Review: Microsoft Office Preview apps for Windows 10

Having already furnished iPad and Android users with touch-friendly versions of its Office apps, Microsoft has finally thrown a bone to Windows tablet users. Well, sort of. Although polished versions of the Office apps are now in the App Store and Google Play, the touch versions of Word, PowerPoint and Excel are only available on the Windows 10 Technical Preview and are still in beta. See also: Windows 10 release date, updates, latest news, features and price: new build pictures leaked

Still, they’re good enough to give us a feel for what Windows 10 users will have access to when the operating system finally launches this autumn, and how they compare to the Office apps on the rival platforms. Has Microsoft saved some special treats for the loyalists? We’ve examined each app in turn to find out.

Microsoft Office apps for Windows 10 review: Word Preview

On first inspection, there’s little difference between the Word apps for iOS and Android and the version for Windows 10. They have the same tabs in the Ribbon menu and a largely similar set of features lurking beneath them. The only notable difference is that both Windows and Android have a File tab that opens the Open/Save/Share screen that will be familiar to Word 2013 users, while the iPad app tucks that behind a small arrow in the top left-hand corner of the screen.

Word Preview for Windows 10

That consistency of design isn’t a bad thing. Many Windows users will have iPads and Android devices, and the last thing you need is to be relearning an interface every time you pick up a new device. Nobody familiar with Office 2013 or any of the other Office apps will struggle to adapt, which is a particular bonus for businesses thinking of deploying these apps to staff.

The Word app contains only a subset of the features you’ll find in the full desktop version of Word 2013, but there aren’t any show-stopping omissions. There’s a decent selection of templates to choose from when creating a document from scratch, and as with the other Office apps, we encountered no problems when opening and editing large, heavily formatted documents – something that can’t be said for online services such as Google Docs.

There are one or two advantages of running the Word app on Windows, as opposed to the other platforms. The choice of fonts is much greater, and there are no device-specific fonts like there are on the iPad, which can cause compatibility problems later. Assuming you have OneDrive or Dropbox synchronised to your Windows device, access to documents when offline is also much easier, since you get full access to the file system. On Word for the iPad, you have to open the documents in the app before you go offline.

On the downside, there are currently fewer options for handling tracked changes than there are in the iOS version of Word, and the design of the button doesn’t make it very clear if tracking is switched on or off. We’d also urge Microsoft to do some work on the default software keyboard in Windows 10, as it swallows half the screen when you’re typing in landscape mode, making it difficult to navigate around documents.

Nevertheless, we’d be perfectly happy to write, tweak or edit documents using the Word app.

Microsoft Office apps for Windows 10 review: Excel Preview

It’s much the same story for Excel as Word, with little visible difference between the Windows and other versions of the app. Manipulating a spreadsheet on a pure touchscreen device could have been horribly tricky, but Microsoft has done a good job of making Excel finger-friendly without fundamentally damaging the utility of the spreadsheet. Entire columns or rows can be moved by pressing down on the header and dragging the row or column to the desired position; autofit can be applied to the entire row or column by simply double-tapping the header.

Excel Preview for Windows 10

These touch shortcuts take a little learning, but soon become second-nature, and make it easier to manipulate even the biggest of spreadsheets. That said, we’re grateful for the prominence of the undo button in the top-right corner to help correct touch-induced errors.

Composing formulae is well handled in the Excel app. The Formulas tab provides shortcuts for a number of different types of formulae (Financial, Logical, Date & Time and so on), and when you’ve chosen the relevant formula you choose which cells to apply it to by simply prodding them in turn. The keyboard isn’t really necessary. That said, we note Microsoft has devised a special keyboard for Excel on both iOS and Android, which provide a numerical keypad, cursor keys for easily moving between cells and keys for common functions. As yet, there’s no such facility for Windows.

As with all the all other Office mobile apps, some features are off-limits if you’re building a spreadsheet from scratch. There are no conditional formatting options, for example, nor any option to create pivot tables, although they will continue to work as expected if they’re already in an imported spreadsheet.

