Office 2013 beta review: Microsoft (almost) nails it

The new software sports a clean interface and excellent new features, but only so-so cloud integration.

Also useful is the new ability to lock a document into commenting mode. That way someone can't turn off tracking changes, and you'll always be able to see any edits made to a document.

There's also a somewhat useful new sharing tool similar to a feature that was introduced in PowerPoint 2010 (but was not available in Word 2010). You can now share a Word document online, even with people who don't have Word, as long as they have Internet access. Send a link, and they'll be able to see your document in their browser as you scroll through it.

PowerPoint

PowerPoint 2013 gets new features in three areas: creating slides, giving presentations and sharing presentations.

When you create a new presentation, you'll see visual representations of your available templates, which makes it much easier to get a sense of what your presentation will look like when finished. Word and Excel have a similar feature, but because those applications are less visually oriented than PowerPoint, the feature isn't as important for them.

The graphical Metro-like interface is particularly useful when creating a new presentation in PowerPoint.Click to view larger image.

One of the biggest problems many people (including me) have in creating presentations is finding suitable art to include. Microsoft has found a useful way to solve that problem. From directly inside PowerPoint 2013, you can search the Web for art (using Bing's image search function) and embed it in your presentations.

I found the process remarkably easy. On the Insert tab on the Ribbon, click Online Pictures and choose Bing Image Search; you'll see thumbnails of graphics that match the search. Choose which one to insert, and the picture downloads and embeds directly into the presentation. This feature is also available in Word and Excel, but once again I found it most useful for PowerPoint.

From inside PowerPoint you can search for images on the Web and embed them in your presentations.Click to view larger image.

In addition to using Bing image search to find graphics to embed, you can search through clip art on Office.com, browse your SkyDrive or choose an option called "Also insert from." According to Microsoft, this last option will allow you to embed pictures from your Flickr and Facebook online photo albums, but I was unable to do that.

To do it, you have to agree to connect your Microsoft ID with those services. If you don't, you won't be able to search for graphics and insert them. I was unable to sign into Flickr to search my albums -- my Yahoo ID kept getting turned down. And I couldn't find any place in PowerPoint to search through Facebook. So I'll have to test this feature out with the next release.

For those who give presentations rather than just email them, the improved Presenter View will be a welcome addition. While giving a presentation, you see a navigational grid showing all slides at a glance so that you can easily jump to any in the presentation. The audience sees only the current slide you're presenting. There's also a new zoom feature that lets you zoom into and out of diagrams, charts and graphics while giving a presentation.

There are also new ways to share and work with others on presentations, including a comments pane that lets you immediately see all comments others have made.

Excel

The changes made to Excel in this version of Office are centered primarily around new analysis tools aimed at both spreadsheet jockeys and those who use Excel only occasionally.

Occasional users will find the new Quick Analysis tool to be one of the best new Excel features in some time. Highlight data that you've input into a spreadsheet and a small icon appears next to it. Click the icon and Excel offers suggestions, based on the data, about what you might want to do with it -- for example, formatting it in a certain way, creating specific types of charts, inserting formulas, creating tables or creating Sparklines -- mini charts embedded in single cells.

Excel's Quick Analysis feature offers suggestions on how to handle data, including choosing the right charts, formatting options, formulas you might want to insert and more. Click to view larger image.

Similarly, if you aren't particularly familiar with pivot tables (tables that auto-summarize data and display the results in a tablet) but want to create them, Excel gives you help by suggesting the proper pivot table to use. Even experienced users will welcome the Quick Analysis tool, because it cuts out the intermediate steps of manually choosing the right options for creating charts or tables.

Those who use the Office Professional Plus version of Excel 2013 will also get extra features aimed primarily at power users. A particularly useful one is an add-in called Spreadsheet Inquire & Compare that examines spreadsheets and looks for problems such as errors you've made or broken links. Microsoft also says that the add-in can look at multiple related workbooks and see if there are any inconsistencies that might indicate that fraud is being committed, although I didn't get a chance to test that out.

Outlook

The new version of Outlook offers only moderate changes from the previous version of Outlook, which made a big splash with its full-blown use of the Ribbon. The changes in this version are useful, although not nearly as significant as that.

The Navigation pane has been streamlined so that it takes up less space, giving you more screen real estate for the rest of Outlook; in fact, it's so much smaller that Microsoft has renamed it the Navigation bar. As with other Office 2013 apps, the overall design is Metro-like, and you can easily go into full-screen mode to hide the Ribbon.

Those who use SharePoint and Exchange can create special email folders for team projects and give everyone on a team access to them. These folders can include not just mail, but also calendars and task lists.

Searching has been improved considerably. You can now search across all folders and mail accounts in a single search, rather than having to search folder by folder or mailbox by mailbox. It's another example of a small change being a big productivity booster; given how often I search through my mail, it'll probably be the most significant addition to Outlook for me.

There's also a useful new "peek" feature embedded in the Navigation bar. When you're reading mail, hover your mouse over what you want to peek at -- for example, your calendar that day -- and a thumbnail of your schedule appears, large enough to read, but not so large that it obscures the entire screen.

The "peek" feature lets you see thumbnails of other Outlook activities when reading mail.Click to view larger image.

Other Office apps

Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook form the core of the Office suite, but depending on the version you get, there are a number of other applications in it as well, including OneNote, Visio, Publisher and Project. They have all been visually redesigned to be more Metro-like, and all have gotten new online sharing capabilities and other new features, none of them revolutionary.

OneNote now lets you capture screens and portions of screens, and save them to your notebooks. It also syncs automatically to SkyDrive and is accessible not only on other PCs, but via a variety of OneNote apps for mobile devices. I'm a big OneNote fan and find this feature particularly compelling. I was able to easily incorporate my existing OneNote notebooks from OneNote 2010 onto a Windows 8 tablet merely by launching OneNote -- it automatically synced from the cloud.

Publisher has been given the same feature as PowerPoint for finding photos and graphics online and embedding them in documents. Visio has gotten new shapes and new organizational chart styles. And there's a new Web-based version of Project, called Project Online, that's simpler to use than the full-blown Project.

The bottom line

Office 2013's streamlined look and feel may take some getting used to, but I believe it's a step forward for the suite. After using it for a while, I found that Office 2010 started to look dowdy by comparison. Add to that a slew of new features in each Office app, including several big productivity boosters, and Office 2013 is clearly a worthy upgrade, even in this initial beta release.

In fact, I found the beta to be surprisingly stable. The only issues I encountered were occasional problems fetching files from SkyDrive and saving files there. (Of course, all the usual caveats about installing beta software on a production machine still apply.)

The final version of Office 2013 won't be available until sometime in 2013 (Microsoft hasn't announced a shipping date), and the design and features may still change. So stay tuned -- we'll review every major new version released between now and then.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

See more by Preston Gralla on Computerworld.com.

Read more about desktop apps in Computerworld's Desktop Apps Topic Center.

This story, "Office 2013 beta review: Microsoft (almost) nails it" was originally published by Computerworld.

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