Updated: July 21, 2012
How do you know Microsoft is a huge corporation? Because it launches products with a staggering amount of inconsistency among them, including some super-cool solutions alongside dreadful concepts that never should have been born. There are a few things that Microsoft really excels at, and that's being a player in the big league, top-notch support, serious business attitude, a strong presence and dominance in the office space.
Well, office space? Surely a genius, prophetic movie by Mike Judge, but also the bread and butter and anchovies of the Redmond giant. The thing is, they panicked. In the recent years, like any good giant, Microsoft has been having a hard time responding to the rapid, el-cheapo market changes, led by the buzzy cloudification of everything, which is not what Microsoft is good at. Bottom line, when it comes to being snazzy, tablety, smartphony, or such, Microsoft does not come as the first choice. And now, they think they have a partial answer to some of those. Enter Microsoft Office 2013, beta.
Participate, download, evaluate
Like a million other geeks whose dispassionate reviews you will be reading this and next weekend, except mine will be passionate, I hurried to grab the beta release. Microsoft has learned its lesson with closed testing, so they are now generously giving you products for a whole year before the official launch, knowing you can help them generate positive feedback and acceptance.
To get the beta, you will need to sign in using a Live ID account. I managed to find one of my dormant Hotmail accounts, reactivate it after almost half a decade of silence, and then get underway. Office Professional Plus 2013 Preview is a hefty 750MB download, with both 32-bit and 64-bit versions available. Surprisingly, it is approx. 300MB smaller than Office 2010. The overall registration process was a little cumbersome, but I prevailed.
The setup is quick and non-intrusive, no reboot required. You will have to accept a license agreement first. Then, you can install immediately or perform some basic customization, like changing the installation path and the selected software components. For the sake of this review, I chose the complete 3.7GB suite, although normally, if I ever were to install the program, I would probably use one or two subcomponents, at most. Still, it's a very big installation.
Time to see how well Office Professional Plus 2013 behaves. Let me remind you how I feel about office suites, cloud integration and Windows 8 in general, because this is what we will be discussing here. First, I believe documents should be written in LaTeX or alike. Numbers should be crunched in programs like Octave. And operating systems for desktops should not have tablet features. There you go. And I don't like the carefree attitude of accessing your data anywhere, because it has more cons than pros in the long run.
With that in mind, I powered on Word first. But before I even saw the program, I was greeting with a welcome note, designed and style like a Metro app for Windows 8, which seems to be the direction Microsoft is aiming for with this release. The overall clean looks are airy, fresh and inviting, there's no disputing that. However, when you combine the classic looks of, say Windows 7, and this office suite, you get an inconsistent UI experience, similar to what happened when people got Office 2007 for Windows XP.
And then, you're asked to sign in. Don't want.
My documents are just a click away, on my disk, and that's where they belong. So I hit the frown face and submitted my feedback to Microsoft. Asking users to sign in even before they have seen the software is intrusive. Let me see what the program is all about, you can gently nudge me in about 10-15 minutes. And then, this is exactly what Google and friends do, so there's nothing original here. Makes me wonder.
And now finally, I was using the program, after declining the online hype. The Word 2013 preview is very flat in design, almost like a web page. Simplistic and designed to be catchy, which it is. Both in the fullscreen and standard window mode, the elements scale nicely. Again, the focus is on a clean, open design with a minimalistic approach. Works for me, so far.
One small glitch I noticed is that if you take a screenshot of the active window only in a maximized mode, it has an invisible bottom border of about 5-10px, which then encroaches onto the taskbar, causing some ugliness in final images.
Word in more detail
The program's main interface has the same flat, white look like the template selection windows beforehand. And here, you hit the same old, inefficient, cluttered office look that exists in every single application of this sort. Buttons, buttons, and no focus on separation between content and style. Oh, you get styles, but few people use them. But then, no one says, we will remove those because people don't actually use them, like they said about the Start button. Right.
The keyboard cursor no longer jumps in character by character leaps, it flows. This smooth transition effect is very unnatural, since writing on a keyboard is truly quantized. Another question slash observation that comes to mind is, the interface, being so cluttered, will be completely unusable for touch users. Great, because they never produce any useful content anyway. In that case, why bother making Office 2013 look like a Metro touch-optimized product when it will never be used in such a manner? Sounds like a cyclic paradox to me. And let me say nothing of the Ribbon, which is equally disastrous. But then, we're here to discuss Office 2013 beta.
When you want to save a file, you're offered to store your documents in SkyDrive, Microsoft's cloud service. If you're into that kind of thing, be my guest. I find the whole notion rather unnecessary. But this is not a specific critique against Microsoft, it's a general statement. We will talk about the cloud solution separately.