Microsoft Office apps for Windows 10 review: PowerPoint Preview

PowerPoint is the most disappointing of the new Windows apps. It’s perfectly adequate for editing existing slideshows, or even creating presentations from scratch. There’s a reasonable selection of templates to choose from, image handling is excellent – with transparent guidelines to make sure photos are lined up properly with text – and there’s a good stock of transitions and effects for those who like to give it some visual pizzazz. The only major omission is the inability to insert videos or play clips already inserted into slide decks.

PowerPoint Preview for Windows 10

What really lets down the Windows 10 app is the Presenter Mode. The tablet is the perfect tool for presenting your PowerPoint slides, letting you address the audience while swiping through slides and using your slate as a prompter. However, it’s not a patch on its iPad equivalent.

On the iPad, you can have your existing slide in a large window, with thumbnails of upcoming slides running along the foot of the screen and your presenter notes running down the edge. You can’t even see your notes in the Windows version, and you have to pinch to zoom to get the thumbnails, which is awkward.

The Windows app does include the same virtual laser pen and inking options as the iPad, but the controls are difficult to access and we often found ourselves accidentally advancing to the next slide when trying to activate them. We hope Microsoft gives Presenter Mode a good dollop of elbow grease before the apps are finalized; we wouldn’t want to stand on stage delivering a presentation with these inadequate tools.

Microsoft Office apps for Windows 10 review: OneNote

OneNote has been available as a Windows 8 touch app for some time, but there’s a new preview version in the works. We can’t say we’re impressed. First, it adopts a different layout to the main OneNote Windows application, with individual pages listed down the left, rather than the right, of the screen, and with previews of the page contents included. This means only four or five page titles can be displayed on screen at a single time, resulting in a lot of vertical scrolling.

OneNote for Windows 10

It also had a nasty bug in our tests, where notebooks that had been previously renamed were still displayed using their old names. These new names show in every other version of OneNote we’ve tested, suggesting it’s a gremlin that Microsoft needs to sort – and sharpish, if it wants to avoid any ugly synchronisation errors.

How will the apps look on phones and compact tablets?

Windows 10 isn’t only for PCs, laptops and tablets. The same codebase will also be used on Windows 10 phones and compact tablets, as will these universal Office apps. However, their appearance is very different on these small-screen devices.

The Ribbon menu used in the tablet apps simply doesn’t work on small screens that are predominantly used in portrait mode. Instead, Microsoft has built the Ribbon menu into the app bar at the bottom of the screen. This overlays the menu options (Bold, Underline, Bullets, Numbering and so on) over the top of the document; you select the feature you want to use, hide the Ribbon menu, then apply it to the document laying beneath. Users can scroll through the different Ribbon tabs on a dropdown menu.

Crucially, Microsoft also re-formats documents so that they fit on the mobile screen. This means images may be positioned, or wrap around text, in a different way than they would on a PC or laptop screen. You almost certainly won’t want to be doing any heavy editing on phones or compact tablets, therefore, as the layout of your document could be altered in unexpected ways.

Microsoft Office apps for Windows 10 review: verdict

Overall, we’re largely underwhelmed by the Office apps on Windows. At best, they’re as good as the equivalents for iOS and Android. In some cases, such as with PowerPoint and OneNote, there’s a lot of work to be done. While we’re mindful that these are works in progress, we can’t help thinking that Windows users are being offered almost nothing that hasn’t already been released on rival platforms –and many months ago in the case of iOS. If even Microsoft can’t provide compelling reasons to choose Windows over iOS or Android, what hope have third-party developers got?

That said, the Office apps for Windows could prove valuable for Windows tablet users in one crucial regard: they take up a fraction of the storage space of the full desktop applications. The Word preview takes up on 25.8MB of disk space on our test tablet, for example, while Office 2013 requires 3GB of disk space on our laptop. For those running tablets with only 16GB or 32GB of storage, that alone could make the world of difference.

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