NEW YORK – I was skeptical when I heard Microsoft is trying to sell its new version of Office as an online subscription. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the subscription gets you the same software you'd get buying it at a retail store. In fact, I'm using the new Office 2013 to write this review, and it feels as smooth as the customized version of Office 2010 I regularly use.
With an online subscription, you keep paying Microsoft to use the latest version of the software, rather than pay the company once for software that gets outdated over time. It's pricey, at $100 a year, compared with the traditional way of paying a one-time fee that starts at $140 and is good for years. Nonetheless, households with several computers will find subscriptions a good value, as one subscription is good for up to five Windows or Mac machines.
At first glance, Office 2013 resembles Office 2010, whether you buy it as a subscription or out of a box. There's a row of buttons – the ribbon – with quick access to the tools you need most. Files are compatible, so you can send Office 2013 documents to someone who has only Office 2010.
What Office 2013 does, though, is embrace Microsoft's touch-screen philosophy. Microsoft's Windows 8 operating system, which came out last fall, enables touch-screen controls so desktop and laptop computers work more like tablets. It's Microsoft's way of addressing a challenge to PCs brought about by the popularity of the iPad and tablets running Google's Android system.
So with Office 2013, you can access those ribbon buttons and menu options with your finger, as long as you have a touch-screen monitor. A button at the top lets you switch between touch and mouse modes.
Microsoft also designed Office 2013 to reflect the fact that people these days tend to have multiple devices — perhaps a desktop at work, a laptop at home and a tablet on the go.
When you're online and signed in with a free Microsoft account (such as Hotmail, Live or Outlook.com), Office will push you toward storing your files online through Microsoft's SkyDrive storage service. That way, a file you save at home will pop up at work with all the changes you made.
Other features reflect our continual connectedness. You can insert an image into Word directly from an online service such as Flickr, for instance, without first saving it onto your computer.
Word and the other Office programs can access an Office Store, which carries apps you can buy or get for free to extend the software's functionality. That was how I got a free Merriam-Webster dictionary for defining words in read mode. Sadly, it works only when you're online.
Google Docs works well when I have a steady Internet connection, less so when I don't.
The good news is Office 2013 works quite well without an Internet connection. SkyDrive is an Internet-based storage service, but it can also automatically save copies of all your files on every computer you use. That way, you can still open files when you're offline. Microsoft will continue selling software the traditional way, for a one-time fee for one Windows computer. I use “traditional” loosely, though. If you buy it at a retail store, you're getting only a 25-character code, which you use to activate the software after downloading it at home.
At any rate, packages start at $140 for Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote ($20 more than the comparable Office 2010 package). You get Outlook as well for $220 and all seven programs for $400.