First look: Office 2016 for the Mac closes the gap

After a five-year hiatus, Microsoft finally brings a worthwhile Office to the Mac

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For many years, Office for Mac has played second fiddle to its Windows cousin. If you’ve been struggling with Office for Mac 2011 and suffering from Windows envy, your time has finally come. Last week, Microsoft made a preview edition of Office 2016 for Mac available to the masses, runnable on any OS X Yosemite computer. Surprisingly, the feature set of Office 2016 for Mac is nearly on par with that of the Windows version, with the gaps lying mainly in Excel and PowerPoint. Naturally, we’ll have to wait for the final, shipping products to draw detailed conclusions.

This preview edition includes new beta versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, as well as the previously released beta versions of OneNote and Outlook 2016 for Mac. (Outlook 2016 has been updated precious little in the past year and not at all since January; it’s still an embarrassment.) If you already have Office 2011 installed, the new Office 2016 will run side by side on the same Mac with no interference.

Note that the preview ain’t tiny. In this beta incarnation, Word 2016 alone is bigger than the entire Office for Mac 2011 suite. You’ll need 5.6GB of disk space and up to 10 minutes for installation, depending on the speed of your Mac.

As to be expected, we have no idea how much Microsoft will charge for the stand-alone version by the time it ships later this year. As Microsoft reiterated in November: “Office 365 commercial and consumer subscribers will get the next version [of Office for Mac] at no additional cost.”

Across-the-board changes

If you’re an Office for Mac 2011 user, you’ll be struck immediately by the updated interface. If you have a Retina screen, wow -- the interface adjusts itself automatically, and the high resolution comes shining through everywhere, thanks to Microsoft switching over (almost) completely to Apple’s Cocoa APIs. I’ve never seen Office look so good on any platform (see Figure 1).

Office 2016 for Mac takes full advantage of the Retina screen

Figure 1. Office 2016 for Mac takes full advantage of the Retina screen.

If you’re coming from Office for iPad, Android, or Windows 10, the Mac interface is completely different. Office 2016 for Mac unabashedly embraces the traditional keyboard-and-mouse/trackpad paradigm and doesn’t make any awkward trade-offs for touch-driven operation, as we saw in Office 2013 for Windows.

Remarkably, if you currently use Office 2011, most of the interface will feel comfortable. If you use Office 2013 for Windows, you’ll be right at home. The ribbons have been reorganized and the icons redesigned, but almost all of the old Office 2011/2013 options have immediately recognizable analogs in the new version.

There’s no “backstage” in Office 2016 for Mac, as there is in Office 2013 for Windows, so simple file management tasks -- renaming, Save As, delete, copy, move -- aren’t supported inside Office itself.

Office 2016 for Mac bakes OneDrive into the product. When you save a new document, as shown in Figure 2, Office defaults to your OneDrive Documents folder. To save a new file to your local computer, click the On My Mac button. 

Microsoft makes it easy to use OneDrive and hard to use anything else

Figure 2. Microsoft makes it easy to use OneDrive and hard to use anything else.

You can add online services to the Save As dialog (click the Add a Service link), but at this point only OneDrive, OneDrive for Business, and SharePoint are available. Presumably Dropbox will appear as an option at some point. I haven’t heard any official discussion of adding iCloud as an anointed Service link, although you can laboriously save a file to iCloud by clicking On My Mac, then choosing iCloud Drive.

To open files, you have to use the On My Mac button in the current Office app. Even if use use the Mac's standard File > Open menu command or Command-O shortcut you're brought to the decidedly non-Mac file manager in Office. You then click Open My Mac, and only then do you get the standard OS X Open dialog.

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