Business

Why Office 365 is actually worth $100 a year (review)

powerpoint-365

Microsoft finally launched the consumer versions of Office 365 and Office 2013 this week. But, you ask, is it really worth the cost? In many cases, the answer is — surprisingly — yes.

The way most of us have used Microsoft Office over the years has stayed the same, but the software suite is changing radically, with a hard emphasis on getting consumers to subscribe. Trying to adapt to increasingly mobile consumers, Microsoft wants you to have Office everywhere you go and wants you connected to the cloud.

Microsoft’s answer to this problem is Office 365, which is a subscription version of the new Office 2013 software. Office 365 gives you subscription access to the software, and you can use it from a number of devices (up to five devices for the one-year, $100 consumer subscription; or two devices for the four-year, $80 student edition — see details below). It adds a couple of cloud-based and instant-messaging features. But otherwise, its components are the same as those of Office 2013, which is a more traditional software package ($140 and up for a permanent license that you can install on a single PC).

I’ve tested Office 2013 and the new Office 365 on a Windows 8 tablet and a Windows 7 PC, and it’s a clear evolution of the software. It addresses mobility, the multidevice lifestyle many professionals live, and connections to the cloud much better than the 2010 version of Office and the previous Office 365.

Still, you ask, why the hell should I subscribe to something when I can just pay once and be done with it? Bear with us for a minute as I explain.

Pricing and programs

First up, let’s talk about the cost and what programs you actually get with each Office option that’s being offered as of this week.

Here’s the breakdown of what you can get:

  • Office 365 Home Premium: $99 per year — five devices — Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher, Access
  • Office 365 University: $80 for 4 years — two devices — Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher, Access
  • Office 2013 Home & Student: $140 — one device — Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote
  • Office 2013 Home & Business: $220 — one device — Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook
  • Office 2013 Pro: — $400 — one device — Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, OneNote, Publisher, Access

With that out of the way, I can dig into why you might be better off by subscribing to 365 rather than buying a single copy of Office 2013.

New features in Office 2013

Since Office 365 is essentially subscribing for access to all of Office 2013’s programs and some bonuses, let’s talk about what’s new in 2013.

First, the suite’s polish emphasizes clean design, large fonts, and thinking of what you need before you need it. The ribbon interface first introduced in Office 2007 is still around, but it now has larger text and a way to easily minimize the ribbon if you want it hidden.

word-ribbon

Handy features in here firmly enhance the experiences of each app. One feature that helps you through each app is a new start screen that pops up when you start Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and other suite programs that shows popular template options. One feature that helps in PowerPoint is the new Presenter View, which previews slides and other info on your PC’s screen while giving a presentation. In Excel, an awesome feature called Flash Fill auto-predicts the info you’re typing in cells. And in Outlook, Peeks lets you hover to view your calendar without actually leaving the inbox.

Office 2013 is also designed to better work with touchscreens, and some elements are larger to account for tapping instead of clicking. However, between touchscreen use and using a traditional mouse-and-keyboard, I would much rather control it the traditional way. Maybe my fingers are too large, but it was often frustrating to tap the right options I wanted. Microsoft needs to work with some talented interface designers to make a completely touch-focused of this software.

Office Apps are another new aspect of Office 2013. You can install these apps to add new functionality and third-party interaction to Word, Excel, PowerPoint, or more. Take a look at some of the apps you can install below.

office-apps

Reasons to subscribe to Office 365 Home Premium

Here are several reasons why I think Office 365 is a good deal for $100 a year:

Multiple devices: It works on five devices, including PCs running Windows 7 and 8 and Macs running OS X 10.5.8 or later. For those of you, like me, who have multiple devices and don’t want to buy a copy for each, this is a great solution. Imagine if you have a desktop and laptop and need Outlook. Two copies of Office 2013 Home & Business will cost you $440 up front. I’d much rather pay $100 a year in that circumstance.

Office on Demand: Office on Demand is a feature that enables you to use Office on a Windows 7 or 8 PC that is not one of your five installs. For example, if you are at a friend’s house or a satellite office, you still have access to Office. Once you sign in to your Microsoft account on Office.com, Microsoft streams a copy of Office from the cloud down to that computer and you can save your work to the cloud. When you are finished with your Office on Demand session, the copy disappears and removes all traces you were there.

