Office 2013: A Mixed Bag for Me

Whenever a new version of Office or Windows comes out, I pretty much buy it right away (heck, for Windows 8, I even took a day off work to install it on launch day). So when Microsoft was offering its Office 2013 applications as a subscription service, I bought a copy of Office 365 Home Premium, since I was basically subscribing to Office anyway. And I think they offer a pretty good deal, because for just 87 EUR for the first year (a sale on Amazon, normally it’s more like 99 EUR, I think), I got:

  • what I consider the must-have Office applications: Excel, Word, PowerPoint, OneNote,
  • Outlook (which hadn’t been included with the Home versions of Office before),
  • Access and Publisher (a.k.a. Office applications I never use at home),
  • 20 GB of additional storage on SkyDrive and
  • 60 minutes on Skype (which I haven’t found use for, so far).

Not bad, considering, I had almost maxed out the 25 GB on SkyDrive I had before and considering I would otherwise have to buy Outlook separately.

General impression: very positive

But not only did the licensing model change, Microsoft also revamped and dramatically improved the installation experience. I just had to go to office.com/setup enter my license key, sign in with my Microsoft Account and the installation would start. The installer was less than 1MB and right away created links to the applications on the start screen.

While the installation was still in progress, I could launch an application and immediately start using it. Office let me know that the application hasn’t been completely installed just yet, but as the needed bits are downloaded and installed on demand, there were only short delays when I started playing around with Excel while it was still downloading. They say I can use a streaming version of Office with my settings even on PCs that don’t have Office at all, though I haven’t tried that yet. This is pretty cool.

Even more cool is the fact, that I now have up to five installations included in the license and I can manage these on office.com, deciding which version (Mac or Windows) and which language I would like to install on which of my computers. So finally I can have Office in English and no longer have to put up with the often inconsistent and sometimes weird translation into German.

Excel: pretty nice

As I said, Excel was the first application I tried out while it was still downloading, since it is also the Office application that I use the most except for Outlook (more on Outlook in the next section). I think it is fair to say, that in general Excel has seen the most moderate changes over the years: It’s basic user interface still looks a lot like VisiCalc form 1979. So in this release, too, I haven’t come across anything major that’s changed.

There have, nonetheless, been a few subtle improvements. Such as more context sensitive menus. For instance, when clicking a chart, you can now change the design and filter data right there, without having to dig around in the ribbon for that functionality. There is, however, the danger that duplicating access points for features like this, leads to a more cluttered user interface and possibly users wondering whether those are actually two different features, not knowing when to pick which. I think it’s working, though, in the case of Excel, although I will come back to that in the case of Outlook where it doesn’t.

The new feature I like the most, though, is got to be Quick Analysis: Just select a range of data and click the icon on the bottom right of the selection (or press Ctrl+Q) and Excel will present you with a selection of tools to quickly analyze and get a feel for the data. By hovering over the options to graph the data, apply conditional formatting identifying top and bottom values etc. etc. you can very quickly familiarize yourself with a dataset.

And of course there are some features that are kind of fun, but not worth the upgrade on their own. Like how the selection rectangle slides over from the previously selected range when you select a new range. Or how the new values slide in from the top when a calculated cell’s value changes. I have found this to be quite useful, tough, as it makes cells that have changed stand out more and makes it easier to see where in a sheet there have been updates.

Outlook: unusable at first

Because migrating my RSS feeds and four email accounts with all their settings has always been a bit of a hassle, I had waited until the weekend to take on Outlook 2013. the actual migration of settings, as it turns out, was pretty easy, because Outlook 2013 had already imported the accounts from my existing Outlook 2010 profile. There were a couple of things, it hadn’t imported for some reason, like the quick steps I had set up to mark as read and archive mails with one easy click or my RSS feeds. But those things were easily re-created.

What I found shocking, though, were the changes Microsoft had made to the way they handle IMAP and Hotmail accounts. Because of these changes, I was initially unable to use Outlook and seriously considered staying on 2010 (at least for Outlook). Maybe it was naïve of me, to just buy Office and think everything would be alright, because Microsoft had discussed the changes to IMAP in Outlook in a blog post and there has been a lively discussion in their support forums whether those changes were well done (most suggest no, and I agree).

