More on Office 2013: I Try ‘Em So You Don’t Have To

Last week I shared my initial impressions of Office 2013, based on a day’s use. Obviously those were first impressions.

Now, however, I’ve been using it for a week. Using most of it, that is. Outlook 2013 had for me a fatal flaw that forced me to abandon it after a few days and revert to Outlook 2010. I’m grateful that Outlook 2010 coexists with the rest of Office 2013; that level of interoperability wasn’t always present, but it seems Microsoft has listened to customers here.

If you just want my bottom line and thoughts on whether or not to upgrade, skip to the end of this article.

This isn’t a full review of any sort, but I thought it worthwhile to share what I’ve learned.

The Good

The major positive feature is Office’s new online integration. I can easily store documents in the cloud – which means everything is backed up all the time. I can also share documents in the cloud. As a “sole proprietor,” I find that a good thing… except that I’m already doing it with SugarSync1. My kids almost never back up, no matter how much I remind them.2 If I put Office 2013 on their computers (see The Whatever, below), their files will be backed up. They won’t have to do anything; it’ll just happen.

I understand there is increased touch support for tablets such as the Surface Pro. I don’t have one (yet), so I can’t report on this feature.

Other additions seem minor – nice to have, but minor. That is a known problem. Office is so good and so complete that there’s seemingly little Microsoft can add in terms of features. Here are some:

Word (and the Outlook Editor)

  • Multi-language integration seems improved. This might be a big deal in bilingual countries such as Canada.
  • Word has some very nice new document styles for the design challenged among us.
  • In a table, a little gray plus sign pops up when you mouse over the left edge – a one-click insert-a-new-row gadget. I find this quite useful because I use tables regularly.
  • Word can now import PDF documents for editing. I round-tripped one of my brochures (which have graphics, tables, drop-caps, etc.) into PDF and back into Word, and it opened relatively intact. There are some differences that have to do with PDF itself, but the resulting document is quite editable. Good feature, well done.
  • Word finally remembers where you left off in a document, and allows you with one click to return to that spot. That’s not quite as good as Excel, which has always remembered where you left off, but it’s a nice improvement – especially for someone who creates book-length files.
  • Headings now have a little gray triangle next to them to allow you to expand/collapse whole sections outline-style. Nicely done, mildly useful.
  • Comments have Reply and Done buttons. This is quite useful for collaboration or for notes you make to yourself. It’s a good feature for writers – don’t interrupt your flow when you have something you need to do further research on, but slap it in a comment and then mark it Done when you get to it. For lawyers? I’m not so sure. Make sure you clean up the comments before sharing a document… but you already do that anyway, right?

Excel

  • Huge plus: You can now open multiple worksheets from one workbook in multiple windows. Data in one, pivot table in a second, graph in a third? Now you can see them all simultaneously. When I ran businesses at Microsoft, this would have been an enormous help. My current one-person-plus-associates business doesn’t require that kind of horsepower, but if you need it, this is the killer feature for Excel 2013.
  • Excel’s so-called “clean” look is actually a mild improvement, not something I’d say about Word and PowerPoint and OneNote.
  • Excel now has a little popup for “quick analysis” of your data. That’s probably useful for Excel wonks. I used to be one, and still do some business analysis in Excel. I haven’t found a need for this feature, however, but some will find it useful.
  • There are some very nice improvements to presentation features, from charts to pivot tables. Excel seems to have gotten the biggest and most creative makeover. Lots of good stuff here.

PowerPoint

  • Improved presenter view. It even works on a single monitor, which isn’t useful for actual presenting but is quite valuable for rehearsing. I rehearse on planes (silently!) and in hotel rooms (not so silently). Now I can do so using presenter view, where I can see upcoming slides, watch my timing, etc. (What, you think my seminars and keynotes are just Steve-gets-up-and-talks?!)
  • The 16×9 widescreen layout may be useful if your office standardizes on these layouts, or if you know your presentation will be given on a widescreen monitor. Could be useful for litigators who rely on PowerPoint rather than more complex and sophisticated trial presentation tools.
  • Improved themes and sub-themes for the design-challenged. Even folks who are good at design will likely appreciate some starting points.
  • A few improvements for those who create high-end graphics and animations. I’ll use these. If you use PowerPoint in court, you’ll also find these useful.
  • An eyedropper for color matching. Winner, winner, winner! Now I don’t need a separate little applet to copy a color I like… and the eyedropper applies it automatically, so I no longer have to type in RGB values.
  • Comments! Just like Word! Better late than never, I guess.

