Microsoft Word 2013 review: first look

17 Jul 2012

Office 2013 is the most dramatic change Microsoft's popular office suite has witnessed since the Ribbon was first introduced. The question is, what is the effect on key apps -- the ones you use to work with every day? Here are our first impressions of how the overhaul has changed our favourite Office app, Word.

The first thing that’s noticeable about Word 2013 is how clean the interface is. With the ugly Ribbon interface hidden away, you can really focus on the writing. A simple tap on one of the Ribbon headings brings it smoothly into view. Tap in the document area to start typing once more, and the menus slide away.

The new Read Mode strips this down further while still allowing comments to be added as you read. This is particularly useful in conjunction with the new ability to scribble “inked” comments on a document with a stylus.

One nice touch is how smoothly the cursor transitions from one character to the next as you type. It’s a very small thing, but it makes the whole experience of typing feel luxurious -- it’s like writing on a well-engineered piece of machinery, not a word processor.

It’s good to see that Microsoft hasn’t completely started again, though. The Ribbon menus themselves remain, and they’re organised in the familiar way. Although the look is dramatically different overall, existing users will not feel completely out of their depth. The key difference is that buttons are a little larger than before and have been spaced out, making it far easier to hit the controls with the touch of a finger than on Office 2010.

Although the look of Word 2013 is heavily Metro influenced, in many ways Word 2013 doesn’t behave like a Metro app. We’re convinced Microsoft wants us to run these apps full screen, but they can in fact be snapped to the left and right side of the desktop, and resized, and documents arranged side by side -- just as with Office 2010. Think of it as a hybrid between Metro and desktop, rather than one or the other.

Perhaps the biggest problem to overcome in working with Word 2013 is the split between touch control and using it with a keyboard and mouse. In some cases, the hybrid approach works well: highlight a section and tap it with a finger, and the context menu that appears is horizontal, squeezing neatly between the onscreen keyboard and the top of the screen; right click the selection with a mouse and the context menu displays vertically.

In other cases, it can be incredibly irritating. Tap the screen while you’re typing with a keyboard and up pops the onscreen keyboard, only to disappear once you start typing again. We hope there’s some way of disabling this behaviour, but this sort of user intervention shouldn’t be necessary.

And it isn’t all rosy when it comes to touch control either. Although the Ribbon buttons are nicely spaced out and fairly large, other controls are tiny. The windowing controls are too small, as are the icons on the Quick Access Toolbar in the top-left corner and the zoom controls and view shortcuts found in the bottom right corner -- although these look as if they’re intended for mouse users, as zooming with touch can be achieved with a simple pinch of the fingers.

Overall, our initial impressions of Word 2013 are mixed. We like the minimalism of the Metro-inspired interface more than expected, and it’s good news that Microsoft isn't forcing the full-screen approach of Metro on users. On the other hand, combining touch with keyboard and mouse use raises a number of irritating problems, and some of the touch controls don't appear to be wholly suited to tablets, which could be a problem for users of Surface, which will come with the  new Office Suite built in.

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