For IMAP, Outlook now uses XLIST to ask the IMAP server which folders are the special folders for Sent Items, Deleted Items etc. In 2010, you could manually select those folders and I had set up all of my accounts in such a way that Outlook on my PC, the email provider’s web interface and my Windows Phone would use the same folders. Unfortunately, my email providers don’t seem to support XLIST, because Outlook felt it needed to create separate folders called “Sent Items (This computer only)”, “Deleted Items (This computer only)” etc. And since there is no more option to map those folders manually, that made the list of folders that much longer and harder to use. Of course, it didn’t help that all folder icons were eliminated from the list as well, making it impossible to find the right folder at a single glance.

Outlook macros to the rescue

A quick internet search showed me that I wasn’t the only one upset about this (see the discussion mentioned above). But thankfully there was this tip providing a macro to move sent items out of those additional folders into the proper ones. I adapted that macro a little and I think I now have an even better workflow for sent items than I did with Outlook 2010. The way I have set it up now, is that whenever an item is added to any of the Sent Items folders (be it the one my phone uses or the one Outlook uses), the item is marked as read and transferred to the archive folder I keep on one of the IMAP servers. So no longer do I have to manually go through those folders moving items I had sent. The same thing works for deleted items, which I move into a single Deleted Items folder in a local PST file. So I now just have six folders under my favorites: my four inboxes, the Sent Items and the Deleted Items that my macros aggregate everything into.

With Outlook 2010 I had created local folders in the Hotmail PST for incoming POP3 messages, but it seems you can no longer move messages into any of the Hotmail folders. So no longer can I just move messages I need to read later or follow up on into my Hotmail inbox that gets pushed to my phone. Instead I have to sync the other inboxes on my phone manually. It’s not that big a deal, but it was another item on my list of disappointments.

Other Outlook flaws

With the most urgent problems solved, I started using Outlook 2013 instead of 2010 for all my email, RSS feeds and general “personal information management” (as that type of application is called). That’s when I discovered some of the other, albeit less dramatic flaws in Outlook 2013.

Such as the fact that the calendar in the to-do bar only shows today’s appointments and not those of the coming days as it did in 2010. Or the extraordinary amount of space taken up by people’s pictures, cluttering up the header area of messages and drawing attention away from the most important part: the message’s content. Thankfully there is a post on Super User on how to de-clutter Outlook 2013.

Among the things one apparently cannot get rid of: the additional reply buttons at the top of a message. While it might be nice to sent off a quick reply inline without having to open up another window to type it into, I find these redundancies don’t help to make an already complicated piece of software any easier to use.

On the plus side, to-do items in the Hotmail data file are no longer just local to your computer, but instead they were pushed to my Windows Phone and when I deleted the item there, it was immediately deleted in Outlook as well. That’s a very welcome change.

Other things I find objectionable

I love the fact that Office now follows the Windows 8 design principles (white space instead of lines to separate things, use of typography to establish hierarchy of on-screen elements, simple color schemes without gradients, fewer and simpler icons). However, I think they have overdone it with the all-caps text. Single words in the ribbon tab headers are fine, but status bar messages such as “ALL FOLDERS ARE UP TO DATE” are too much in my opinion. Has no one there heard about the negative impact all-caps have on readability?

And speaking of Windows 8 design: when I installed Office on a Windows 7 machine, I noticed that it was using the same Windows-8-style window frames there to. I don’t even know why Windows allows applications to provide their own window frame. I have yet to come across an application that used this for good. I think all windows should just get the same Aero glass frame or whatever else the user has set as the default on their system. No needless deviations from the system default. Period.

The remaining applications

I haven’t mentioned Word or the other Office applications, because I don’t use them as regularly as I use Excel and Outlook. I did open a couple of documents to read in Word and they seemed fine. I like that fact that I can now use Word to read PDFs, because Microsoft’s PDF Metro app is pretty basic and couldn’t correctly display a few PDFs I had.

I do use OneNote fairly regularly to write down things, URLs and other pieces of information I would like to have synced between my PC and my phone, but such basic functionality hasn’t changed as far as I can tell.

As for the other applications: I don’t use Access and Publisher at all and PowerPoint I only use at work, not at home. So I have no idea how good or bad they are in Office 2013.

Conclusion

In spite of all the problems I mentioned, I think I am better off now with Office 365 Home Premium than I had been with Office 2010 before. There are a couple of nice additions, although it did take some getting used to some of the other not so great changes. With a few macros, some fine-tuning of options and very minor changes to the way I organize my email, I don’t feel any desire to go back to Office 2010. In fact, I just uninstalled it, so when any other problems pop up (though I don’t anticipate), I will just have to fix them. Maybe I need to read up on VBA programming for Outlook, because it seems pretty powerful and I have only used VBA in Excel and Access (at work) so far.

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