Microsoft has launched Office 2016, the first refresh of its ubiquitous productivity software since Office 2013. Despite the time gap, Microsoft hasn't spent it making sweeping changes to Word, Excel, PowerPoint and company - instead, the Redmond firm has focused on fine-tuning, with only a handful of usability and cloud-based additions making it through.
One of our favourite new features is the ‘Tell Me' bar, which sits at the top of each application's menu bar. Broadly similar to the Cortana digital assistant in Windows 10, typing in this bar will offer a convenient list of possible actions; writing ‘symbol' in Word's Tell Me bar, for instance, creates a drop-down menu with quick access to the ‘Insert a Symbol' and 'Equation Symbol' tools.
This saves the need to dig for these options in the Ribbon UI's various tabs. Also, unlike the infamous Clippy, it never nags or intrudes, only speaking when spoken to. Our only complaint is that we can't use Tell Me in OneNote and Publisher, where it would likely have proven just as handy.
Word is also the sole recipient of the ‘Smart Lookup' tool. Using Bing, Smart Lookup can query highlighted words or phrases, displaying web results and dictionary definitions in an expanding sidebar. We don't actually see this getting much mileage; it's basically a more closely-integrated version of the ‘Search with Bing' feature in Office 2013, which always felt unnecessary when Google was a couple of clicks away. Smart Lookup also clashes with Word's spellchecker, as unrecognised words can't be queries. Sadly, this often includes proper nouns like person and company names.
While this web-based feature falls flat, other are much better. OneDrive is an even bigger part of Office 2016 than ever before, with a new Share button in Word, Excel and PowerPoint that enables document creators to invite other users to view and edit files directly from within the apps. This ties into another great addition, again specific to Word: the ability to co-author documents over the web, and see other users' edits in real-time.
This is the first time a desktop version of Word has included such capability, although a longtime staple of Office Online and Google Docs that has proved incredibly well-suited to collaborative working. What's more, Skype For Business is now built into Office, allowing for IM, calls and screen-sharing in the apps themselves - ideal for remote working.
Speaking of OneDrive, an Office 365 subscription - which is, save for the Home and Student edition, the only way to get Office 2016 on PC - remains a relatively good-value entry point to Microsoft's cloud service. the Office 365 Business plan, which includes 1TB of storage, costs £7 per user per month, compared to £3.99 per month for a standalone 200GB OneDrive subscription.
Office 2016's remaining changes are relatively minor. There are five new chart types in Excel, none of which offers much that a standard bar, line or pie chart doesn't already oofer, and user interfaces are practically identical to Office 2013's editions across the board.
While this limited innovation might not be enough to convince some firms to commit to ongoing subscriptions costs, the actual changes are benign at worst and brilliantly helpful at best. The comforting familiarity of Office 2016's consistent menu design also feels more like a wise acceptance of the software's strengths than a missed opportunity for change.
All that said, there is one major new addition to the Office family to consider: Microsoft Sway. It performs like a sleeker, more touchscreen-friendly evolution of PowerPoint, capable of creating presentations by adding building blocks of headers, text boxes and media. The resulting presentations slide smoothly between chunks of content like a horizontally-scrolling web page, rather than jumping through segmented slides.
It's a little too simplified, features-wise, to outright replace PowerPoint - which Microsoft says it isn't intended to do anyway, but since Sway does offer a more visually charming, less officious method for presenting data, we're happy to have it. The large, chunky menus are also a fine fit for smartphone and tablet use.
Curiously, Sway isn't actually part of the Office 2016 subscription deal. Instead, it's available as a free download on the Windows Store, albeit only to Windows 10 users - anyone still on Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 won't be able to use it at all. That's a pretty hefty drawback for late adopters, though we'd recommend upgrading to Windows 10 for free in any case.
Likewise, for existing Office 365 subscribers and potential upgraders, Office 2016 is easily worth a look. The changes may be not be big, but they certainly are clever.
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