Office 2013 on Windows RT -- business as usual

Office 2013 on Windows RT -- business as usual

Summary: The first tablets bearing Windows RT are now appearing in reviewers' hands, along with Office 2013 optimized for touch. While showing promise, the handling of touch operation seems to be business as usual for Office use on tablets.


I am one of those rare workers who have used tablets for productive tasks since the first Tablet PCs appeared in 2002. I first used pen tablets daily and then graduated to Tablet PCs with touch operation as soon as they became available. The hard part of that heavy usage was using Microsoft's own Office suite as it wasn't designed for touch control. That was expected to change with Windows RT and Office 2013, but the early look at the combination shows it is just business as usual.

The new Windows RT tablets are nice enough, as Windows has been totally retooled for use on a touch tablet. Like it or not the Metro interface makes using Windows on a tablet better than any earlier version of Windows.

Unquestionably the biggest selling point of Windows 8/RT tablets is Office 2013, the first version of the office suite from Microsoft written for the tablet. We are only just getting our first look at this revolutionary new Office for the tablet, and frankly it is underwhelming.

The best look (see video above) at Office 2013 on a Windows RT tablet so far comes from our own Ed Bott and Avram Piltch of Laptop Magazine. Their video look at using Office on a tablet is eye-opening. Having watched that video demonstration three times hoping I missed something, I can only conclude that using Office on an RT tablet is only feasible while using a keyboard and mouse.

To make Office 2013 touch friendly, Microsoft has basically bolted a Touch Mode on top of the apps. Without Touch Mode active, using Office by touch looks to be near impossible. Microsoft addresses that with Touch Mode to make some of the menus bigger for finger control.

This mode is apparently not active by default on a touch tablet. It must be manually triggered to turn it on, which is a strange design choice. It's even stranger that the control to activate Touch Mode is hidden. New users will have to know it's there somewhere and then go find it to activate it.

The Touch Mode trigger is a tiny little control that every demonstration I've seen to date show it is hard to touch and turn on. That's right, the touch optimization for Office 2013 is turned off by default, hidden from the tablet user, and then hard to turn on once discovered.

Even with Touch Mode active, while easier to operate by touch than before, Office is basically the same as it has been for years. The only conclusion I can reach after seeing it in action, and shared by some of the reviewers, is that you will only want to do serious Office work with a keyboard and mouse attached to your tablet.

That's right, you need a laptop equivalent to do more than "consuming", or looking at Office documents on a Windows 8 tablet. Anything more will be too difficult to do on the touch screen alone. While that seems logical to some, it begs the question of why Windows 8 was totally revamped with tablet control in mind?

Don't get me wrong, it is great that Windows 8 is versatile enough to work on all form factors. But the fact remains that if using Office on a Windows 8 tablet is not much better than on Windows Tablet PCs of old, it is business as usual.

The Office and Windows teams have always been separate at Microsoft, and with different business objectives the two products have never worked particularly well together on tablets in the past.

The hope was strong that this would now change with Windows 8 being a major focus at Microsoft, but early demonstrations of Office 2013 on Windows RT are showing that tablet operation is simply bolted on top of Office. Just as it has been for years.

It's worth noting that the Office 2013 being shown on Windows RT is only the Preview version. Even though Windows RT as shown is RTM, Office still has room for improvement before it goes gold. Let's hope that's the case, and before Windows 8 tablets start shipping.

Topics: Windows, Microsoft, Mobile OS

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  • 2 Things

    Touch Mode was on by default on my x86 tablet, chances are it will for RT tablets.

    Ed never turned touch mode on, all he did was add the icon to the toolbar.

    Having said that, I think Microsoft will miss a great chance to give Metro a huge boost if it doesn't have an OfficeMX version at launch.
    • I noticed that too.

      Ed never actually enabled it, great review they've got there.

      Does the installation detect if the device has a touch-screen? I ask because the installation for Office 2013 Preview x86/x64 is two files, there is no installer for touch hardware.

