Microsoft made massive changes in Office 2016 for Windows but has hidden most of the changes beneath a reassuringly familiar-looking surface. With the new version, the world’s most-powerful and widely used office application suite leaves its online and desktop-based competition even further in the dust, especially in its convenient and deeply integrated collaboration features.
The final release of Office 2016 offers no big surprises for adventurous users who’ve been working with the preview version that Microsoft released back in May, and offers an almost flat learning curve for longtime users who feel at home editing documents in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, and taking notes in OneNote. The big changes appear when you start editing collaboratively in Word, PowerPoint, and OneNote, with two or more users editing the same document simultaneously and optionally exchanging text, voice, or video chat via Skype, with the Skype functions accessible directly from the document.
The new features get even more elaborate when you start working with other team members using timesaving Group functions built into Outlook. In all these changes, Microsoft isn’t merely playing catch-up with collaborative services like Google Apps or Zoho Office. Some of Office’s collaboration features are so effective and intuitive that you may wonder why no one thought of them before.
Other changes that Desktop users won’t notice include handwriting support for equations, so tablet users can draw an equation on a touch screen and see Office transform it into typeset form—impressively but not always perfectly accurately in my ham-fisted testing. Another change brings the traditional Office apps closely in line with new mobile versions for iOS and Android. Office 2016 is now the first more-or-less universal office application suite, with consistent versions available via any modern Web browser and every standard desktop and mobile platform except Linux.
I’ll get back to Outlook’s Group features after surveying what’s new in Office’s traditional big three apps—Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. A major new convenience is a “Tell me what you want to do” box in the top-line menu that lets you find a feature without opening various tabs until you find it. You either click in the Tell Me box or type Alt-Q to start typing in the box, and a drop-down menu lists likely matches for the words you type.
So if you can’t remember that you record a macro from the View menu (Microsoft’s totally irrational location for the macro feature), just type “Record macro” in the Tell Me box, and let Word open the macro-recording dialog for you. Unfortunately, the Tell Me feature won’t find what you’re looking for in the Options menu, which is just as cluttered and confusing as it was in older versions.
The ribbon also gets a new online research feature called Smart Lookup, accessible from a button on the Review menu or from the context menu that pops up when you right-click on a document. These open an Insights pane at the right of the screen with two tabs: Explore, containing Wikipedia and other Web-search information on the currently selected text, and Define, showing definitions from the Oxford dictionaries.
Long-time Office users will remember an old Research pane that performed similar functions, but disappeared from the interface in Office 2013. The new Insights pane is a supercharged Web-based update of the old Research pane, but if you want the old Research pane in addition to, or instead of, the new Insights pane, you can still reach it by holding down the Alt key and clicking on a word you want to look up. As in the case of the Research pane, and other expert-level features like split-screen editing, multi-chapter Master Documents, and updateable fields, Office tends to bury older functions instead of removing them entirely.
The entire Office 2016 user interface gets the vivid solid-color treatment familiar from Windows 10, and you can now choose a black background for the menu that helps you focus your attention on your document instead of on the application. The top-line menu also features some minor tweaks like lowercase labels on tabs instead of the old all-capital style.
Word continues to make it easier to create highly styled documents using Microsoft’s suggested headline styles than to create your own custom layouts. Corel WordPefect is the only current word processor that offers more straightforward controls over formatting, but WordPerfect remains a niche product used almost entirely by long-term loyalists and legal users who need its special features.
Microsoft has learned that Excel users love charts, so the new version includes some show-stoppers formerly available from third-party add-ins—Pareto charts, sunbursts, and waterfall charts that show the effects of cumulative changes in a series of floating blocks like in the Super Mario Bros. video games. Expert Excel users know the laborious trick of building a waterfall chart by making the lower part of a block invisible, but Microsoft’s one-click version is a lot more elegant.
Microsoft promises to add new chart styles every month for Office 365 subscribers. Meanwhile, Excel gets a built-in Forecasting feature that creates forecast charts based on existing data, and gee-whiz graphic features like an animated transformation of one chart type to another when you decide to use a different charting style.
PowerPoint hasn’t had any major changes beyond the enhanced collaboration features added everywhere in the suite, but a Microsoft rep hinted that some big new PowerPoint features will be coming to Office 365 subscribers in the relatively near future. Meanwhile, PowerPoint slightly lags behind Apple’s Keynote (Free at Apple.com) in graphic razzle-dazzle, but only slightly, and not enough to make anyone choose Apple’s iWork over Microsoft Office as their preferred office suite.
There’s always something old and something new in the latest Office release. Office 2016 still includes Microsoft Publisher, the page-layout app that used to be widely used for preparing menus and posters, and that probably someone still uses today, though I’ve never met anyone who does. And the Access database app is still included for those who like to build custom data-driven applications, but it hasn’t been updated since the 2013 version.
A new member of the Office family is a cloud-based presentation app called Sway, freely downloadable even if you don’t have the rest of Office. Sway creates presentations that are digital equivalents of the long roll of paper that Jack Kerouac used for typing On the Road: You read a Sway by scrolling through it up and down or right and left in a Web browser—it’s most at home in Windows 10’s new Edge browser—pausing here and there to click on slideshows or similarly animated or expandable features. Your Sways are housed on Microsoft’s servers, so you probably won’t use them for sensitive data.
Except for the fact that Office is Microsoft’s main content-creation platform, there’s no special reason why Sway should be part of Office, and it doesn’t share data or anything else with any other Office app. When you create a Sway, you can amuse yourself for hours with the Remix! button on the toolbar that reorganizes your presentation into entirely new layouts and designs each time you click it. The users who read your Sways may find them slightly annoying, as I did, because the built-in animations and transitions slow down your access to content. Microsoft has a habit of making second versions that are far better than the first, and Sway is worth keeping an eye on even if you don’t use it now.
Throughout Office 2016, you’ll find ancient geological layers of features that haven’t been improved in years because too few people use them. Word’s Master Documents is a potentially powerful feature that lets you edit chapters as separate files, yet also combine them in a master document that imports the separate chapters when you open it and exports them again when you close it. This feature is dauntingly complicated, and produces files that tend to get corrupted, so the word among Office veterans is that you simply shouldn’t use it. However, an improved and updated version would be right at home in Microsoft’s new collaboration features, and maybe Microsoft will give it another look for a future version.