It's hard for Microsoft to change its familiar word processing software. There aren't that many new things we need to do when editing or creating documents. However, we're now consuming more and more documents digitally: rather than print them out, we send each other virtual printouts — often PDF files that need separate readers and can lose fidelity. With Word 2013, Microsoft aims to make your word processor your document reader.
Word's new read mode is designed to work well on tablet devices like the upcoming Surface. Instead of scrolling through virtual reams of paper, it reflows text to fit screens so you can tap from page to page, zooming into images and tables. There's also no distraction from extraneous menu items — Word's read mode turns off most editing functions. Read mode uses the cloud to keep different devices in sync, so you can switch from a PC to a tablet and carry on reading exactly where you left off.
There's still support for the co-editing tools that arrived with Office 2010, but most document collaboration is asynchronous, and Microsoft has made it easier to share and comment on documents. There's support for inline comment replies and the ability to treat a comment as a to-do, and mark it as completed, greying it out. There's also support for sharing documents using the online presentation service introduced with PowerPoint 2010. Choose Present Online and send a link to your colleagues, and when you scroll through the document on your PC, your actions will be repeated in their browsers.
Perhaps the most useful new editing feature is PDF reflow. Designed to make it easier to copy content from PDF files, Word 2013's reflow tools interpret the PDF file and construct a similar Word document, letting you copy and paste tables and other formatted content. This isn't a two-way process: once opened in Word, edited PDF files need to be recreated using Adobe's or Microsoft's tools.
One thing to note: Office 2013 introduces new file formats, so we'd recommend using the compatibility options with the preview code.
Excel has formed the heart of Microsoft's business intelligence functionality for some time, and Excel 2013 gets a whole range of new tools to help you sort, lay out and analyse your data. Many of the new features are related to new functionality in SQL Server 2012 — especially around the tools for working with the new reporting features.
One of the more useful features is Flash Fill, a technique that automatically formats pasted and manually entered data. If you're adding data to a column, but haven't explicitly used data formatting, Flash Fill will interpret your choices and automatically apply an appropriate format to additional content. The Quick Analysis lens helps you find new ways of displaying your data, and a Recommended chart tool helps you choose the correct chart for your data. Other visualisation techniques, like chart animations, make it easier to understand the effects of your data.
Data analysis can be hard, especially when choosing the right Pivot Table for your data. Like the chart selection tools, you can get a preview of different Pivot Table options. The ProPlus version also gains tools for quickly exploring large datasets, and for quickly extracting trends from your data. There's also support for the new Power View visual report designer.
One common feature across many of the Office 2013 products is a new Office Start screen. Reminiscent of the Windows 8 Start screen, Office's version gives you quick access to themes and to templates — an approach that works well in a tool like PowerPoint, helping you find an appropriate style for a presentation.
Metro is all about design, and there are a lot of new features in PowerPoint that are intended to help you deliver well-designed presentations. Guidelines can be set in a master slide, helping give all your slides a consistent look and feel. You can also use an eyedropper to grab colours from a picture, and mke them the basis for the colours in a theme. If you've linked Facebook or Flickr to a Microsoft account, there's now a direct link from your online galleries into PowerPoint, giving you another source for images in slides — and without having to make local copies of your pictures.
Designing slides is only part of the story, of course. PowerPoint also gains a new presenter view, with tools for quickly navigating between slides (without showing the entire deck to your audience), and the ability to zoom in to diagrams and charts. Decks are automatically uploaded to the cloud, making them easier to share and present — as well as giving you access to your work wherever you have an internet connection.
Outlook's new blue icon takes some getting used to. However, it's also a sign that this is the most changed application in the suite. Not only does Outlook get significant user interface upgrades, there's also a lot of change under the surface, with support for new mail transport mechanisms (including Exchange ActiveSync) and tools that aim to make Outlook not just a mail client, but also a collaboration hub. Outlook 2013 not only builds on previous versions of Outlook, but also the Metro mail and contacts applications built into Windows Phone.
Some of the changes are simple, like the ability to reply to mail without leaving the message reading plane. Others just make things easier, with the ability to quickly peek at calendars and contacts, and a new text-based navigation bar at the bottom of the screen. The contacts tool in Outlook will now link the various identities for contacts into single people cards, making it easier to send mail to the right address — and bringing in social information for added context. The new weather bar in the calendar view may seem a little whimsical, but it actually makes it easier to plan activities: you can decide what's needed for the day, or whether you should schedule an event for outdoors or indoors.
Site mailboxes are an interesting new feature that link Outlook, Exchange and SharePoint. A single email folder can be used to link all the members of a team, giving them one place to receive team messages and to store documents.
Microsoft has tweaked the way Outlook's offline cache works, making it easier to work with large mailboxes on devices with SSDs. So instead of having to download an entire mailbox, you can choose to just have a few months or a few years. Searches will use both online and offline content, much like the Windows Phone mail client. Support for EAS means that you can use Outlook with more mail services, including Gmail.
If you've used some Outlook 2010 features like Quick Steps, you might find them harder to use, especially when the ribbon is collapsed. Quick Steps, for example, now reside two levels down in a hierarchical menu, making them difficult to use on a touch device.
Still one of the most overlooked Office components, OneNote 2013 may finally get the users it so richly deserves. As well as the familiar note-taking tools, OneNote adds tools for embedding files and documents into your notebooks. You can use a OneNote notebook to manage all the documents needed for a project — and if they're Excel or Visio files they'll automatically update so you can see changes. Notes can also be tied to meetings, using Outlook and Lync, so you can quickly pull up meeting notes or embedded annotated presentations from your calendar.
One of OneNote's weak spots has been its table support. It's always been easy to create tables using the Tab key, but harder to navigate them. You can now add headers, and even convert a table into an embedded Excel spreadsheet, with the ability to add visualisations and analytics.
Microsoft is also launching a Metro-style version of OneNote (OneNote on Windows 8), which uses the same note database as its desktop equivalent. You'll be able to use the Metro OneNote on Windows RT tablets, either to quickly get data into OneNote or as a standalone note-taking tool that uploads data into the cloud — for use on PCs, phones and other tablets.