      Personally I suspect you were lucky there rwalrond with it being enabled by default.

      Regardless, I did enable it (I was using a mouse!) and it was pretty clear it's still not designed for touch, it just spaces everything out/makes the ribbon bigger. Crucially all windows are identical in size/shape.
    • My big fat fingers

      Wanting Office to work well with touch is like wanting to create great art through fingerpainting. This doesn't mean you can't touch up a painting occasionally with a finger or thumb, but if you really want to work you use a brush (or some tool with greater precision).

      You want to use Office - use a mouse/trackpad and kb. If you're stuck without one (i.e. you didn't buy a Surface or a convertible) you should still have a USB for a mouse/kb combo. If you don't, then the experience won't be perfect. but you will still be able to edit and add some text with touch and the on-screen keyboard - a stylus may help as well.

      Even though the touch experience with serious applications may not be perfect, even a little clunky, the important thing is that they are there.
      • Your big fat spin

        "Even though the touch experience with serious applications may not be perfect, even a little clunky, the important thing is that they are there."

        And I'm sure they appreciate all the damage control out there, but you can only put so much lipstick on a pig. Then it begins to smear after awhile.
        Cylon Centurion
      • So you are saying that if you want to write something

        (probably 60% of task performed on Office is writing stuff) you need to attach a mouse & keyboard to your tablet?

        Well that's lame. Very lame. Confirms what I had been saying all along:

        Better stay away from Win Retard; get a real tablet. A tablet where I can write, without transforming it on a netbook. A tablet where I can spreadsheet without having to attach a keyboard and a mouse.

        I don't know how much you can endure being abused, Tony, certainly it will be quite entertaining to watch.

        btw, I'm getting next week a real tablet, an Ipad...
    • It's not clear if he enabled it or not...

      I saw the video too and it appears that he didn't enable touch mode, as the interface changes radically.

      But regardless, the fact that it's not set on by default and the fact that the old dialog boxes (not the Metro UI style) appear speaks mounds about the readiness of Office 2013 for slates (not tablets, as those have styluses).

      My best guess is that Windows 8 delivery schedule was too tight for the Office 2013 team and all they could deliver was this awkward "touch-mode" and it's not enabled by default as other pieces are not ready for the touch transition. As an example, just download the Preview on your PC yourself and try the Blog feature and you'll get tiny dialog boxes to setup the blogs.
  • About that switch to turn Touch Mode on in Office 2013 on a Win RT Tablet

    As Ed Bott pointed out, "pinch to zoom" will not be available in classic desktop mode. Actually, if a person could "zoom-in" somehow on that menu option, than enabling Touch Mode would not be a problem. Indeed, "pinch to zoom" in that classic desktop environment would eliminate the need for "Touch Mode" in the first place.

    Can you imagine working in Office 2013 on a seven inch Nexus 7 class tablet without an external keyboard and mouse? I can't.

    BTW, in a somewhat related note, I just installed Parallels 8 and used it's remote iOS app to display my Windows XP virtual machine on my "new iPad". Parallels optimized that virtual environment for the iPad's retina class display. The XP Virtual Machine operates flawlessly over WiFi and it is fully multi-touched enabled. It is fast. And, for a version of Windows that was really never designed for multi-touch hand gestures in mind, it works because one can easily "zoom - into" those tiny menu elements and choose a menu option without too much hassle.

    IMO, that virtual machine experience is how Windows RT's classic mode SHOULD have operated. In a few months, I will have Win 8 installed as a virtual machine and then I will have a "Win 8 retina display ARM based tablet" that is state of the art. It will even have "pinch to zoom" in Classic Desktop mode for those pesky legacy Windows apps that were never designed for tablet multi-touch hand gestures.
    • I guess Apple to the rescue again.