Outlook shows the weather for the next three days at the top of your inbox. Okay…. I can’t find anything else good to say about Outlook 2013, though.

OneNote has improved tables. Sharing is also a bit easier, although it’s worked pretty well in past versions.

The Bad

Outlook broke the Hotmail/IMAP connector. That broken feature made me revert to Outlook 2010. Microsoft has known they broke this for many months but chose not to address the issue. This will affect only a small number of users, but it’s critical to those who do use it. If you have your own domain (e.g., a small company) and you use a Hotmail folder to save certain old mail (which may not be the best idea for a law firm, but it’s terrific for individuals), you can no longer drag mail to your Hotmail folders.

For example, I keep my travel memos in a Hotmail folder so that I can access them from any computer. (Stuck on the road. Have a question about my hotel. In a country where my phone doesn’t do data. You get the picture.) I used to simply drag them from my inbox to my Travel folder, and know they were preserved on line. Not any more, in Outlook 2013. Keep in mind that you can still attach a Hotmail account to Outlook 2013. However, you may be unable to move files from one account to the other, depending on how your main account is set up. If you’re on Exchange, it shouldn’t be a problem. If, as I said, you have a domain server and a mail account, you may be out of luck.

But as I said, not many folks in the legal world need this feature.

There are a few other problems:

  • Word now requires an extra click to open a file, since Ctrl+O no longer brings up the File Open dialog but a full-screen panel that asks where you want to open a file – on your computer, on the Internet, etc. Why not leave the hotkeys alone, Microsofties, the way you did when you first introduced the Ribbon? It’s not fatal, but it sure is annoying.
  • Mail in Outlook’s main pane now takes up far more vertical space per item than it used to. Where I used to be able to see about 15 mails on my laptop screen, I now see only 12 or 13. I like white space too, but Outlook is not the place for it. It’s a tool for compact presentation of information. The functionality folks let the design team have too much leeway here, I think.
  • Outlook broke an important feature in the To Do bar at the far right of the main screen. That’s the vertical panel that shows one or more months’ worth of calendars followed by as many upcoming appointments as will fit on the screen. In other words, as I pack it in for the day, I can see tomorrow’s appointments without having to switch to calendar view. They broke this, as I noted last week. It shows only the current day.

The Ugly

I think the new apps, other than Excel, look ugly. That’s a personal preference. It wouldn’t stop me from using them.

Outlook got a bad case of the overall uglies in breaking things that used to work.

The Whatever

  • Office pricing is as confusing as ever. No, actually, that’s not true. By including Outlook in the normal packages, they’ve simplified pricing for many users. (Volume licensing is its own world. I honestly don’t know if there’s any good way to simplify volume licensing.)
  • It wants to store everything in the cloud by default. That’s not my default. It’s easy to change, at least.
  • Office Home Premium is now sold on a subscription model, $100/year (per computer, not per user). That’s pricier than the Home and Student edition without Outlook, but if you use Office at home or for a small business and have been buying Outlook as well, it’ll probably amount to the same, give or take. However, if you don’t buy the subscription model, you’re limited to one computer, not the three of Office 2010.
  • You can now embed a video in Word. I’m not sure why. Makes sense in PowerPoint, obviously, but Word…?

The Next Step: Should You or Shouldn’t You?

First, I strongly recommend against upgrading to Outlook 2013. The good news is that you can run Outlook 2010 with the rest of Office 2013, so you can do a split upgrade if you wish.

That said, I’d base an upgrade decision on the following factors:

  1. Do you want to collaborate with others outside your firewall? If so, Office 2013 is far better than Google Apps in terms of features and quality.3
  2. Do you use mostly Word, with only sporadic use of PowerPoint and Excel? If so, I don’t see a reason to upgrade (other than #1 above, if applicable).
  3. Do you build models in Excel – real models, not just use it for calculations and tracking the kids’ allowances? If so, upgrade. If not, I see no compelling need to do so.
  4. Do you do real presentations in PowerPoint, rather than simple bullet-point slides with the occasional Dilbert cartoon used as an opener? If so, upgrade. If not, the need isn’t compelling… but there’s enough good stuff for even the casual presenter (better themes, widescreen support) that I might consider it anyway.

Anyway, that’s my take on it from a week of use. I’m glad I upgraded – and equally glad I could easily downgrade Outlook back to a version that worked better. Keep in mind that the upgrade is relatively painless, retaining most of your settings. So far, the only settings not retained, as far as I’ve noticed, was the most-recently-opened files list. (How hard could it have been to import that list? I don’t know. Maybe it was hard, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was an oversight.)

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