Of all the new features in Office 2013, this is the one we Engadget editors hold dearest to our hearts. With this version of Office, tracking changes has been tweaked so that unless you're actively reading through changes and comments, all that noise simply shows up as a bunch of red lines. When you're ready to focus on editing, just click the line to expand the thread. And we do mean threads. Now, if you get into a back-and-forth with another editor ("Can we call this phone a Galaxy Note clone?" "No"), those comments will appear in a single conversation that flows alongside the page, in the margins. If you've ever used track changes to collaborate on a document, you know that previously such an inane exchange would mean seeing a separate comment bubble for each person's response, even if they were all addressing the same issue.
And control freaks, rejoice: you can now lock tracking, which means someone needs to enter a password to make Word stop tracking changes. The point being, unless that person knows the password, he or she can't make any changes without you knowing.
Live Layout and adding online video
It's not like you couldn't previously add online video to an Office document, but it was a pain -- hardly a beginner-level move. Now, Word allows you to insert clips directly from YouTube, Bing Video or any other site, so long as you have the HTML embed code handy. Just click the Insert tab in the Ribbon, then click – you guessed it – "Online Video." Again, if we wanted we could paste in some code from Viddler, Engadget's hosting site, and insert a review video we had already uploaded. For the purposes of this walkthrough, though, we'll pretend we're searching for something on YouTube.
When you search, the results appear in a small pop-up that obscures the screen (not a browser pop-up, but a dialog box within Word). All of the search results appear as small thumbnails, and if you hover over them, you can see the title of the video (how else are you supposed to know if you've got the auto-tune remix?). Helpfully, you can also see how long a video is, so if you were looking for a music video, say, you might have an easier time weeding out the 50-second ones that obviously aren't complete. You can also preview the video first so that you don't go through the hassle of embedding it only to realize it's not what you wanted.
Once you insert the video, it's easy to resize it by dragging the corners or sides. There are also little pop-up tabs next to the frame, which you can click to select a layout option (e.g., in line with the text) or do things like cut or copy it. In theory, you can also watch a video from inside Word, without having to open up the browser. It doesn't bode well, though, that the first video we inserted had its permissions set in such a way that we had to visit YouTube if we were going to watch. Unfortunately, there's no way of clarifying that before you insert a video.
Also, in a new feature called Live Layout, the text will automatically wrap itself around a video, chart or anything else you insert into the text. And that happens in real time, even as you drag the object around. This is what we mean when we talk about Office's solid performance: as impressive as these new features are, they feel remarkably lightweight and nimble.
For a while now, Word has allowed users to save finished docs as PDF files. But until now, doing the opposite -- editing a PDF -- has required additional software, much of it not free. Here, though, when you open a PDF you can edit it as you would a Word document, and then you can either save it as such, or save it as another PDF file. We had no problem taking a PDF email attachment, typing in additional material, saving it as a PDF and then viewing it in Windows Reader. Okay, depending on who you are this might not be the most exciting new features in Office 2013, but it is certainly one of the most useful.
Now here's a feature Microsoft might not have bothered to include if it didn't imagine people using Office on tablets. The company's added a new reading mode -- a full-screen, read-only view that mimics the experience of reading an e-book on a tablet. To enter it, just go to the View tab in the Ribbon and find "Read Mode" all the way on the left. (Psst: This works in PowerPoint, too.)
Once you're in, the document takes up the whole screen, save for the Windows taskbar at the bottom. Like an e-book -- but very much unlike a Word document -- the pages scroll from side to side by default, instead of top-to-bottom. (If you like, you can switch to a so-called page view with vertical scrolling.) All told, it's very intuitive to find your way around: there are onscreen left and right arrows, which you can click, but you can also just swipe the screen to advance to the next page. You can also adjust the color of the text: it's black-on-white by default, but you can also choose white-on-black or a sepia theme.
Lastly, when you're in reading mode, there's a separate feature called Object Zoom, which allows you to expand a photo or table within the text by double clicking or tapping it. Like any good e-reader app, you can also search for specific words in the text, or perform a search (in this case, with Bing).
Sticking with this tablet theme for a moment, Microsoft built in the same well-spaced touchscreen keyboard you'll find in Windows 8. We especially appreciate that the apostrophe is to the right of the "L" key, as it is on a physical keyboard. There's also a visible Ctrl key so that you can press Ctrl + S to save your work. Lastly, we had a good experience with the predictive spelling, which presents suggestions in the form of small, unobtrusive pop-ups.
We can remember a time when Sparklines, those charts-within-cells, were the marquee new feature for Excel. This year, though, you'll notice that many of the major new additions don't necessarily aim to jazz up spreadsheets so much as take the tedium out of the number-crunching. Exhibit A: Flash Fill. It's a feature that recognizes your data patterns to the point where it should be able to predict what belongs in the remaining blank cells and fill them in for you. For example, if you were to make a spreadsheet detailing on what days different departments were using the main conference room, Excel would eventually pick up on the fact that every marketing executive has a meeting there Tuesday, while the publicity people are due there on Thursday.
In theory, you just have to enter some of that data and then go to the Data tab, where you press the Flash Fill button to make it fill in the rest. For instance, in a demo spreadsheet provided by Microsoft, one column shows a list of company email addresses, each of which follow the format "firstname.lastname." After typing two first names in the blank "First name" column, Excel filled in the rest. Ditto when we added a column for last names.
In our own testing, we enjoyed similar success, but discovered that Flash Fill doesn't make sense of all data -- for example, it doesn't recognize "yes" and "no" as values. So, there might well be times when Excel won't be able to survey your data set and pick up on the patterns within.