Though Office 2013 and Office 365 will both be available to purchase in stores, you won't actually find an installation CD in the box. Even if you buy it from a brick-and-mortar kind of place, you'll only really see a written product key when you tear open the packaging. So, regardless of whether you purchase in stores or online, you'll eventually need to head over to office.com, enter your license number and then proceed to download the software.
As ever, the system requirements are fairly modest: so long as you have 3.5GB of free disk space and an x86 or x64 system clocked at 1GHz or higher, you'll be good to go. DirectX10 graphics are required, along with a minimum resolution of 1,024 x 576. Microsoft also recommends 1GB of RAM for 32-bit systems and 2GB for 64-bit machines.
In any case, once you enter your product key it's smooth sailing. Just sign in with your Microsoft account (you'll have a chance to create one if you're a new user) and verify your country and language. So far so good, right? From that home screen on office.com, you can see how many of your five installations you've used. You can view your payment method, expiration date, billing history and automatic renewal information, if applicable. And, of course, there's a big "install" button, which you'll need to click since you haven't actually downloaded the software yet.
While Office sets itself up for the first time, you can choose to page through a few introductory slides. All told, it's not unlike how Windows 8 loads a primer on new gestures while the OS readies itself for the first time. Naturally, once they're fully installed the various Office apps appear as Live Tiles on the Start Screen, not as desktop shortcuts.
Once you've installed Office, you can sign in to your Microsoft account (or not -- in which case it's just a local copy). You can also choose the border that will appear on new Word documents and other files. In all, there are 14 of these themes, though there's also a "no background option" for people who find doodles of circles and circuits offensive. Not that we're pressuring you or anything, but they're really very subtle: they only take up a small patch of space on the fringe of the screen, and don't actually call much attention to themselves.
As crazy as this might sound, we don't plan on dwelling too much on the actual Office suite, just because we already wrote thousands of words on the subject back when it was first released. For a full run-down of the new features (plus dozens of screenshots), we'll direct you back to our preview, first published six months ago. For those of you who lack the attention span, though, we'll humor you with a quick recap. Notable new features in the suite include PDF editing in Word, a full-screen Reading Mode (great for tablets) and a behind-the-scenes Presenter View in PowerPoint. Touch Mode is exactly what it sounds like, which is to say it makes all the UI elements a little bigger and more touch-friendly -- not that it magically makes Excel convenient to use without a keyboard, per se. Resume Reading remembers exactly where you were in a document the last time you opened it, which is useful if you've been charged with editing a 40-page patent infringement brief or something equally tedious.
Even when the software was still in development we found it to be fast and stable, while the features themselves were intuitive to use.
By default, the various Office apps now save to SkyDrive, and you can always send someone a link to your work so they can read it in a browser. Adding online video to Word and PowerPoint files is much easier than it had been, and it's now possible to reply to comments in Track Changes. Flash Fill in Excel can predict what information should go in blank cells if the data is repetitive and follows a pattern. Finally, Outlook gets a feature called Peeks, which lets you hover to view your calendar and such without leaving the inbox. Meanwhile, so-called Social Connectors are plug-ins from services like LinkedIn.
For the most part, the software is the same as when we last tested it. And that's a good thing: even when the software was still in development we found it to be fast and stable, while the features themselves were intuitive to use. The only point of controversy might be the carryover of the Ribbon UI, which debuted all the way back in Office 2007, and which some people still haven't warmed up to.
There are a few new features, however, many of them subtle fit-and-finish sort of things. The icon for switching to Touch Mode has changed, and when you tap it you now get a pop-up menu that briefly explains the difference between that and mouse mode (the gist being that in Touch Mode there's no Ribbon menu, and the various UI elements are spaced farther apart). There's also a rotating group of templates, which vary depending on region and also the time of year. For instance, you won't see any Valentine's Day-related options in August, and you also won't see any sample Fourth of July party invites if you live outside the US. It's a smart idea, making these things timely and region-specific. We're not sure how many people actually use templates to begin with, but if you do, knock yourself out.
PowerPoint, meanwhile, has gotten a new transitions category called "Exciting," which includes some new animations. As you might have guessed, they're flashy transitions, sequences with names like "Curtains," "Origami" and "Paper Airplane" (they all are exactly what they sound like). What can we say? They're playful and call lots of attention to themselves, which is to say they probably won't be especially welcome at a board meeting. But just like with the templates, we're glad they're there for people who require a few more resources to truly express themselves.
