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It’s been a long five years since the previous release of Office for the Mac. Now, at last, a major upgrade brings the OS X suite up to date – for Office 365 subscribers, at least. If you want to buy the software outright you’ll have to wait until September. Microsoft hasn’t revealed how much this will cost, but it may be a tough sell now that iWork is free, and Google Docs is so much more powerful than it used to be. The onus is on Office for the Mac to prove it’s still relevant.

What’s new?

The first thing you’ll notice about Office 2016 is that it finally gains a proper ribbon interface. It looks a little out of place on the Mac, but it’s a big improvement on the clunky tabbed toolbar of old. It’s more compact, yet less cluttered than before. There’s full support for Retina displays too, and if you choose the “colorful” option during setup, each application window is edged with its signature colour: green for Excel, dark blue for Word and so on. 

Interestingly, Office 2016 also brings certain keyboard shortcuts across from Windows, allowing you to use the Ctrl key instead of Command when copying and pasting. At first, this might seem helpful for people who hop between platforms, but it’s confusing when you switch to a non-Microsoft app that doesn’t recognise Windows-style shortcuts. Even within Office, it’s inconsistent: for example, in Excel, Ctrl+Home and Ctrl+End take you to the top and bottom of your sheet, but the same combinations don’t work in Word.

In some ways Office 2016 is superior to its Windows counterpart. Multitouch touchpad gestures work seamlessly, with smooth scrolling and pinch-to-zoom controls, something Windows has never really got right. And the confusing “Backstage” File menu is replaced by a regular dialog box, with easy OneDrive integration. It could do with a search box, though, and there’s no third-party cloud integration yet, so you don’t get easy access to Dropbox or Google Drive.

Word 2016

Word is arguably the centrepiece of Office, and its interface gets a welcome update. The old Document Elements tab is replaced with the more sensibly named Design tab, giving access to different Themes, style sets and colour swatches. The Inspector panel has disappeared too: some of its features move to the ribbon, while the style selector becomes a dockable panel.

Word 2016 also lets multiple users collaborate on a document – even if they’re on Windows or iOS. This isn’t live collaboration as with Google Drive, where you can see others typing in real-time, but it works well: as you edit, dotted lines indicate the paragraphs that have been updated, and each time you save you’re notified if others have changed anything.

Not everything from Word 2013 for Windows is here. Real-time style previews don’t make it, and the Office app framework seems to have been quietly dropped. The touchscreen features of Office 2013 for Windows are also missing, although that makes sense, since Macs don’t have touchscreens. One feature I miss is the Reading view: although intended for touch operation, the distraction-free view was welcome.

In all, Word 2016 is a huge improvement on the old version. It’s cleaner, easier to use and boasts useful new features. Once you start using it, you certainly won’t want to go back.

Excel 2016

The latest version of Excel brings welcome look-and-feel updates, with the ribbon joined by new cell and highlight-selection animations: these don’t add anything meaningful to the toolkit, but they make the application feel much more modern. 

Full support for Retina displays helps too, making even the smallest text on the fiddliest spreadsheets readable. And multitouch support really proves its worth, allowing you to pan around large spreadsheets with a simple two-fingered swipe. If only it worked this well in  the Windows version!

The more substantial new features are largely transplanted from Excel 2013. The Recommended Charts tool takes the guesswork out of generating graphs from vast sprawls of data – although the Mac version lacks the pop-up selector of the Windows edition. Pivot tables also gain a “Recommended” tool that lets you generate a table with a single click.

There are some features still missing. There’s no Power View, for instance, nor PivotCharts or Power Query. The Quick Analysis tool introduced in Excel 2013 doesn’t make the cut, either. And while it’s easy to set up a shared spreadsheet (just click the sharing icon to generate a link), only one person can work on a spreadsheet at a time. Believe it or not, you have to close your file if you want someone else to edit it directly. Still, overall, this upgrade is undeniably more capable and easier to use than the old 2011 edition.

PowerPoint 2016

PowerPoint for the Mac has historically looked rather inelegant next to Apple’s smooth and intuitive Keynote – but for this release, Microsoft has rationalised and reorganised the interface. Users of the previous version will find that some of their favourite features have been shuffled around, but the new arrangement makes it much easier to come in fresh and get results.

The big new feature is an options pane that appears when you apply an animation to an element on a slide. Although there are no new features available for animation, having them all at your disposal in one place makes it much easier to tweak and fiddle, which should help you produce slick presentations. 

There’s also a handful of new themes and transitions to help novices spice things up a bit. My favourite change concerns the cleaned-up Presenter view, for use when presenting from a laptop to a second screen or projector, which gains a small feature that alone makes the update worthwhile: a button for switching displays. No more frustration trying to manually switch displays after connecting my MacBook Pro to a projector.

In all, PowerPoint is now a much more credible competitor to Keynote. It has all the same features and more, and the improved interface puts the important stuff at your fingertips. If you’re on Office 365, this might be the best reason to update today.

OneNote 2016

OneNote wasn’t in Office 2011, coming later as a free download from the Mac App Store. This new version is still free: all you need is a Microsoft account. Notes and files go into your 15GB of OneDrive storage.

OneNote 2016 isn’t much different from the original version, aside from the new look and the ability to OCR notes uploaded to OneDrive. The note-taking process remains very easy: click anywhere in the editing area and start typing, and your words appear in place. Each note can contain any number of textboxes, images and audio recordings, which is handy for meetings. Better still, OneNote syncs your typing to your recordings as you take notes in meetings: click on the audio icon next to a paragraph in your note, and you’re taken straight to that part of the recording.

OneNote’s weak area is integration with Outlook. You can’t copy a message directly into OneNote, nor create tasks directly from your notes as you can in Office for Windows. But you can share a notebook with a group of people, and changes made by others appear in (more or less) real-time. It’s cross-platform too: you can share a notebook between Mac, Windows, iOS and Android users, and have all edit notes simultaneously.

This makes it a very powerful collaborative tool, and the audio features are a definite plus – but the lack of Outlook integration is a disappointment. 

Outlook 2016

Outlook for the Mac has never enjoyed the same range of capabilities as the Windows edition. Alas, that doesn’t change in this new release.

First, the good stuff: the three-pane interface works well, with a useful set of toolbars that’s consistent with the rest of the Office family. And it’s fast: you don’t find yourself waiting around for anything.

Start using it, though and you’ll realise that many power-user features are simply not there. There’s no scheduling of emails, for example, and no integration with either OneDrive or OneNote. Nor does Outlook make use of Mac-native features: there’s no integration with the system-wide address book, no gestures and no full-screen mode, even though every other Office application supports it.

Not for the first time, I’m left wondering why anyone would choose Outlook on the Mac, given that Apple Mail, Calendar and Contacts all support Exchange natively. A fully featured version of Outlook for Mac could be a great addition to Office, but this isn’t it. 

Verdict

If you have an Office 365 subscription, you’ve nothing to lose by upgrading. Office 2016 for Mac is more attractive, easier to use and more powerful than ever before. Multitouch support makes for a smoother working experience, and the improvements to PowerPoint in particular can actually make you more productive. 

Since the last release of Office for Mac back in 2011, however, a lot of people have discovered that they can get along quite happily with iWork or Google Drive. If you’re in that camp, and aren’t already paying for Office on a monthly basis, you probably won’t find much in this 2016 release to tempt you back.  



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