First look: Office 2016 for the Mac closes the gap

After a five-year hiatus, Microsoft finally brings a worthwhile Office to the Mac

For many years, Office for Mac has played second fiddle to its Windows cousin. If you’ve been struggling with Office for Mac 2011 and suffering from Windows envy, your time has finally come. Last week, Microsoft made a preview edition of Office 2016 for Mac available to the masses, runnable on any OS X Yosemite computer. Surprisingly, the feature set of Office 2016 for Mac is nearly on par with that of the Windows version, with the gaps lying mainly in Excel and PowerPoint. Naturally, we’ll have to wait for the final, shipping products to draw detailed conclusions.

This preview edition includes new beta versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, as well as the previously released beta versions of OneNote and Outlook 2016 for Mac. (Outlook 2016 has been updated precious little in the past year and not at all since January; it’s still an embarrassment.) If you already have Office 2011 installed, the new Office 2016 will run side by side on the same Mac with no interference.

Note that the preview ain’t tiny. In this beta incarnation, Word 2016 alone is bigger than the entire Office for Mac 2011 suite. You’ll need 5.6GB of disk space and up to 10 minutes for installation, depending on the speed of your Mac.

As to be expected, we have no idea how much Microsoft will charge for the stand-alone version by the time it ships later this year. As Microsoft reiterated in November: “Office 365 commercial and consumer subscribers will get the next version [of Office for Mac] at no additional cost.”

Across-the-board changes

If you’re an Office for Mac 2011 user, you’ll be struck immediately by the updated interface. If you have a Retina screen, wow -- the interface adjusts itself automatically, and the high resolution comes shining through everywhere, thanks to Microsoft switching over (almost) completely to Apple’s Cocoa APIs. I’ve never seen Office look so good on any platform (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Office 2016 for Mac takes full advantage of the Retina screen.

If you’re coming from Office for iPad, Android, or Windows 10, the Mac interface is completely different. Office 2016 for Mac unabashedly embraces the traditional keyboard-and-mouse/trackpad paradigm and doesn’t make any awkward trade-offs for touch-driven operation, as we saw in Office 2013 for Windows.

Remarkably, if you currently use Office 2011, most of the interface will feel comfortable. If you use Office 2013 for Windows, you’ll be right at home. The ribbons have been reorganized and the icons redesigned, but almost all of the old Office 2011/2013 options have immediately recognizable analogs in the new version.

There’s no “backstage” in Office 2016 for Mac, as there is in Office 2013 for Windows, so simple file management tasks -- renaming, Save As, delete, copy, move -- aren’t supported inside Office itself.

Office 2016 for Mac bakes OneDrive into the product. When you save a new document, as shown in Figure 2, Office defaults to your OneDrive Documents folder. To save a new file to your local computer, click the On My Mac button. 

Figure 2. Microsoft makes it easy to use OneDrive and hard to use anything else.

You can add online services to the Save As dialog (click the Add a Service link), but at this point only OneDrive, OneDrive for Business, and SharePoint are available. Presumably Dropbox will appear as an option at some point. I haven’t heard any official discussion of adding iCloud as an anointed Service link, although you can laboriously save a file to iCloud by clicking On My Mac, then choosing iCloud Drive.

To open files, you have to use the On My Mac button in the current Office app. Even if use use the Mac's standard File > Open menu command or Command-O shortcut you're brought to the decidedly non-Mac file manager in Office. You then click Open My Mac, and only then do you get the standard OS X Open dialog.

Working with local files, iCloud Drive files, and files in cloud storage other than Microsoft's own services is thus both awkward and time-consuming.

Word 2016 for Mac

On the Word front, Microsoft has a clumsy new collaborative editing capability that allows more than one person to work on a document simultaneously. Unlike Google Docs, which keeps collaborating edits updated in real time, Office requires a manual save on both sides -- you won’t see changes made by your collaborator until she saves/syncs the document, then you save/sync the document.

When changes have been made to a shared document and saved, an Updates Available notification is supposed to appear, but I couldn’t get that to work.

Figure 3 shows the results of a collaboration, with an update and dual save between Word 2016 for Mac and Word 2013 for Windows.

Figure 3. Items changed by your collaborator appear with a green highlight. The “2” in the upper-right corner signifies that two people are working on the document.

Although collaboration works properly among Word 2016 for Mac and Word 2013 for Windows, I had trouble getting the sync to work in Excel.

As best I can tell, Office 2016 for Mac does not do autosaves; I could find no way to turn that capability on. Office 2016 doesn't support Yosemite’s native autosave feature either.

Word has several other new features. With a Styles pane on the right, it's quick and easy to apply styles to selected characters or paragraphs. It’s functionally equivalent to the Styles pane in Word 2013 for Windows, though the appearance is quite different.