Now that Microsoft has dragged Office kicking and screaming into the cloud-computing era, it's doing something else to bring the software up to date: it's giving the suite its very own app store. The Office Store lives on office.com, and is accessible even to folks who don't have a subscription to Office 365 (meaning, it's fine if you just own Office 2013). So far, the store includes apps for Word, Excel, Outlook, Project and SharePoint (but not PowerPoint, strangely). If you like, you can sort apps by any of the above programs, which is how we prefer to go about it. Alternatively, though, you can browse through a page of features apps, too. Similar to the Windows Store, you can read user reviews and click through to see detailed system requirements. Installing an app is as easy as hitting an "Add" button, though you'll need to go through an extra step to make sure it appears in the Ribbon of whatever Office application uses the add-on.
What's interesting about browsing the store is that because no one really expected or asked for Office applications, it doesn't matter so much how many there are, or whether you've heard of any of them. (In other words, this isn't like demanding Instagram on Windows Phone 8 and accepting no substitutes.) In fact, there are some big names represented, including LinkedIn, which has a plug-in for Outlook, and Merriam-Webster, whose dictionary works across Word and Excel. We also found some other apps we could see ourselves using, like Bing News for Word and "Random Generator" for Excel.
Most of these are free, which creates a nice incentive for downloading a bunch and seeing what sticks. (As you can see, "nice and inoffensive" seems to be a running theme here, at least as far as the new features go.) A few of the apps do cost money, however, particularly some of the more sophisticated programs designed for enterprise users. If you're a developer reading this, Microsoft takes a 20 percent cut from application purchases, which matches the revenue split already in place for Windows applications.
To use the apps, just click the Insert in the Ribbon, followed by "Office Apps." Each one shows up as a pane along the right-hand side, which you can easily close by tapping an "X" button. You can open more than one app at once (as evidenced in the screenshot above) but be warned: for every app you open, you'll have less space to actually do your work. The apps in Word, for instance, line up side by side, causing the actual document to narrow. If you only open up one application, you'll still be able to type in Word without having to do any extra scrolling from side to side; that changes once you open a second app, though. All told, it's a minor inconvenience: just decide whether you need to be using Bing News at the moment, or if Merriam-Webster is more vital.
As for the apps themselves, they're exactly what they sound like, and that's a good thing. Bing News has a search bar into which you can type queries. Ditto for the dictionary app we tried, and LinguLab WordCloud. Web searches, definitions and everything else shows up in the same box where you performed the search so that you don't have to toggle over to IE 10 -- or any other program, for that matter. That alone makes these apps useful, though it helps that the information itself is clearly presented and comes from reliable sources.
What can we say? Office 2013 is a top-notch product: fast, intuitive and feature-rich. All of the new features work as promised, and are easy to get the hang of. At the same time, since the UI is similar to the previous version, it should be easy to master if you're upgrading from Office 2010. Now it's true, there are various free alternatives out there, including cloud-based ones like Google Docs. Still, we're wary of steering all our readers there, because we know lots of folks are already comfortable using Office, or have come to rely on some of the more advanced features you can't get elsewhere. Assuming you don't have any interest in switching to a more basic suite, then, the real question is: does it make more sense to buy Office once for $139 and make do with one license? Or is it wiser in the long run to pay $100 every year for a subscription in exchange for five installations and ongoing software updates?
Obviously, the more computers you own, the more it makes sense to pay $100 a year for five activations. For example, buying five individual copies would cost $695 up front, as opposed to $600 for six years of service. Basically, you'd be saving money until that seventh year rolls around, and that's a long enough stretch that you'd get upgraded to Office 2017 in the interim. That said, the subscription model isn't for everyone. Many of the perks -- Skype minutes, extra SkyDrive storage -- seem like weak reasons to go with Office 365 if you're on the fence. Meanwhile, the Office Store is useful but it's not like you need a subscription to enjoy it. With all that in mind, if you own just one machine it might make sense to shell out $139 for a single license and not have to pay $100 on an annual basis. In short, then, Office itself is a polished product, but your decision on whether to get 2013 or 365 should mainly come down to how many computers you own. Almost everything else is beside the point.