      Why can't Microsoft ever get anything right?
      • It's still a preview version of Office

        Go back to troll land.
        Ken Doll
        • Re: It's still a preview version of Office

          “Preview” is supposed to mean “this is how it will look like”, not “this is NOT how it will look like”. Or is it? You tell me. Are we seeing an honest “preview” or not?
          • Well from the kings of vaporware

            You tell us.
            Cylon Centurion
      • Is not on their ADN

        to aim for excellence; Is public knowledge that is better to stay away from Microsoft first versions; moreover, better skip entire OS versions. Most companies are going from XP to W7, and I suspect they will stay with 7 a long, long time, before starting to look at 9 or 10, or alternatives.
    • GUI

      Pinch to zoom is normally considered for content not the GUI.
    • Parallels has some nice products

      I used Parallels 7 to put XP on a 17" MacBook a couple of months back. The MacBook was to replace an old 17" notebook running XP and all the owner wanted was the exact same thing except running on the MacBook. While I didn't set it up in this case, the "Coherence Mode" option is very, very slick (Google it.)
    • Win 8 retina display ARM based tablet


      "In a few months, I will have Win 8 installed as a virtual machine and then I will have a "Win 8 retina display ARM based tablet" that is state of the art."

      Correct me if I am wrong, but as per my understanding Microsoft is not selling ARM based OS (Windows RT) in retails. Rather Windows RT will directly be shipped to tablets/computers via OEMs. If that is true slight modification to 'kenosha77a' statement above - "In a few months, I will have Win 8 installed as a virtual machine and then I will have a "Win 8 retina display x86 based tablet" that is state of the art."
  • The Video doesn't really tell you much about office

    The video I'm including below gives a much better impression about Office 2013. The one above does not really show actual use with actual data manipulation. I think we really need to wait and see what real world use will be like instead of a quick glance at the product.
    • Video title: Fast & Fuid

      Then they show you a video of something super sluggish (even more than Android) and visually choppy.

      If that is what they call "Fast & Fluid" ... I wonder what they consider slow & crappy.
  • Windows Desktop App largely Legacy

    The Windows Desktop App remains mostly a Mouse and Keyboard environment and it is the reason why it exist for these desktop versions of Office apps. Considering that Windows 8 will be targetting mobile users who use the OS on mobile devices such as Ultrabook Convertibles and Slate Devices.

    You have to look into the fact, will you will be doing heavy editing on a mobile device when you are on the go? No, you will really be making basic edits, editing a sentence, spelling, grammar check, update a couple figures, move around some graphics in PowerPoint, draw something and move on. If you think you will be writing a novel with this thing, think again. The iPad can't do it, so why should Windows do it any better? Light editing and consumption, period. When you want to get real work done, go to your office, whether that be home or work, sit down, attach that bluetooth keyboard and mouse (USB if you don't have any) and then you can edit and make big changes to your hearts content.
    • I agree

      I believe Office 13 is essentially apps with a keyboard and mouse interface first, with touch refinements. Touch interaction is largely there to allow you to consume and do basic editing via touch. If you want to do heavy work, you'll need a keyboard and mouse / trackpad. There is also however another scenario that Office 13 accommodates. It is where you work with Office 13 on a large touch screen at your desk with a keyboard and mouse. In the above situation, you can mix and match touch, keyboard, and mouse interactions where it makes sense. E.g. you can navigate through a document primarily via touch, and use your keyboard and mouse in areas where you have to do considerable editing.

      I believe over time, as more and more productivity apps built with the new Windows modern UI appear, interactions with these apps will become touch heavy, but in many cases, there will also be fine interactions also taking place with styluses or mice, and to some extent, heavy information input taking place using physical keyboards. Windows 8 is really about transitioning computing from mouse heavy user interactions, to touch heavy user interactions. For many apps, touch interaction will be sufficient. But others will still require fine interactions by the user (e.g. Autocad, Photoshop) and Windows 8 will accommodate them nicely.
      P. Douglas
    • So you are saying Win ReTard is an useless device

      And Yes, I can write a novel on an Ipad? Why not?

      Better get a real tablet. One tablet where I can write, without going back to the office. A tablet where I can do spreadsheet without having to transform it on a netbook to perform a simple task.