Office 365 vs Office Online

Many users confuse the Office Online with Office 365. In reality, they’re a complementary service, free for anyone with a OneDrive account. Paying for Office 365 removes the ads, but at first glance there are few other reasons to pay £8 per month.

Office Online – formerly known as Office Web Apps – comprises Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, with Outlook hosted separately at www.outlook.com. Excel Online is augmented by Excel survey, which, as with Google Form, allows you to collect data directly within a worksheet.

Web Apps

The apps’ interfaces are near-identical to their offline counterparts, with a slimmed-down ribbon and a generous range of fonts. Familiar tools such as highlighting, preset styles and even right-to-left text have survived the hop to the web, and each app includes a full range of context-sensitive menus on a right-click.

All of this makes it easy to put together a good-looking document (or pick up where you left off on the desktop).

However, anyone used to the power features in Excel or Word will be frustrated. For example, the Data tab in Excel Online is limited to sorting data in ascending or descending order.

PowerPoint is limited to four transition styles between slides, with no pre-created templates.

As with Google Drive, you need to be online to use Office Online. Nothing is saved locally, although Microsoft does provide 25GB of free online storage.

Office Online works perfectly on the iPad, which is useful, since Microsoft hasn’t got around to shipping a tablet suite for anything other than the Surfaces.

Oddly, Android tablet users can only view their files via Chrome, rather than edit them, although Microsoft promises that a fix is coming. In the meantime, iPhone and Android users can create and edit documents using the free Office Mobile for Office 365 Subscribers apps.

For and against

Advantages over Office 365:
– Free of charge
– Real-time collaboration

Disadvantages:
– Poor printing options
– Limited features

Sharing your work is a breeze. You can either email invites or copy a link to your work into a regular message, and specify which rights the recipients have (edit or read-only), and whether or not they must log in with a Microsoft account. You can also embed read-only versions of a file in a web page, which anyone can view without a password or Microsoft ID.

The collaborative editing tools are slick and responsive, with the cursor position updating for each user in real-time.

The surprising disconnect between commenting and collaborative editing is therefore as clumsy as it is inexplicable. Anyone who has editing access to a document can read, add and reply to comments – but only in the separate reading view. This means you can’t edit someone else’s work and simultaneously jot queries and suggestions in the margin. We prefer Google’s cleaner, unified approach.

Web Apps

You’ll have to use a workaround for printing from Word Online. This involves rendering your document as a PDF, which you can then open in your PDF viewer for printing.

It’s an inferior solution to Google’s Cloud Print service, and far more hassle than sticking with Word on a PC. Excel, on the other hand, lets you output directly to printers.

With Microsoft claiming it’s going to beef up Office Online soon, it’s an excellent first step if you’re a long-term user of desktop Office who’s thinking of switching.

Return to the main Office 365 feature here.

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