Cloud connectivity: Office 365 is super-connected to the cloud. When you save a document in Word or Excel, it saves simultaneously to SkyDrive and to the computer’s hard drive. That way, no matter where you access a document, you have the latest version of it on hand. Office 365 subscribers also get 60 free Skype minutes per month and a boost in SkyDrive storage from 7GB to 20GB.

Updates: While a standard copy of Office 2013 will get security updates, the software in Office 365 will continually be updated with many more features.

Students get a killer deal: Office 365 University is a fantastic value for students at $80 for four years. You only get two device installs, but Office on Demand means you can use it on many other PCs. (Like the university computer lab.) Microsoft says it will let students renew the deal a single time, which helps if they need extra time to get their degree or go to grad school.

office-word

Using Office 365

In several days of using Office 365, I’ve rather come to like it, although I experienced a few hang-ups. Installation was not hard and only took a few minutes on my Windows 7 desktop PC over a wired connection. While it was still finishing the installation of the programs, Office immediately let me use the majority of those programs if I was seriously impatient.

Using Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and the other programs was reminiscent of using older versions with thoughtful additions. As noted above, the new features in Office 2013 are handy, and after using certain tools, it would be hard to go back. After using Form Fill in Excel, I can’t imagine ever trying to do serious spreadsheet work in something other than Excel. I don’t use spreadsheets often, but I’m sure those that do will love Excel 2013. If you’re a someone who gives a lot of presentations as part of your job, you’ll likely get a kick out of PowerPoint 2013 because it offers more features and the Presenter View is smart.

I tested Office on Demand on a Samsung ATIV PC running Windows 8. It actually didn’t work as well as I wanted because my wireless Internet connection often wasn’t fast enough to download and stream the programs. After waiting for several minutes for Word on Demand to open up, it finally started letting me write a document. While I was writing the doc, it would sometimes become unresponsive while it was loading data. When I had a strong Internet conneciton, the service was more responsive and was easier to use.

Overall, Office 365 works smoothly and mostly as advertised. Once small businesses can get in on the action (more on that in a bit), it could be a compelling option for them if they aren’t already aboard the Google Apps train.

OneNote_Snip Photos

Reasons to skip Office 365

While we think Office 365 is generally a good deal for those who need powerful productivity software, I have some good reasons for you to skip it.

First, if your needs for productivity software are extremely simple, you have no reason to invest this much money in Office. You can easily use Google Docs or OpenOffice for free and get basic document, spreadsheet, and presentation editing. But if you want the most features and versatility, Office programs like Excel and PowerPoint are much more powerful.

Second, being tied to a subscription service could make some folks nervous. What if your subscription expires? Will your data and programs disappear? As ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley points out, Microsoft will notify you that your subscription has not been renewed and will permit the download of any documents in the cloud to your hard drive. The Office programs themselves will enter a “read-only reduced functionality mode,” so you won’t be able to fully use them like you once did until your renew.

Another reason to skip? You truly only need a single copy of Office and don’t want to be on the hook for subscription costs. Let’s say you have just one home PC and you only need Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote for your productivity needs. It would be better to purchase a single copy of Office 2013 Home & Student for $140, and you’ll have it for life.

Finally, if you already have a copy of Office 2010, you probably don’t need to jump on the Office 365 bandwagon just yet. However, give it a few more years and you might want to get in. Those who have Office 2007 or before actually should consider the upgrade since there have been so many improvements since that release.

What’s next on the Office front

Microsoft plans to announce pricing and details for Office 365 for small businesses on Feb. 27. The company hasn’t explained how it will differ from Office 365 Home Premium yet, but we suspect it will offer various group editing and collaboration features in the cloud.

We also expect Microsoft is hard at work on full-fledged touch-based applications for iOS, Android, and Windows 8/RT platforms. Microsoft has routinely denied that native iOS and Android apps for Office are coming, but leaks and rumors suggest otherwise. We will see.

Wrap-up

Office 365 is the right move for Microsoft and shows a willingness to give a lot in order to attract subscribers. For $99 a year, you get access a constantly updated version of Office that accounts for having multiple computers and the chance you’ll need to use Office on a PC that isn’t yours. We think a lot of consumers and business folks will dig it.

Check out more images of Office 365 and Office 2013 below:


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