With Office 2007, Microsoft stunned virtually everyone who’d used the company’s best-selling productivity suite by switching from the traditional and familiar menu- and toolbar-based user interface to a new ribbon interface. The move was controversial but sound, and the ribbon has indeed made it much easier to find previously-hidden commands and features. Office 2010 finished this move to the new UI, and formalized how the ribbon could work consistently across multiple applications.

So what does Microsoft have up its sleeve for Office 2013?

A lot.

Looking at the desktop applications generally, the biggest and most obvious change with this generation of products is the move to a flat, clean and Metro-like user experience that will be at home next to both traditional desktop applications and new, (and true) Metro-style apps.

metro-colors

As with the previous move to the ribbon, I like this change a lot and embrace it wholeheartedly. Like many, I live in Office every day, particularly Word, and I find the Metro ideals that come through in Office 2013—mostly the ability of this new style to “get out of the way” and help you focus on what you’re working on, and not the surrounding application chrome—to be quite successful.

This is interesting and even surprising because most of the Office 2013 still require and display an awful lot of UI. Those ribbons are fairly bristling with commands and in most applications you’ll want to leave the ribbon visible, though minimizing it will of course result in a cleaner—and ostensibly more “Metro-like”—look and feel.

(In some applications, like Outlook, the ribbon is indeed minimized by default, and this does go a long way towards making them seem less complex. And then of course Microsoft has created two actual Metro-style apps for Office 2013, OneNote RT and Lync RT, which I’ll look at in more detail separately later.)

There’s also a subtle but nice use of color to differentiate the Office applications, and so if you move between, say, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint over the course of the day, you’ll grow to associate them with their respective colors, which are blue, green, and orange. And you can use those colors to more quickly pick the application you want out of Windows (many) task switching UIs (particularly in Windows 8).

Microsoft took the Metro look of things to the Office application icons too, of course, which sport a nice modern and flat look.

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icons-desktop

Feature run-down

Key new and improved features across most Office 2013 applications include:

Account integration. Office 2013 now fully integrates with various cloud services and the online accounts that are associated with them. For most individuals, this will mean associating with your Microsoft account (currently called Windows Live ID) and thereby gaining access to your SkyDrive based storage directly from within Office. Indeed, SkyDrive is the default save point for Office applications if you configure such an account. (Relax, you can change it.) Office also connects to Office 365, My Office (basically the same thing as SkyDrive), SkyDrive Pro, and for purposes of inserting content even third party services like Flickr and You Tube.

Backgrounds. While the Office 2013 applications sport a flat look, Microsoft does let you embellish them a bit with a background pattern if you want. (Oddly, the background is one of the few choices you make during Setup.) Six are included—Calligraphy, Circle and Stripes, Circuit, Clouds, Straws, and Tree Rings—and you can of course choose not to use a pattern if you’d like. These patterns are vaguely reminiscent of the background patterns Microsoft provides for the Windows 8 Start screen, though oddly none of them match up.

Start experience. Microsoft introduced the Backstage user interface in Office 2010, providing a pretty consistent full screen “File” experience, with New, Open, Save, Print, Share and related options all gathered together. In Office 2013, Microsoft is introducing a new full screen Start experience for its core Office 2013 applications--Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and so on—that mimics Mac:Office by providing upfront document templates for you to choose from. If you find this thing tedious, tapping Enter will get you directly to a new blank document/presentation/worksheet/whatever since that’s the default choice. Or, you can simply disable the Start screen in Options and get on with life.

start-screen

Alignment guides. Many of the core applications, including Word and PowerPoint, provide new and very useful alignment guides that show up when you position charts, photos, and diagrams in a document.

alignmentguides

Online pictures support. Many of the core applications, including Word and PowerPoint, support online pictures sources such as Office.com clip art, Bing Pictures Search, Flickr, and SkyDrive in addition to letting you insert photos and other pictures from your own PC or local network.

Resume reading. Many of the core applications, including Word and PowerPoint, will automatically bookmark your last position in a document so that the next time you open it you can pick up where you left off.

bookmark