First look: Microsoft Office 2016 IT Pro and Developer Preview

Any update to Microsoft’s vast and all-encompassing Office Suite is inevitably only going to be a minor one. It has been thus for years, and it will continue to be. So let’s get this of the way right now: Microsoft Office 2016, which Microsoft has released as a preview for business and developers, is not (so far) a massive update.

First look: Microsoft Office 2016 IT Pro and Developer Preview

And so it should be. If Microsoft had rested on its laurels after Office 1995, just think where we would be now: no ribbon interface, no Backstage view or OneDrive integration – and we’d still be plagued by Mr Clippy. Who says incremental improvements are a bad thing?

Microsoft Office 2016 - new colourful theme

Microsoft Office 2016 Preview: Word search

At least on one front the small additions made to Office 2016 should make a difference to the way your use the suite. At last, Microsoft has a toolbar search box, inherited the “Tell me what you want to do…” search box from the Office online applications, and in one fell swoop, it’s eliminated the one big problem we’ve always had with the Ribbon interface: the difficulty in finding features and functions you don’t commonly use in amongst the hundreds of tools the apps have accumulated over the years.

Weirdly, the search box hasn’t yet found its way into all the apps. Outlook hasn’t got it yet (we profoundly hope it does eventually), and nor has Access, but after a short while using it, you have to wonder why Microsoft didn’t do this years ago. The ability to simply hit ALT-Q and type what you’re looking for – be it Sparklines in Excel, drop caps insertion in Word or animations in PowerPoint – is a revelation.

Office 2016 review - search box

But it doesn’t stop there: Office 2016’s new search facility isn’t only about finding the features you want quickly, it’s also possible to access the functions of those tools directly from the results that appear below your query.

Want to insert a quick table in Word? Type “table”into the box, select the Table option from the resulting dropdown and you’ll be able to access all the same functions that are available under the Ribbon bar button. Want to insert a quick bar chart? Select the cell range, type “chart” in the box, and select the chart you want straight from the dropdown.

Microsoft Office 2016: look and feel

If Microsoft had left the 2016 update at the search box, we’d be happy. However, there are also plenty of other small changes, the first of which you’ll notice as soon as you fire up the applications for the first time: the apps are now more colourful than before, with the toolbars adopting the colour coding of their logos.

Thus, Word now has a blue toolbar, Excel’s is green, PowerPoint’s is red and so on. It isn’t a hugely significant change, and the old colour schemes are still available for those who don’t get on with the brighter colours, but we quite like the new look.

Office 2016 review - backstage view

Elsewhere, there’s also not much different, just yet. The Backstage view, a neologism introduced in Office 2013 has had a light lick of paint, with slightly different folder icons and a re-organisation that sees the Browse button always displayed at the top of the screen. It’s slightly less confusing to the eye, but we’d have preferred to see more of a root-and-branch overhaul of this area, which has always seemed to be a bit of a hotch potch of ideas than a properly thought-out bit of user interface design.

Outlook sees a handful of minor improvements, most notably to the insert attachment menu, which borrows some ideas from the Backstage view. Now, instead of launching straight into a Open dialog box, you get a list of recently opened files appear directly from the toolbar button; only when the Browse folder icon at the bottom of the list is clicked does the traditional Insert File dialog appear. Assuming you’ve been tinkering with the files you want to attach, this should make life easier.

In Excel 2016, meanwhile, Power Query will be built-in instead of an Add-on, and minor changes have been made to improve keyboard accessibility for “high-value” features such as Pivot Tables and Slicers.

Office 2016 review - Outlook insert files

Microsoft Office 2016 Preview: changes for businesses

There isn’t much else to note from a user interface point of view but, as you might have already inferred from the name, not all the changes are consumer orientated, with plenty of business-focussed improvements also on the cards.

Word, Excel and PowerPoint now benefit from Microsoft’s Data Loss Protection scheme – a set of tools that IT administrators can use to help them detect and prevent employees leaking sensitive company data accidentally. On a similar theme, Visio now supports Microsoft’s Information Rights Management (IRM) tool, which can help companies control the way files are used once they’re sent elsewhere – by restricting copy and paste or printing, for example.

Outlook gets a number of technical improvements, including the replacement of RPC-based email synchronisation with the more “internet friendly” MAPI-HTTP protocol, and foreground network calls. Outlook 2016 should receive email quicker and be more reliable on unreliable network connections (when you’re working on 3G or 4G links, for example) as a result.

Work has also been done on improving the performance of the Outlook search tool (we can’t say we’ve been hankering after that), while those running Office on storage-starved Windows Tablets or Windows with Bing laptops will be glad to see that it’s now possible to restrict the local storage of email to one, three, seven or 14 days.

Finally, deployment options have received a boost, with IT administrators now able to manage Office 365 subscriptions on devices remotely from the Office Admin Portal.

Microsoft Office 2016 Preview: early verdict

Aside from the toolbar search facility and new theme, there isn’t much to the Office 2016 IT Pro and Developer Preview, but it’s early days yet. The software has only just emerged from the private preview stage, and is currently missing many of the features that are planned for the final release, when the software officially hits later this year.

But as the months go by, Microsoft promises to add some of those features to the preview via monthly updates. We’ll cover those and keep you updated just as soon as it does.

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