What's New in Microsoft Office 2013

by Helen Bradley

With the release of Office 2013 just around the corner, we look at some of the suite's new features. Spoiler alert: there's a lot to like.

At first glance it may seem as if Office 2013 doesn’t offer much that's new in this stalwart, small business software suite, but there are changes and most of them are good. These changes will make the Office applications easier to use for both beginner and experienced Office users alike.

In this article I'll go over some of the new features and capabilities in Office 2013, which is due to be released officially in the first quarter of 2013.

Is it Office 365, Office2013 or Office 15?

With all the Office version numbers floating around, trying to keep it all sorted out can be a little confusing. Here's a breakdown of the versions we're talking about.

Office 365 is the hosted online subscription version of Office, and it includes the standalone Office 2013 applications along with the Web Apps and some other features. Office 365 comes in two versions: Home Premium Edition and Small Business Premium Edition. Let's take a look at what you get in each.

Office 2013

Figure 1: The new start screen offers a range of options from opening an existing document, opening a template or starting a new blank document.

Office 365 Home Premium Edition

  • 20GB of SkyDrive online storage,
  • 60 minutes a month of Skype calls
  • License to install on 5 PCs
  • Subscription cost: $100 per year

Office 365 Small Business Premium Edition

  • Shared calendars
  • License to install on 5 PCs
  • 25GB mailbox
  • 10 GB cloud storage plus 500MB per user
  • HD Videoconferencing
  • Website hosting
  • Subscription cost: $150 per user per year

Additionally, because Office 365 is essentially software-as-a-service, the applications will be updated regularly and automatically. While Office 365 offers more than the standalone desktop versions of Office 2013, in both features and in the numbers of installations allowed, it's priced to make it more attractive for both home and small business use.

Office 2013 or Office 15

These are simply two different names for the same product, just like Office 2010 is also called Office 14. Thank you Microsoft, because sorting through all the options isn’t confusing enough. In this article, I'll focus mainly on the desktop Office 2013 applications.

Office 2013 formatting panel

Figure 2: In PowerPoint, the new formatting panel on the right makes it easier to see the options for formatting objects.

You can download a Customer Preview of Office 2013 but, like the release version, the Customer Preview runs only on Windows 7 and Windows 8; it is not compatible with Windows Vista or Windows XP.

You must first sign in to a Microsoft account, and then download the installer application. If all goes well the Office applications install on your computer. On one test machine, I encountered installer difficulties that I subsequently overcame, but a quick search of the Web shows that a lot of people have encountered problems with the install process. Hopefully this will be sorted out in the final release.

Once installed on Windows 7 systems, the Office 2013 applications start as any other application does. On Windows 8 systems, they install as tiles on the Metro Start screen and run as desktop applications.

Office 2013: What We Like

There's a lot to like about Microsoft Office 2013. The ribbon remains the key feature of all the applications, so the transition from Office 2007 or 2010 to 2013 will be fairly smooth. You'll find additional tabs on the Ribbon, including the new Design tab, and the Developer tab is now enabled by default.

Image layouts in Word

Figure 3: The new layout options for images in Word will make it easier to work with images.

All the applications in the suite have undergone a Metro-style makeover, which simplifies the screens are simpler with less dimension and shading in the screen surrounds. The change is designed to reduce interface distraction so you can concentrate on your work.

Office 2013 offers new file formats -- Strict Open XML and Open Document Format (ODF) 1.2, but most people will opt to use those that are compatible with Office 2007/2010 to avoid major issues in exchanging documents with people who use those earlier versions.

Navigating the New Start Screen

In the major apps -- Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Publisher -- a new Start screen appears when you launch one of those programs. This screen displays a panel on the left with a list of recent documents and recent locations; any of which you can pin there permanently.

A search box for finding online templates lets you open a new blank document (the default option), or select one of the featured templates. If you want to open another file, select Open Other Documents to access files on your computer or those stored in a SkyDrive folder online. You can disable these start-up screens, but most people will probably opt to use them.

More of What We Like About Office 2013

Better Graphics Management

All the applications now offer the capability to access online images, including those in your Flickr account and those you have stored on SkyDrive. You can also search for images using Bing and search the Microsoft ClipArt collection online. When you add images in Word, a Layout Options indicator appears letting you select from various image-layout options. This makes it easier for newbies to manage images in their documents.

Read Mode for Word in Office 2013

Figure 4: The new Read Mode in Word will make reading a document on a tablet a more intuitive process.

when you right-click an image or a shape in PowerPoint and select Format Picture or Format Shape, a new Format Panel appears on the right of the screen and displays your formatting options. The panel stays visible while you work and, if you click a different type of object, it changes to display formatting options for that object type.

When making a chart in Excel, you can select the data and then choose Insert > Recommended Charts to select from a small set of charts designed to show your data at its best. These chart options are live, which means that you can hold your mouse pointer over a chart and see how your data will look if charted that way. The number of chart variations displayed when you select a specific chart type has been reduced to simplify choosing a chart.

Saving Files in Office 2013

While you can save files to any location, the Office applications save files to your online SkyDrive account by default. This lets you access, view and, in some case, edit files using the WebApps (Excel, Word, PowerPoint and OneNote) from any computer that can access your SkyDrive account files.

The downside, from a security point of view, is that many businesses will encounter problems with controlling corporate data if employees save files to private SkyDrive locations.

Touch Screen Optimization

Microsoft Office 2013 also offers new features for people with touch screens. The new Read Mode in Word lets you scroll a document horizontally by swiping across it. The new Touch Mode option on the Quick Access Toolbar converts an application's Ribbon so that the buttons are a little bigger and spaced a further apart making it easier to tap them.

Recommended Chart tool for Excel in Office 2013

Figure 5: The new Recommended Charts option in Excel makes it easy to find the ideal chart to plot your data.

PDF Editing

One major change to Word that a lot of people will appreciate is the capability to open and edit PDF files. Tables and other elements in the pdf maintain their structure and, when you're done editing, you can save the document as a docx or pdf file by selecting the option from the Save As Type dropdown list in the Save dialog. While you could save documents as pdfs in Office 2010, this is the first time you've been able to open and edit them directly in Word.

Bottom Line

The improvements to Office 2013 are more subtle than in past releases, but there's so much to like about the new product. The smart programs, sleek interface and new changes support what Office users need rather than forcing them to learn a new way of working. Plus, the low-cost subscription models let you provide a current version of the complete suite of powerful office software to everyone in your small business for pennies a day.

Helen Bradley is a respected international journalist writing regularly for small business and computer publications in the USA, Canada, South Africa, UK and Australia. You can learn more about her at her Web site, HelenBradley.com

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This article was originally published on Wednesday Nov 7th 2012
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