Every few years, you can count on Microsoft to come calling with a fresh version of Office, the productivity software suite headlined by Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook. Microsoft will tinker with the interface and pile on features. Never mind that a small number of features already on hand are put into regular rotation by typical Office users.
But Microsoft claims the new Office 365 Home Premium it launched Tuesday is the most ambitious version of Office in the quarter-century history of the franchise. You can download it at www.office.com.
You'll find new features in the programs that make up the latest Office, though none I'd call earth-shattering. In addition to Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook, programs include the digital note-taker OneNote, the Access database and the Publisher desktop-publishing program. The interface is welcoming, and the programs are friendly to touch.
But the big news is in how Office is being sold, updated and reinvented for the cloud-computing era.
For $99.99 a year, you get to use Office with the aforementioned programs on up to five computers, PC and/or Mac, $79.99 if you buy a Windows 8 PC at the same time. Microsoft will also let you pay $9.99 a month for a regular subscription, provided you buy direct from Office.com. College students can qualify for a $79.99 plan that covers four years.
On Feb. 27, Microsoft will also add an Office 365 Small Business Premium offering for $149.99 a year. Among its features: a 25-gigabyte Outlook mailbox, plus the ability to host online meetings and set up a public website with no hosting fees.
Home Premium subscribers can share Office, with each family member able to sign in with his or her own user account. Multiple people can use Office at the same time.
You can freely deactivate any of the five computers under your subscription at any time by logging onto office.com/myaccount. That's useful over time as you buy new computers and discard old ones. Microsoft is offering a 30-day free trial.
You can also use a friend's computer or a machine at a business center or hotel to "stream" Office over the Web via Office.com. The "ribbon" interface and other personalized settings remain intact and follow you, and using these other computers doesn't count against your five-computer limit.
Microsoft is also opening an Office Store, with free and paid apps. For example, for $2.99, you can buy a business analytics Survey Response Tool for SharePoint 2013. A Merriam-Webster Dictionary app for Word 2013 and Excel 2013 is free.
But if you're satisfied with how you compose Word documents, prepare PowerPoint presentations and Excel spreadsheets, there's no compelling reason to upgrade. The most recent versions of Office are fine, and if you prefer something more current, you can buy versions of the new Office without a subscription, at prices starting at $139.99 for the Office Home and Student 2013 edition. In the U.S., though, Office won't come on disc -- you get a download code -- and you can only use non-subscription versions on a single computer.
Among subscriber benefits is that Microsoft says it plans to supply updates and add features on a regular basis, not just bug fixes.
I tested the new software on a Windows 8 Samsung 700T laptop/tablet hybrid that's able to take advantage of an on-screen touch keyboard in addition to a physical keyboard. I tested it on an older Dell laptop running Windows 7, which does not support touch. I wrote parts of this column in Word on both machines and ran into a few minor conflicts trying to reconcile the two versions.
Microsoft hasn't updated Office on the Mac side, yet, so Office for Mac 2011 is still the current version and will be what new Mac users who subscribe to Office will be able to download on their Apple computers, for now. Previous versions of Office that may be installed on your PC or Mac don't count against the five-PC limit.
You'll need Windows 7, Windows 8, or Mac OS X version 10.5.8 or later to run Office. As part of your Office Home Premium subscription, you also get 20 GB of storage on Microsoft's SkyDrive online locker, on top of the 7 GB of storage that you otherwise get for free. By saving documents on SkyDrive (by default), I was able to pick up on one computer where I left off on another.
Another plus: Microsoft throws in 60 free Skype minutes a month for making global phone calls to mobile phones, land lines or computers.
If you decide to end a subscription, you can use older versions of Office or Office Web apps to edit existing documents or create new ones. You can view, print or download documents created in SkyDrive, but won't be able to edit them with the latest version of Office.
Among new Office features that may appeal are an "Attachment Reminder" in Outlook that flags you if you try sending an e-mail in which you mention an attachment but don't attach the file. This might prevent "oops" e-mails. A "presenter view" in PowerPoint adds tools that help anyone giving a presentation watch the clock and view the next slide while focusing on the audience.
But the most dramatic changes in Office are the ways you can buy it and how it now mostly lives online.
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