NEW YORK - Every few years you can count on Microsoft to come calling with a fresh version of Office, the bread and butter productivity software suite that's headlined by Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook. Microsoft will tinker with the interface from time to time (on occasion dramatically) and pile on new features. Never mind that only a relatively small number of the features already on hand are ever put in the regular rotation of any typical Office user.
But Microsoft claims the brand new Office 365 Home Premium that launches Tuesday is the most ambitious new version of Office in the quarter-century history of the franchise. You can download it at www.office.com.
To be sure you'll find new features in the programs that make up the latest Office, though none that I'd call earth-shattering. In addition to Word, Excel, Power Point and Outlook, programs include the digital note-taker OneNote, the Access database, and the Publisher desktop publishing program. The interface is welcoming, and the programs are friendly to touch, part of the Microsoft mantra these days now that Windows 8 is here.
But the big news is in how Office is being sold and updated, and reinvented for the cloud computing era. Think of this as the "Spotify-cation" of Microsoft, with Office taking the subscription route a la popular online music services.
For $99.99 a year, you get to use Office with all of the aforementioned programs on up to five computers, PC and/or Mac. You can lower the cost to $79.99 if you buy a Windows 8 PC at the same time. Microsoft will also let you pay $9.99 a month for a regular subscription, provided you buy direct from Office.com. And college students can qualify for a $79.99 subscription plan that covers the full four years.
On February 27, Microsoft will also add an Office 365 Small Business Premium offering for $149.99 a year. Among its features: a 25GB Outlook mailbox, plus the ability to host online meetings and also set up a public website with no hosting fees.
Incidentally, anyone who has tried the new Office under a public beta program should be aware that that program ends in about 60 days.
Home Premium subscribers can share Office with the entire clan, with each family member able to sign in with his or her own user account. Multiple people can employ Office at the same time.
You can freely deactivate any of the five computers under your subscription at any time, by logging onto office.com/myaccount. That's useful over time as you buy new computers and discard old ones. Microsoft is offering a 30-day free trial.
If you're on the road, you can also use a friend's computer or a machine at a business center or hotel, say, to "stream" Office over the Web via Office.com. The familiar "ribbon" interface and other personalized settings remain intact and follow you around, and the use of these other computers don't count against your five-computer limit.
Microsoft is also opening an Office Store, with free and pay apps. For example, for $2.99, you can buy a business analytics Survey Response Tool for SharePoint 2013 A Merriam-Webster Dictionary app for Word 2013 and Excel 2013 is free.
But you don't have to buy into the subscription model and not everybody will want to. If you're satisfied with how you compose Word docs, prepare PowerPoint presentations and Excel spreadsheets there's not necessarily a compelling reason to upgrade. The most recent versions of Office are perfectly fine, and if you prefer something more current, you will still be able to buy versions of the new Office at retail without a subscription, at prices starting at $139.99 for the Office Home and Student 2013 edition. In the U.S., though, Office will no longer come on disc - you get a download code instead - and you can only use the non-subscription versions of Office on a single computer.
Among the subscriber benefits is that Microsoft plans to supply updates and add new features on a regular basis, not just bug fixes the company says. So you'll theoretically always have the latest version of Office, to the extent that you need it. Windows updates are added by default in the background; Mac users first get a notification that an update is available.
I tested the new software on a Windows 8 Samsung 700T laptop/tablet hybrid that is able take advantage of an onscreen touch keyboard in addition to a physical keyboard--I'd still stick with a physical keyboard for writing whenever possible. And I tested it on an older Dell laptop running Windows 7 which does not support touch. I wrote parts of this column in Word on both machines and ran into a few minor conflicts trying to reconcile the two versions.
Microsoft hasn't updated Office on the Mac side yet, so Office for Mac 2011 is still the current version and will be what new Mac users who subscribe to Office will be able to download on their Apple computer for now. Previous versions of Office that may be installed on your PC or Mac don't count against the five-PC limit.
You'll need Windows 7, Windows 8, or Mac OS X version 10.5.8 or later to run Office. As part of your Office Home Premium subscription you also get 20 GB of storage on Microsoft's SkyDrive online locker, on top of the 7GB of storage that you otherwise get for free. By saving documents on SkyDrive (by default), I was able to pick up on one computer where I left off on another. Of course, you can download documents to your hard drive.
Another plus: Microsoft throws in 60 free Skype minutes a month for making global phone calls to mobile phones, landlines or computers.
If you decide at any point to end your subscription, you can use any older versions of Office that may be on your computer or Office Web apps to edit existing documents or create new ones. You can view, print or download documents you've already created in SkyDrive but won't be able to edit them with the latest version of Office; again you'd have to rely on older versions of Office or other software to do so. And you won't be able to create new documents unless you've got other software.
Among the features that may appeal to some users of the new Office are an "Attachment Reminder" in Outlook that flags you when you try sending an email in which you mention an attachment but don't actually attach the file. This might prevent the follow-up apologetic "oops" emails that most of us have had to send from time to time.
In Excel, Microsoft has added a "flash-fill" feature that auto-completes data without you having to enter certain formulas based on your user patterns.
And a "presenter view" in PowerPoint adds tools that help anyone giving a presentation watch the clock and view the next slide coming up while staying focused on the audience.
But to me the most dramatic changes in Office, are the way you can buy it. And how it now mostly lives online.
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The bottom line
Microsoft Office 365 Home Premium
$99.99 a year
Pro. Lets you install Office on up to 5 Windows PCs and/or Macs, plus ability to "stream Office on other computers. Regular updates are promised.
Con. Not everyone will want to buy into new subscription model.
By Edward C. Baig