting a message, Outlook displays a list of your recently-edited documents. Click on a document stored in OneDrive, and Outlook inserts a live link to the cloud-based file—although, if you prefer to send the actual file, you can click on the attachment and choose an option to attach a copy of the file.
Dropbox users will recognize this as a one-click counterpart to the multi-step operation of fetching a link to a file stored in Dropbox and then pasting the link into a mail message. Advantages of this new method in Outlook include mail messages without a lot of extra bulk, and your ability to update a document after sending the link, so that the recipient of the file will always open the current version.
For enterprise-level Office 365 Business accounts, Outlook offers a Groups feature through which team members can message the group and effortlessly share files and calendars. Group members can opt to receive messages in their Inbox or only get them when they click on a Groups heading in the left-hand sidebar. The group-messaging feature resembles multi-user IM services like Slack—you can type a message for everyone in the group—but the feature is built into Outlook so you can insert or consult calendars, notes, contact information, or any other Outlook item.
Also, for Enterprise-level accounts, an optional Clutter feature cordons off into a special folder those messages that it thinks you don’t care about because you’ve typically ignored the senders in the past. It’s like a higher-tech, enterprise-level counterpart of the third-party SaneLater service I rely on to keep low-priority messages out of my personal inbox.
The Old and the New
There’s always something old and something new in the latest Office release. Office 2016 still includes Microsoft Publisher, the page-layout app that used to be widely used for preparing menus and posters, and that probably someone still uses today, though I’ve never met anyone who does. And the Access database app is still included for those who like to build custom data-driven applications, but it hasn’t been updated since the 2013 version.
A new member of the Office family is a cloud-based presentation app called Sway, freely downloadable even if you don’t have the rest of Office. Sway creates presentations that are digital equivalents of the long roll of paper that Jack Kerouac used for typing On the Road: You read a Sway by scrolling through it up and down or right and left in a Web browser—it’s most at home in Windows 10’s new Edge browser—pausing here and there to click on slideshows or similarly animated or expandable features. Your Sways are housed on Microsoft’s servers, so you probably won’t use them for sensitive data.
Except for the fact that Office is Microsoft’s main content-creation platform, there’s no special reason why Sway should be part of Office, and it doesn’t share data or anything else with any other Office app. When you create a Sway, you can amuse yourself for hours with the Remix! button on the toolbar that reorganizes your presentation into entirely new layouts and designs each time you click it. The users who read your Sways may find them slightly annoying, as I did, because the built-in animations and transitions slow down your access to content. Microsoft has a habit of making second versions that are far better than the first, and Sway is worth keeping an eye on even if you don’t use it now.
Throughout Office 2016, you’ll find ancient geological layers of features that haven’t been improved in years because too few people use them. Word’s Master Documents is a potentially powerful feature that lets you edit chapters as separate files, yet also combine them in a master document that imports the separate chapters when you open it and exports them again when you close it. This feature is dauntingly complicated, and produces files that tend to get corrupted, so the word among Office veterans is that you simply shouldn’t use it. However, an improved and updated version would be right at home in Microsoft’s new collaboration features, and maybe Microsoft will give it another look for a future version.
Who Gets What
You need to be an expert in Microsoftese to understand the difference between Office 365 and Microsoft Office. Briefly: Office 365 is a set of subscription services ranging from student and personal plans to full-scale enterprise plans; all these plans include a continuously updated version of the Microsoft Office application suite, cloud storage, and various other features, some of them designed for small businesses or enterprise groups. Microsoft Office is the application suite, available in a traditional standalone perpetual license form (not yet released for Office 2016, with no release date specified) and through an Office 365 subscription.
Starting with Office 2016, Office 365 subscribers will get updates and enhancements that perpetual-license buyers won’t see. Perpetual-license buyers will have the version they buy, although you can expect the usual bug-fixes and security updates. But Office 365 subscribers will see monthly updates that will include new chart styles in Excel and not-yet-public new features coming up in PowerPoint. By the end of the year, Office 365 subscribers will see a What’s New button appear in their Office apps, detailing the new features; until then, you’ll have to discover the new features on your own or read about them in one of Microsoft’s blogs.
Anyone who subscribes to Office 365 shouldn’t hesitate to upgrade to Office 2016 when it’s offered. The learning curve for the new version is flat, the interface is easier on the eyes, new features don’t get in the way of old ones, and you lose nothing by being updated. Perpetual-license users of Office 2013 may find the new version appealing to look at, and the new charts in Excel worth the cost of the upgrade, but Office 2013 will continue to do its job superbly well for years to come, and the upgrade is mostly optional. Even if you’re still using Office 2010, as I sometimes do on an old laptop, the upgrade is worthwhile, but not essential.
Compared with the competition, Office 2016, as a whole, towers over everything else, but it isn’t the best at everything. LibreOffice 5.0 has the advantage of being free and open-source, so governments and security-conscious organizations can use it without worrying about what might be hidden in Microsoft’s code. But LibreOffice is clumsy and unstable compared with Microsoft’s sleek behemoth.
Google Apps has Google’s characteristic smooth interface, but less overall power and flexibility, and lacks the speed and convenience of desktop-based apps. Corel’s WordPerfect Office can’t match Word in overall power, but it easily outclasses Word in some special-purpose features, such as its handling of multi-chapter documents and its precise control over formatting, something that’s often frustrating in Office. For me, WordPerfect is also indispensable for cleaning up documents created by OCR software that create Word documents cluttered with formatting I don’t want.
Apple’s former iWork suite—Pages, Numbers, and Keynote—is spectacularly beautiful to look at, and Keynote produces slightly more impressive presentations than even PowerPoint, but these apps exist only on Apple’s platform, while Microsoft Office 2016 for the Mac far surpasses them in power and cross-platform compatibility.
Everyone gets annoyed at Microsoft Office sometimes, but for anyone with real work to do, it’s almost impossible to imagine living without it. Office 2016, all in all, is a spectacular achievement and the no-contest Editors’ Choice in its class.
By Edward Mendelson
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