New Office 2016 for Mac makes life easier for the cross-platform crowd

If you regularly switch between a Windows PC and a Mac, here's some good news. The just-released Office 2016 keeps the familiar Mac look and feel but overhauls the user experience to ease the pain of going back and forth. It's available now for Office 365 subscribers.

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Mac users have always been an important market for Microsoft, especially in the early days of Office. Excel, after all, was one of the original killer apps for the Macintosh, and it's about to celebrate its 30th birthday. Excel for the Macintosh debuted on September 30, 1985, nearly two years ahead of Excel for Windows.

That might have been the last time an Office for Mac program was arguably better than its Windows counterpart. In recent years, Office for Windows has been the one that gets all the resources and all the new features first, with the Mac version typically behind by at least a year.

On top of that, most of the team responsible for Office on the Mac has been focused on building Office versions for iPad (released a little over a year ago) and for iPhone (released last fall).

Office 2011, the release that most Mac owners are running today, is based on a five-year-old design. Its mishmash of toolbars and menus and ribbons is a usability nightmare. I know dozens of professionals who use Office 2011 on the Mac, and I rarely hear anything good about it.

Over the years, I have tried to switch to a Mac, and every time, the experiment has ended poorly, usually in a matter of days, with me giving up on Office 2011 and moving back to the familiar (and far superior) Office 2013 on Windows.

But that's all changed.

With Office 2016 for Mac, available for Office 365 customers today, Microsoft has finally turned the tables. This version of Office for the Mac is arguably an improvement over its Windows counterpart, at least in some measures.

A complete rewrite

This version is a complete rewrite, with the Office for Mac team moving from its legacy (Carbon) codebase to the more modern Cocoa framework.

More importantly, it's left the quirkiness of the old Office for Mac behind. I don't expect to hear many complaints from Mac users about Office 2016 for Mac, especially if they've already adapted to the iPad version, which has many similarities with the new Mac release.

But the real beneficiaries of the all-new design are people who switch between Macs and PCs regularly. If you fit in that category, you have plenty of company. According to Microsoft, roughly 75 percent of the Office for Mac customer base is made up of cross-platform users, typically with a Windows PC at work and a Mac at home.

I've spent the past few months using the preview release of Office 2016 for Mac and have had the final build for the past few days.

I haven't run screaming from this version of Office--far from it. Instead, the entire experience feels familiar and ... productive.

I haven't had a chance to do extensive compatibility testing, but so far every Office document I've opened has displayed perfectly. That shouldn't be a surprise; Microsoft's record on "round trip" document capability has been excellent since the switch to XML-based formats in 2007, across desktop, mobile, and web-based apps.

The Mac Ribbon is now nearly identical to its Windows cousin, with a customizable Quick Launch toolbar above it. Because the feature sets aren't a perfect match, the ribbons aren't completely identical, but the layout and order of tabs is consistent across platforms. To add a table to a Word document, for example, you use the Insert tab, which is always in the second position.

See for yourself: That's Office 2013 for Windows on top, Office 2016 for Mac on the bottom.

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Color coding matches the Windows programs as well, with Word in blue, Excel green, and so on. If those colors are too much, there's an option to use a more sedate and traditional gray scheme where the color hints are more subtle.

The pane for finding, opening, and saving files is reminiscent of the Mac design and conceptually similar to its Windows counterpart (albeit less feature rich). You can connect directly to Microsoft's cloud services: OneDrive, OneDrive for Business, and SharePoint.

For other cloud services, such as Dropbox or Google Drive, you have to sync to a local folder and then open synced files from that location.

A few other Office 2013 features have finally made it into the Mac version: Themes, which apply predefined sets of styles, fonts, and colors to a document; and task panes, which allow easier access to formatting tools, styles, and other things that don't fit on the ribbon.

Five core apps

The five apps that make up Office 2016 for the Mac are the heavy hitters: Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and OneNote. If your business relies on Microsoft Access, Publisher, or another member of the extended Office for Windows family, you'll need to keep a Windows PC or virtual machine handy.

And although the new design is specifically geared to cross-platform users, there are still plenty of Mac-specific touches. All of the resources in Office 2016 for Mac are made for a Retina display, Microsoft says (I couldn't test that claim).

All of the apps support pinch-zoom and other OS X multitouch gestures, as well as working in full screen mode. I liked the ability to work on charts and large, data-packed spreadsheets using Excel in full-screen view, although that option is much less useful for Word. I'll be very happy when OS X El Capitan finally implements the window-snapping features that Windows users have grown to know and love for years.

Here's a quick look at each of those five core apps, available for Office 365 subscribers today, from the same portal where you'll find the Click-to-Run Windows programs.

Outlook

Outlook and its predecessor, Entourage, were always the weakest link in the Office family on the Mac, clunky to use, with databases that were far from robust. This rewrite is refreshingly modern, with a new database format and the familiar Outlook three-pane layout.

