If you have to use Microsoft Word at work, go get this now
and be delighted with it. If you don't have to, if you're looking for a great word processor, it's just a little harder to recommend Word quite so readily. It's harder, and it's also very unfair, as 30 years of using various versions of Word have left us with biases against it. Word earned those biases, it's just difficult to think about going back to relying on it, even though Microsoft Word 2016 is the best and the shiniest version ever.
As well as being arguably the most popular and most-used of Microsoft Office's applications, Word is also the embodiment of how its makers think and work. Word is intricate on the inside, unnecessarily so, and there is probably no word processing feature ever imagined that is not in this application -- but that's far from saying each feature works. There is a feature- and check-list mentality behind Office, and even faced with an attractive new look, you hesitate because of past intricacies turning your documents to mush, and you have pause because if Microsoft is good at anything, it is not attention to detail.
We'll get to all the great stuff soon
For instance, the easiest job in the world must be the job of user testing at Microsoft. If you have Outlook for iPhone, go add a new contact to it. Just someone new and their email address. We dare you. It can't be done. It actually cannot be done: nobody designing an app to handle your email considered it useful to include the ability to add a new contact. Nobody testing the app tested it.
With Word 2011, you could get a different word and character count depending on whether you chose Word Count from the menu or used the keyboard shortcut. Then the company famously spent a fortune when it revamped all of Office and introduced the Ribbon, which is meant to put all the tools you need right now in front of you right now. In the first Ribbon on Windows, though, there didn't appear to be two rather obscure tools for the strange people who want to open an existing document, or create a new one.
Once you were shown where these easy-to-find tools were to be found, okay, but then there was the rest of the ribbon. There's a story that Microsoft did a presentation once, boasting about exactly how often each of the tools in the Ribbon were used. This percentage of users clicked on New, this many on Bold, and so on. Only, their own statistics showed that there were buttons nobody clicked. Nobody. Ever. Apple would've removed those buttons -- or would not have included them in the first place -- but the old Microsoft wouldn't.
The new Microsoft which has been rightly lauded for its iPad and iPhone versions of Word, has at least removed some unneeded stuff, and adjusted others. It depends on your screen size, but the basic Home collection of Ribbon tools does now have most of what you need, and it does just somehow look a lot better.
It remains confusing that you have many different collections on the Ribbon. "Home" is a fairly meaningless term that just means not-the-rest and the rest include Insert, Design, Layout, References and more. Without looking, tell us what the difference between Design and Layout is. While you're at it, what exactly is Insert? Aren't you inserting text every time you press a letter on the keyboard?
Doubtlessly, if you don't already know, then you're thinking Insert is where you bring in some other file, some other document. Yes. It's also where you add a page break, though, or just a new blank page. It's where you add a table, but it's also where you can include an automatic Date and Time reference. It's where you can insert a bookmark and a cross-reference -- but shouldn't they be under the References collection?
The idea of the Ribbon is to stop you having to hunt for options in menus, but it does leave you hunting for buttons in the Ribbon. Still, once you're there, once you've found where a control is, the Ribbon is better than Word's old menus, and this version is better than Office 2011's one.
Getting there is half the fun
Detail-skipping and weak user testing should be a persnickety kind of complaint, but when it's the very first thing you find about an application, it just adds to the wariness. So, for instance, you've learned that you can get Microsoft Office 2016 right now, and for free, if you or your company already has an Office 365 subscription -- but it isn't quite true. Not quite.
You can download the software right now, and for free, if your company has Office 365 and has chosen to allow you to do it. So for instance, one of us also works for the Writers' Guild of Great Britain as a regional representative: the Guild needs him to have access to his official Outlook email address, but neither they nor he need him to have anything else. So the option to install Office 2016 simply does not appear on the page Microsoft tells you it does. Again, you know Apple would've had a sentence on there saying that if you're looking for the new version, check with whomever runs your IT department.
That's because Apple thinks first about the person using the software, and Microsoft first about the company paying for it.
We got a separate Office 2016 account to test out Word, and that was easy enough to set up -- except when it came time to install the software. Then we had problems with it trying to log us in under the Writers' Guild account: not just offering a sign-in page with the details handily filled in for us to edit or change, but with the username fixed and no option to change it.
Hand on heart, we were staring at that, wondering what to do, when we appeared to be just logged in anyway. It can't have have just spontaneously happened, we must've prayed to the right person or something, but suddenly we were in and installing the software. Proper professionals would've gone back a few steps and recreated each bit to test it, but we were just glad to be in the software.
In Microsoft's world view, everyone should have an Office 365 account, but nobody would ever have two. That's just silly and could never happen.
