Review Office 365 across devices

Published on January 25th, 2016 | by Yasser Masood

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Ringing in 2016 with Microsoft Office 365 – Review

Admit it – Microsoft Office has been a core staple of your productivity flow to get work done. Word to spell-check and format your reports, PowerPoint to create a nice presentation to nail that project pitch, Excel to keep track of expenses and plan your financial forecasts, and more.

With the proliferation on devices in multiple form-factors, we’ve likely started a document on one device and finishing it off on another (e.g. a short Word file from your tablet, and then polishing it on your desktop). Microsoft has been working incessantly to improve its suite for such challenges, and I decided to take a deeper look into how Office 365 stacks up in my daily routine.

For this review, I’ve focused on the 3 main apps that we use for our day-to-day work: Word, PowerPoint, and Excel to showcase the features and strengths of Office 365 across different devices (iOS/Android/Mac/Windows).

Setup and roll-out

When you use Office 365, there is no Product Key involved. Your Microsoft account serves as the central hub for accessing Office 365 on any computer or mobile device in your possession. If you ever lose your installation, you can easily retrieve it from Microsoft within minutes just by logging into your account.

First time opening Office after installation - no product key being asked.

First time opening Office after installation – no product key being asked.

Once installed, you just open any of the applications on your computer and follow the step-by-step instructions (you only need to do this one). I even opened up Powerpoint after my first set-up and it automatically configured everything. Onward to editing my files…

Working with the same Office – anywhere and everywhere

The Office apps have kept similar UI layouts as their desktop counterparts to avoid alienating new/frequent users. Who’d want to waste their time learning how to use an app? I’ve been using Office 2013 and Office 2008::mac for years, so it was all familiar to me

I’ve been accustomed to Office on desktops/notebooks for years. What mattered to me is familiarity, and how to access the formatting options I needed.  It’s been easy to move across different devices regardless of the screen size. The Ribbon interface that was introduced in Office 2007 has carried forward with improvements for the desktop versions.

Whether it’s on Android or iOS, they are all the same and tailored to the respective platform/device. Bigger screens make it easy to access more editing options, while smaller ones would toggle between the content and a slide-out of the formatting options.

More than a year ago, Microsoft partnered with Dropbox to integrate with each other and looks like Dropbox does show up as an option on the mobile apps. That makes it easy for you to open your files and easily save them back. You don’t have to feel that OneDrive is forced upon you, but it’s part of the Office 365 ecosystem just as how the App Stores are integrated to the respective mobile platforms. Accessing your files anywhere in the world (as long as you have a net connection) is invaluable – you never know when you need ‘that’ file.

Want to open your Word file from Dropbox? Just link your account to the Office apps.

Want to open your Word file from Dropbox? Just link your account to the Office apps.

Every leap comes with growing pains

You’ve likely found that Office fits your needs, but every version raises the bar. You can never find something completely perfect, but Office 365 does come with its own set of issues.

I noticed that the apps download a copy of the file to the device for local editing and then uploads the saved changes. Thus, file changes don’t propagate in real-time between devices (i.e. you won’t see someone type in real-time when you open the file). I had to manually force the app to refresh the changes on my Mac.

You could forget about real-time editing on some of the apps. I tried opening an Excel file on my iPad and Android device concurrently, only to subtly warn me that the file is locked and would need to be closed. Not something you would expect if you’re looking to do real-time edits with another user.

Open an Excel file on another device at the same time, and that's the subtle message you'll get.

Open an Excel file on another device at the same time, and that’s the subtle message you’ll get.

 

Maintaining operability between native desktop and mobile apps (talk about different hardware configurations) for real-time editing would be a big undertaking, especially when you want to keep your files compatible. If you’ve got iOS/Android/Mac/Windows concurrently editing the same file, it’s clear that they can’t talk to each other simultaneously.

However, I was able to edit files from my iPad and Mac at the same time. This could possibly be because they’re in the same platform family (we know how Apple tries to integrate their different software platforms with each other).

There are technical issues that can be addressed in the future, but don’t expect an overnight fix when you’re using Microsoft services across iOS/Android/Windows simultaneously. Real-time collaboration and updates across the Office apps could be ironed out with future updates to the entire suite.

Even though you can easily edit/save/create files and sync them from any device, I stumbled upon a few issues when putting the suite through its paces:

  • Excel files with Visual Basic macros are partially supported on the Mac (they’re popular on Windows), and you may not even be able to open them on mobile devices. Probably why I couldn’t open the file across multiple devices concurrently.
  • Special language formatting (e.g. Japanese) and other typographic formatting works seamlessly between Mac and Windows, but you won’t be able to edit them on iOS or Android.
  • Right-to-left language support. As we’re in the Middle East, Arabic would definitely be used by many. Files with Arabic characters can be opened and edited without issues between Windows and mobile devices. The Mac version is still lacking on this front.

Final Thoughts

For the majority of us who use it on a day-to-day basis across different devices, Office 365 is really a productive time-saver for you. If you want to make sure that you can do changes to your files while on the move (wherever you are), then it’s worth investing in a subscription.

It’s the very same Office that you’ve used over the years, and keeps improving in the age of mobility and real-time collaboration. You’ll be at peace knowing that you’ve been using the same suite of apps for years, allowing you to edit your Office files anywhere and everywhere.

Disclaimer: this review was made possible courtesy of a subscription provided by Microsoft Gulf.

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About the Author

Who am I? Some say I’m a walking breathing Wikipedia in Qatar, knowing anything from the obscure to the mainstream. I’m just a tech-savvy gadget loving and dissecting geek, juggling a day job with some community passion work. You can follow me on Twitter: @YasserM86



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