Another program on the menu is the venerable spreadsheet. Lo and behold, apart from some fancy, eye-candy templates when the program starts, the rows and columns are just as archaic as they were in the era of Lotus 1-2-3. The thing is, from the user interface flow perspective, there is absolutely NOTHING new, innovative, efficient and useful in this program, its official 2013 year label notwithstanding.
A million buttons and options, functions no on uses, confusing menus, apart from some white color, sharp edges and removal of gradients, Microsoft Office Excel Professional Pro 2013 is identical to every other release, everywhere, ever.
What I did like is that you can export your files in ODF format. This is quite handy for people who use multiple programs or share their data in different office suites on different operating systems.
Another gem is Powerpoint, the program that corrupted presentation skills for all eternity. Every corporate borg and many a code monkey believe cramming bullets onto blue-colored slides is considered good acting skills, so they do it, neglecting things like actually being nice and presentable and funny.
In line with other programs, Powerpoint pulls the same tricks from its new shiny hat. Some lovely templates, some new polish, fresh buttons, but overall, the composition and the logic flow remain unchanged.
One thing that does stand out is the vertical stacking of the smiley and frowny icons. Why not side by side like we've seen before? A glitch?
File and account information
Another interesting feature is the file info view. Not a new thing, but it does give you a clear indication of what you can do with your documents. Or presentations and spreadsheets, if you're not into classifying those as documents.
And there's your account information, too. Again, you are most politely reminded to sign in, so you can send your data to a cloud. The functionality is labeled as personalization on every device you use, but that's a fancy word for Internet access.
Other programs & styling
I've explored some of the other programs and options available. While most make sense, others seems a little confusing. For example, what is Upload Center? What does it do?
But the worst thing happens when you burrow into the menus, and you don't even have to go very deep. And then you get what used to happen in every other version of Office so far. Some of the stuff remains unchanged, so while most of the things will adhere to the new styling, you will get leftovers from previous design versions, dating back to Aero, Windows XP and maybe even Windows 95.
Not much progress there. It comes down to 9,000 lines of checkboxes, combo boxes, radio buttons, dropdown lists and other archaic UI elements. The one thing that delights me is that whoever tries to use this on a touch device will suffer.
I can't honestly say how good or bad the program is from a two-hour tour. I will have to spend a lot of time working with it to give you an honest, in-depth real combat impression in the coming days and weeks. Sure, I will need an incentive to dabble in an office suite in the first place, but we will see.
Anyhow, many of you may be wondering about specific functions that I may have skipped or do not even know about. For example, what about macros, language support, accessibility, all kinds of things like that? I guess things will not change that much in comparison to previous versions. If Microsoft wishes to retains its significant business share of the market, then it will make sure to offer backward compatibility for everything and anything that rich, paying customers might need. Overall, I believe, the switch to this new version, if and when it happens for you, will be fairly seamless.
Some good things after all
I've shared my poison with you so freely, well admit it, that's the reason why you prefer reading this article and getting the truth rather than some polished semi-corporate mantra somewhere else. Now, the good stuff:
Microsoft Office 2013 beta is fast and stable. The responsiveness is quite good, maybe even better than it was before, which is quite important. It feels complete, and a lot of effort has been invested in making a good solution for the users. I've already outlined my problem with the whole concept, the cluttered office design that there's no escaping from in this range of programs, but as far as effort goes, Microsoft did their fair share of making the best there is, within the constraints of the crippled world of document writing created and frozen in 1983.
If you like Microsoft Office, then Professional Pro 2013 is what you want. Since you've used, or been forced to use previous editions, this one will not make you cringe in pain too much. Not at all really. The actual changes are minimal, save for cosmetics and tiny touches in the data flow. But the raw, underlying engine of document creation remains unchanged, dating back to its roots 25 years ago. The capital sin of all office suites.
You might wonder about the huge size, the eventual price tag, which will not come cheap, as well as the overall need for something like this, given the free competition, equally crippled and more or less as ugly or beautiful, take your pick. You're better off with plain text and LaTeX, believe me, but then, casting off the shackles of the mind is a dreadful task. One day, you may transcend and start enjoying the higher form of documents, but if and when you need to cooperate with other people around you, Microsoft Office comes just as handy.
Overall, as a product, Office 2013 beta works. It's good, robust, well finished. But it's nothing grand or innovative. Just another program continuing the cash flow legacy. Great for Microsoft, and irrelevant to you as the end user. More colors, new shapes, nothing changes. The program is decent, not a disaster like Windows 8, not a miracle like EMET. It's somewhere in between, one of the many breeds of the corporate giant. See you around, fellas.