Now the good bits
Word 2016 comes with redesigned templates. Templates are hardly a tentpole feature: if you use them at all you probably have one you like and stick to. For the rest of us, templates are section we never go into. Yet they are improved here, and in a small but thoughtful way. Whereas templates used to be labelled with titles such as Brochure or Business Letter, now they have names like Take Notes, Make a List, Write a Journal, Create an Outline.
It's a simple difference, but it's much better: you know instantly the purpose of each template that you're ignoring in favor of an ordinary blank page. The look of these templates is good, too, and whether you use one or not, once you've begun writing in one, Word is much better at keeping up with you than it has been in the past.
This look and sprightly, responsive feel is excellent. It is a pleasure now to write in Word, and if you're surprised to read us saying that when we've just vented annoyances, then this is what we mean by it being easy to recommend in some ways and harder in others. You try to forget the past, but suddenly you get Microsoftitus with the Office 365 login problems. You enjoy typing in it, but you keep thinking to the future, and what you're going to need to do with what you're writing.
Word still feels as if you are expected to print things out. If you do, then that's great, you get these gorgeous designs reproduced as well as your office printer can manage. If you don't, if you write to send your text somewhere else, then you still have problems, even with Word 2016.
To be clear, this is not when you're writing a Word document to send to someone else: just to actually send them the document. In that respect, Word has always been good at letting you bounce documents between users, between users across Macs and PCs. The problem is when you need to take the text you've typed and put that somewhere else, such as on a website.
There is just something hinky going on, and it continues to go on. Word loads a lot of detail behind the scenes, detail to do with the colour of the text, the font face, the style, your star sign, and if you paste that text somewhere else, the detail comes along as shrapnel. Try as you might, you still find one paragraph doesn't match the next. If you're posting the text online, then it is a liable to look peculiarly wrong as it is to be okay.
This is all so common that Microsoft says it's fixed it: this is what Paste Special does, it lets you say no, only paste the text. If that worked reliably, then we wouldn't now have a TextExpander action that removes it. We wouldn't have written macros that got rid of the bigger problems. It's so common that the very first thing we did trying out Word was writing some quick paragraphs, then pasting it as plain text into Simplenote. The result looked different to anything else we'd pasted in, and different to anything we would type directly into that plain text editor.
So we're still not recommending Word as a place to write text for your website. We do recommend it for sharing text and collaborating on it: 2016 improves the ability to add a whole conversation of comments to a document. It's good enough at saving documents in different formats: you won't save it as a Pages document, but really only Pages can do that, plus it can read in native Word documents.
It is great that something like Pages exists, and that something like Nisus Writer has survived decades of Word taking over the world. Word is no longer the only game in town, and when you're writing on your own instead of within a corporation, it's no longer the best available option. Unfortunately, there is no one alternative: no one rival word processor that will suit everyone.
Unless you're writing very big titles, books with 100,000 words or more, then actually Word is the only game in town. It is the one that will handle all those words, and that will give you an automatic index, and will handle academic and professional-standard cross-referencing. All of which has been improved in Word 2016. Some of those improvements are cosmetic, yet they make the difference between whether you use the feature or not.
So, what, is it good or isn't it?
We said if you have to use Word then grab it immediately. If this had come out a few years ago, we'd be saying that to everyone, despite Word's history of annoyances. As we're reviewing it today instead, and not everyone is required to use Word, we're going to cautiously and maybe a bit optimistically say yes, you should get it.
The days are gone, though, from when Word was so powerful and so ubiquitous that we could put up with foibles and spend time reading Bend Word to Your Will
, which used to circulate around the internet. So if you enjoy the word processor you've been using up to now, stick with that. The new features are well done, and the new look and feel does make Office 2011 seem unusable.
We like it, we even like it a lot, yet we've been burned before, and Microsoft shows enough signs of not improving as quickly as its gorgeous designs imply. We need to write a book in Word, or do something to stress-test it over time. Such as drag in an image. That used to crash it regularly, though fortunately that has changed.
Microsoft Word 2016 requires an Office 365 subscription, and is included for free in the price for that, which costs from $7 per month. See the official site for details
. There will be a version you can just buy and install, rather than subscribe to, and that will be available some time in September. No pricing details yet.
Who is Microsoft Word 2016 for:
Existing Word users, no question. Upgrade now. If you're looking for an exceptionally capable word processor, then this ought to be for you, but it comes with a history of problems that don't yet seem to have been entirely resolved.
Who is Microsoft Word 2016 not for:
If you're happy working in Pages, and nobody's pressing you send your work in Word format, stick with what you know and like.
-- William Gallagher (@WGallagher
William's new book on blogging for writers,
The Blank Screen: Blogging is on sale now in print and Kindle formats, as well as through the iBookstore.
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