Microsoft says there’s a new threaded comment capability, which as best as I could tell is identical to threaded comments (comments made to comments) in Word 2013 for Windows. The same observation applies to the new Picture Format ribbon, which is almost identical to the Picture Format ribbon in Word 2013 for Windows.

The new multifunctional Navigation Pane adds one navigation type to the three already found in Word 2013 for Windows -- headings, page thumbnails, search results -- so you can now navigate by type of change (insertions, deletions, moves, formatting, comments).

At this point, there are no Quick Parts available for document assembly.

I encountered one file-rendering problem. As you can see in Figure 4, a DOCX file that opens and displays properly in Word 2013 for Windows gets hopelessly scrambled when opened in Word 2016 for Mac.

Figure 4. This newsletter renders properly in Word 2013 for Windows, but gets jumbled in Word 2016 for Mac.

The misbehaving file isn’t a specially constructed format-buster. I found it in the wild. It consists of many text boxes with wrapped photos. Much of the text in the text boxes gets dropped entirely. One would reasonably expect that all versions of Word would properly render a file created in Word 2013. In this case, Word 2016 for Mac falls short.

Paul Thurrott notes a significant difference in default Normal paragraph styles between Word 2016 for Mac and Word 2013 for Windows. To a first approximation, Normal on the Mac uses single-line spacing and 12-point Calibri, while Normal on Windows uses 1.08-line spacing and 11-point Calibri. The styles carry across, so the text in a document created in Word 2016 for Mac is going to look big in Word 2013 for Windows, for example. A poster named Jody provides an excellent description of why and how this happens in the comments to Thurrott’s article. There's no indication yet whether that’s a known problem, a change coming in Word 2016 for Windows, or simply beta blues.

Excel 2016 for the Mac

Of great interest to those who switch between Office 2013 for Windows and Office 2016 for Mac, the new Excel 2016 now recognizes many of the keyboard shortcuts that have long worked with Excel 2013. For example, Control-C now copies, as does the traditional OS X Command-C.

Many people don’t realize that you can easily enable the nascent F keys in Excel 2016 (and for all Apple apps, for that matter, including the other Office apps) so that you don’t need to push the Fn key. From the Apple menu in the upper-left corner, choose System Preferences followed by Keyboard, then check the box marked Use All F1, F2, Etc. Keys as Standard Function Keys. I find the F2 key in Excel, which shows cell dependencies, to be invaluable.

Excel 2016 for Mac will directly save as PDF. There’s an Excel 2013-quality Formula Builder, and autocomplete finally catches up with Excel 2013 for Windows. Microsoft also touts a new Analysis ToolPak for statistical functions and new data filter buttons (aka slicers) to help you filter data in a pivot table.

Excel 2016 for Mac will build pivot tables, but not pivot charts, and Power Pivot is still absent. There’s no Quick Analysis or Find All -- and no UTF-8 support for those who have to deal with extended character sets. Although it appears as if macros will be supported in the final version, at this point the Visual Basic Editor does not work properly.

Office 2016 for Mac is a 32-bit program, and it runs in OS X’s 32-bit compatibility mode. That shortfall is most visible in Excel 2016, where opening and working with huge spreadsheets -- particularly those larger than 3.5GB or so -- can take forever, as Excel bumps up against the structural 32-bit memory limitations. The fact that Excel 2016 for Mac remains resolutely single-threaded doesn’t help.

PowerPoint 2016 for Mac

PowerPoint for Mac has a new Presenter View (click Slide Show, then Presenter View) that shows notes on one monitor and the presentation on another. It’s very similar to the Presenter View in PowerPoint 2013 for Windows or, if you have a corporate Office 365 subscription, in PowerPoint for iOS. 

Microsoft has endowed PowerPoint 2016 for Mac with the transitions and animation overview capabilities found in PowerPoint 2013 for Windows. PowerPoint 2016 for Mac also supports the same “double save” collaboration feature in Word 2016 and Excel 2016 for Mac mentioned earlier.

Office for Mac lives!

After five years of neglect, it’s gratifying to see Office for Mac getting much-needed attention from Microsoft. The new Office 2016 for Mac proves that Microsoft is serious about bringing fully functional versions of Office to all popular platforms: mobile first, cloud first, Windows whenever. You no longer need to run Windows to get a decent version of Office.

Will Office 2016 for Mac be the “best” office productivity app for the platform? That remains to be seen. Apple’s iWork, especially Keynote, certainly has its high points. At the very least, it has become clear that Mac users can stick with Office and no longer fear they’re falling way behind the mark. That’s good for businesses committed to the Microsoft ecosystem and comforting for people who don’t want to learn 10 different ways to thread the same needle.