I had no trouble setting up multiple accounts from Office 365 (Exchange), Outlook.com, and Gmail. The latter two set up in IMAP mode automatically, with me only having to enter the email address and password. For Gmail, I needed to create an app password, because the new Outlook doesn't support Google's secure authentication features. The mail protocol that refuses to die, POP, is also supported.

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For me, the killer feature of Outlook in Office 2016 for the Mac is its ability to unify accounts, with a shared Inbox, Sent Items, Drafts, and Junk folders. This design allows you to see new messages from different accounts in a single view, instead of having to switch between mail stores as in Office 2013 on Windows. (If you prefer your mail in separate buckets, you can disable the unified Inbox.)

During my testing, Outlook crashed several times, offering the option to send reports to Microsoft and (thankfully) recovering perfectly each time. The good news is that this release is on a monthly update cycle, with major updates quarterly. That means new features (and bug fixes) don't have to wait till the next major release or service pack.

The one feature I miss most from Office 2013 on Windows is the Ignore button, which lets you automatically suppress those long, tedious conversations between co-workers where you're an innocent bystander in the Cc field.

The productivity apps

The resemblances between Word, Excel, and PowerPoint in Office 2016 for the Mac and its Windows counterpart are striking. The look and feel is unmistakably specific to each platform, but the organization of commands and program elements, and the overall workflow, are consistent.

I had no trouble writing this review using the new Word on the Mac. One of the new Office 2016 features, in fact, made my experience easier: Word and its Office-mates support the Windows standard keyboard shortcuts (Ctrl+C to copy, for example) in addition to the Mac equivalents (Command+C).

You can still expect a brief period of confusion when switching platforms for the first time, but this is a huge improvement over the Office 2011 experience. The pinch-to-zoom support is especially welcome, making my Apple Magic Trackpad useful and also making me wish that I had something similar for my Windows desktop.

One of Word's greatest strengths, of course, has been its support for the collaborative process. This version allowed me to see tracked changes in shared documents, with an impressive array of options for the kind of changes that are visible.

The biggest change, though, is the ability to reply to comments as you and fellow team members work on a document. These threaded comments, available in all the Office apps, make it possible to quickly jump into a conversation and send unambiguous replies. Here's an example from a conversation with one of my favorite editors.

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Word also supports co-authoring, a feature I didn't have time to test on the RTM build.

PowerPoint now supports the full range of animations and effects that its Windows counterpart has. A Mac and PowerPoint 2016 can still make an ugly presentation, but it's much easier to add professional effects without looking like you're using a canned template.

For basic lists and calculations, any spreadsheet will do. Excel's strengths are its analysis tools, as well as visualization options such as charts and sparklines. The new Excel for the Mac handled all of my PivotTables with aplomb, including the ability to use Data Slicers. (Excel experts will understand why that's a big deal.)

Excel in Office 2013 for Windows has nailed the charting experience, and this Mac upgrade does it equally well. The Recommended charts feature is almost uncannily accurate in its ability to choose the correct type of chart and the proper layout.

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Excel's charting features are greatly improved over Office 2011, but they still fall short of the depth of what's in Office 2013 for Windows. This is really a perfect example of the fundamental difference between Office on Windows and the Mac.

For really demanding professionals, there's likely to be one feature (or two, or three) that make Windows the preferred option. But for the overwhelming majority of people, Office for the Mac will do every task that's likely to come up in a work day.

OneNote

And then there's OneNote, which I consider the least appreciated and potentially most valuable member of the Office family. I've got more than 10 years' worth of professional and personal notes captured there, and I use it daily.

The good news is that OneNote in Office 2016 for the Mac is fully compatible with the OneNote cross-platform vision: All your notebooks, synced via OneDrive or OneDrive for business, containing text, handwritten notes and drawings, photos, web clippings, and voice recordings.

If you have a MacBook Pro, you can record an interview or a presentation directly within OneNote, typing your own comments as you go. Later, you can click in your notes and jump directly to what was being recorded as you typed that comment. It's an incredibly useful feature for students and reporters.

The basics are executed well, and the new OneNote for Mac is probably perfectly adequate for most. The two missing features that will make me stick with OneNote on Windows are the ability to embed video recordings (lectures and presentations, for example) and the ability to search for tagged notes. The new Mac version lets you add and review those tags, but the search tools aren't as robust.

The killer feature of Office 2016 for the Mac, as far as I am concerned, is its price. I already have a paid annual Office 365 subscription that gives me the right to install the full Office desktop apps on up to five PCs or Macs. This Mac is using two of those installations: Office 2016 for the Mac, and Office 2013 (soon to be Office 2016 as well) in a virtual machine running Windows.

If you're an Office 365 subscriber, that means you don't have to pick one or the other. You can use Office on the Mac or on Windows, choosing the right tool for the task at hand. Which is pretty remarkable for a family of software that's about to turn 30.

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