Microsoft's Office 365 is a more than a set of productivity apps. Yes it does include the full downloadable Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, OneNote, Access, and Publisher applications that run on your desktop or laptop, as well as mobile versions for tablets and phones. It is, however, more like an online subscription-based ecosystem in which you run apps, access remote data, collaborate on files, and exchange information. If you get confused trying to sort out exactly how it works and what it does, you're not alone. In this review, I've tried to sort out the answers in a way that lets you get the most out of Office 365, because there's a strong chance that Office 365 is in your future, even if you aren't using it now.
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Microsoft still lets you buy standalone versions of Microsoft Office in the way everyone used to buy standalone versions of major apps, but the company has priced and packaged Office 365 to make it more attractive than the standalone versions. For example, the standalone Home and Student version of Office 2016 sells for $149.99 (though it's often on sale); the Home and Business version is $229.99; and the Professional version costs $399.99. But a one-year subscription to Office 365 Home, at just $9.99 per month or $99.99 per year, lets you install the full desktop version of Office on five PCs, which can be any mixture of Windows and Mac machines, plus five tablets and five phones, which can be iOS, Android, or Windows Phone devices.
If you just need one installation of each device type, you can get Office 365 Personal for $6.99 per month or $69.99 per year. Subscriptions get you 1TB of cloud storage for each user and full copies of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, OneNote, Publisher, and Access. They also include 60 minutes of Skype calling to mobile phones and landlines for each user.
If you're buying for yourself and your family, or if you use both a desktop and a laptop, or a different desktop at work and at home, then the Home version is a better bargain. Business-oriented subscriptions are priced per subscriber, ranging from a minimal Business Essentials plan for $5 per user per month, through the Business plan at $8.25 per user per month, on to Business Premium (which includes features like videoconferencing) at $12.50 per user per month.
Office 365 subscribers can also view and edit their files from any Web browser using online versions of the Office apps. Office 365 versions of the desktop-and-laptop-based Office apps are updated monthly with new features, while the standalone versions only get bug-fixes and security updates. And when Office 2016 is updated to the next major version—as Office 2013 was updated to Office 2016—subscribers get the new version as part of their subscription. But you're not required to update to the new version; an option on the Office 365 installation webpage lets you install Office 2013 instead of the 2016 model.
One obvious question is: Why bother with Office 365 when you can get Google Docs (part of Google Drive) for nothing and use it in any browser—together with Google Sheets for worksheets and Google Slides for presentations. The answer is that, if your requirements are minimal enough, and you'll always have online access to your documents, there's no reason to pay for Office. The browser-based versions of Google Docs let you create and edit simple documents and worksheets, using features from spacious toolbars and menus.
Even with a fast connection, however—and I often use it with a direct gigabit-ethernet connection to the Internet—Google Docs in a browser is notably slower than desktop-based Office apps, but fast enough for simple jobs, and its interface rivals Office's browser interface in feature depth and ease of use. However, Office's mobile apps easily outshine Google's mobile apps in ease and elegance, and if you often work on a phone or tablet, I think you'll be happier with Office's apps, though Google's certainly let you get the basic jobs done.
Until recently, whenever I needed to share a document with co-workers who would input their own data into it, I created the document in Office and uploaded it to Google Docs for sharing. But now that Microsoft has given Office an elegant and effortless online interface, I simply drag the Office document into the OneDrive folder on my desktop, and send out sharing invitations to coworkers who can open the document in their browser or tablet. The browser-based Office interface includes an Open in Excel (or Word or PowerPoint) button that lets me or my collaborators work in a fast desktop Office app and save the document back to online Office.
I use Office 365 Home on my Windows desktops at home and in my office, on my Mac and Windows laptops, and on two different iPads and my iPhone. The full-featured desktop-and-laptop versions for Windows and OS X are where I get most of my work done, but Microsoft has made it fairly effortless to work with the same documents on a tablet or phone, though with reduced feature sets in the mobile apps.
As described in my recent review of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint for iOS, the mobile versions don't let you open more than one document at a time; the mobile versions of Word let you edit footnotes but not create them; and don't even think of running your Excel macros on the mobile versions. But the reduced feature set in PowerPoint for iOS didn't seriously get in my way: It actually feels more elegant and focused than the desktop versions.
An Office 365 subscription makes it easy for multiple users to collaborate simultaneously in Word and PowerPoint, with one user working at a desktop, another on a mobile device, a third working through a Web browser, or any combination of platforms. The one requirement for real-time collaboration is that you store the document in Microsoft's OneDrive cloud storage (or in SharePoint, for business users). Once I left a OneDrive-based document open on my home desktop machine and went somewhere else with a tablet, and I was able to collaborate with myself by editing the same open document on the tablet.
Dropbox is now integrated with mobile versions of Office, so you can select a document in Dropbox for iOS and open it in any of the Office apps on iOS. You don't need to use OneDrive for real-time collaboration, because Dropbox now offers real-time collaboration for Office documents, and it uses Office's online collaboration features in the background. Just click the optional Dropbox badge that appears when you open an Office document that's stored in your Dropbox folder, and the same collaboration features are available that you can use when you store documents on OneDrive.
Office 365's regular updates have added some worthwhile features to the original release of the desktop-based Office 2016—for example, a design assistant in PowerPoint that suggests layout options when you insert a graphic into a slide, funnel charts and new text-concatenating functions in Excel, and a forthcoming high-contrast black-and-white color scheme for all the Office apps. An option lets you join the Office Insider program, which installs special versions of the apps that get new features before other Office 365 subscribers—though potentially with first-adopter problems that those other users won't have.
For cross-platform office applications, there's simply no alternative to Office 365. Word, despite some minor inconveniences, is the best of all word processors, and Excel is the no-contest best spreadsheet. PowerPoint is at the top of the heap among presentation packages, but shares its eminence with Apple's Keynote. If you work entirely in Apple's ecosystem, you may find the Pages word processor and Numbers spreadsheet attractive, but they're not remotely as powerful as Word and Excel, and if you want to share Pages or Numbers files with other people, you have to remember to export them in Office or PDF formats. If you're willing to work entirely in mobile app or browser, you can use Google Docs for documents and spreadsheets. It's the lowest-hassle way for multiple users to enter data on a shared spreadsheet, but you won't get the elegance and power of Office's mobile apps. Office 365 is the no-contest productivity colossus among all-platform app services, and easily wins our Editors' Choice for online office suites.