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Are Microsoft’s free Office apps for Windows 10 a boon for productivity, or half-baked?

Microsoft has released a set of touch optimized and mobile first universal Office apps for Windows 10, including Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. These mobile Office apps will come pre-installed on small tablets and phones running Windows 10 and will be available through the Windows Store for other devices.

Following last year’s release of Office apps for Android and iOS, the universal Office apps for Windows 10 complete the collection of mobile apps. With the release of Windows 10 for phones and tablets, Microsoft will be the first to offer Office apps across all of these platforms and devices.

Microsoft offers a range of Office products across platforms and devices

The selection of Microsoft Office products available today may be confusing at first. Microsoft is building a comprehensive infrastructure to allow access to Office applications from almost any platform and device.

On mobile devices, Microsoft offers free Office apps for Android, iOS, and now Windows 10. On the Windows and Mac desktop you can use the familiar Office suite. Microsoft is expected to release Office 2016 by the end of the year.

The full Microsoft Office package is available as a subscription model known as Office 365, which entails the desktop suite (currently Office 2013), 1TB of OneDrive cloud storage, and web based Office apps. Alternatively, you can use Office Online, which gives you free access to the web based version of Office and comes with 15GB of OneDrive cloud storage.

You need to run Windows 10 Preview to access Universal Office apps

Universal Office apps are available exclusively from the new Windows 10 Store app. You can install Windows 10 for free after joining the Windows Insider program. From within Windows 10, open the Store (beta) app, search for Office, and the first apps listed should be the preview versions of PowerPoint, Word, and Excel. The OneNote Preview has been available for some time. Outlook will be split into two universal apps, Outlook Calendar and Outlook Mail, and both should be released soon.

Like Windows 10, these apps are previews, hence issues should be expected. We installed the universal Office apps when they initially came out. A few days later, the Word and Excel Previews stopped working. They would open to an empty window and then close without an error message. The issue has been reported by a handful of users. Some found that uninstalling and reinstalling did the trick. Surface Pro users reported that updating a graphics driver solved the issue. For us, rolling back to the previous Windows 10 Preview Build 9879 via the boot screen, then re-installing the current Build 9926, allowed the apps to properly install and launch again.

Universal Office apps sport a familiar interface

Once you launch a universal Office app, you’ll notice that the interface looks very much like that of the desktop suite. Microsoft is aiming to create a smooth user experience by keeping the interface uniform across its various apps. Of course the specific location of some features within menus will differ. Briefly, the initial screen of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint contains a list of your recently used documents on the left and a list of available documents on the right. You’ll find that your recent documents list roams between devices and Office versions, meaning you can pick up right where you left off on another device.

Universal Word Preview

You should be able to change the default folder displayed on the initial screen. Unfortunately, the apps didn’t remember our choice (another bug, no doubt). Also, when we tried to open files from within the apps, we found that they didn’t recognize the files stored on our computer, regardless of the Office file format. We could, however, open files in new Office apps by going through File Explorer. These may be bugs unique to our setup.

Inside, the apps maintain the familiar ribbon interface. The layout is similar to the Android tablet apps and obviously designed to be used without a mouse or keyboard. Generally, we found it easy to navigate the controls via touch. One thing you won’t be able to do is open multiple files at once and multitask.

Quickly find options and features using Tell Me

A novel featured avUniversal PowerPoint Preview Tell Meailable in Excel, PowerPoint, and Word is Tell Me. The smart search tool hides behind the light bulb icon. Touch it to open a search field and a list of common tasks within the respective app. As you start entering your search query, the list will update with matching options. If available the action, such as Insert New Slide, will be performed immediately upon selecting it.

Universal Office apps support real time collaboration

Universal Excel Preview ShareTo invite other people to work on your document, a file must first be saved to an online location. Then it’s a simple matter of clicking the respective icon in the top right and entering the email address of your collaborator. You can allow them to edit or only view the document. If they don’t yet have a Microsoft account, they will be invited to create one. They can then access the file using Office Online or one of the other Office apps connected to OneDrive.

Now that we know what all Universal Office apps have in common, let’s look at them more closely.

Word features a research tool and a convenient Read mode

There aren’t many features you’ll miss in the universal Word app. It even adds a few new ones; Insights and Read mode. The Insights sidebar will reveal Bing powered search results from Wikipedia and other sources. On a mobile app, this handy research tool will save you from having to open a browser.

To conveniently read a lengthy document, switch into Read mode via the book icon in the top right and horizontally scroll through the pages in full page view. Via the Read menu, you can change the font size, column width, and even switch to a sepia or inverse (dark) theme. It’s a great way to tear through large volumes of text.

The universal app supports comments, can track changes, has improved image formatting features for touch use, and you can add tables and endnotes. What’s missing are advanced paste options, format painter, and since the app is intended to be used in a touch interface, not all keyboard shortcuts are supported.

Universal Word Preview Menus

PowerPoint comes with Present View and live annotation tools

Like Excel and Word, PowerPoint had to drop some features that couldn’t easily be translated into the touch based app. This includes animations. While you can still view animations created with the desktop app, you won’t be able to edit them or add new ones.

To make up for that, the universal app is a great aid when actually giving presentations. Present View lets you control your presentation from your mobile touch device. Using Ink Tools, you can annotate slides in real time and highlight items as you’re giving your presentation. Finally, Miracast support enables wireless presentations.

Universal PowerPoint Preview Menus

Excel is simplified to work with the touch interface

While Word and PowerPoint offer useful new features, Excel’s complex setup had to be radically simplified to be accessible within a touch environment. This lets you open and perform simple edits on existing Excel documents without messing up complex formulas. You can easily drag columns around, add new rows or columns with a tap, or format pie charts. Advanced features like Pivot Tables or Macros can not be created from within the universal Excel app and it’s difficult to view a large table of data. The app does a great job of making Excel accessible on the go, but its functionality is questionable.

And that’s assuming you can open files. We found complex documents sometimes refuse to open, and may even crash the app. SharePoint lists and PowerView are not supported, for example. In these cases, if you’re lucky, you will see an error message explaining what’s going on.

Universal Excel Preview Menus

Windows Phone Work Assistant app will integrate Cortana into Universal apps

Recently, a Work Assistant internal beta app was spotted in the Windows Phone Store. It indicates that Microsoft is preparing to integrate Cortana directly into Office, most likely including the desktop suite. WindowsBlogItalia was the first to post detailed screenshots of the Work Assistant app. Meanwhile, a demo video of Microsoft Place demonstrates its functionality. It’s said that Bill Gates is involved in the development of Word Assistant.

While the Microsoft Universal Office apps are still buggy, they do offer promising functionality, and are easy to control via the touch interface. It will be exciting to see what integration of the digital assistant Cortana can add.