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Microsoft 365 Personal - Review 2021

Microsoft 365—the new name for the apps and services formerly known as Office 365—is the behemoth of office suites and the one that every competitor tries to match. It runs almost everywhere, with full-featured editions for Windows and macOS, surprisingly powerful apps for iOS and Android, and slick web-based versions. Microsoft 365 has all collaborative features found in cloud-only suites like Google Workspace, plus all the benefits of disk-based apps: speed, security, and the ability to work offline. Microsoft’s apps aren’t perfect, and a few features are awkward and unwieldy, but you’ll need strong reasons to choose anything else. Microsoft 365 is an Editors’ Choice document-editing suite.

How Much Does Microsoft 365 Cost?

Subscription prices start at $69.99 per year for Microsoft 365 Personal, which includes access to Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, and Skype apps for one user on up to five devices. You also get Sway for interactive reports and presentations, forms for creating surveys and quizzes, and Microsoft’s To Do app. At the other end of the pricing scale, the $99.99-per-year Microsoft 365 Family tier provides access to the same apps and supports up to six users. The premium version of the Microsoft Family app is included in this subscription tier, too.

Microsoft Office all apps

Microsoft 365’s web interface has a button at the lower left corner that opens links to all the available apps.

These prices are roughly comparable to Google Workspace, which changes $6 and $12 per month, respectively, for its Business Starter and Business Standard plans. Microsoft’s prices are notably higher than SoftMaker Office, which runs between $29.90 and $49.90 per year, but SoftMaker doesn’t include web-based apps and only offers a beta version of an Android app.

All plans include 1TB of OneDrive storage per user. Microsoft also supports two-factor authentication logins for web access, which is a security feature we like to see.

You can purchase a standalone version of Office Home & Student 2019 (classic versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote) for a one-time cost of $149.99. If you opt for this edition, you don’t get automatic updates or any OneDrive storage.

Microsoft 365 Business plans start at $5 per user per month and the top-end Business Premium plan costs $20 per user per month. All Business plans add Teams, SharePoint, and Microsoft Exchange cloud services over the Personal plans. Windows-only apps Publisher, for creating layouts too complicated for Word, and Access, for building databases, are part of the Business packages, too. Business Premium users get mobile-device management tools and the Azure Information Protection service.

You can use Microsoft 365 on the web or download apps for Windows, macOS, Android, and iOS devices. Microsoft recently updated its macOS version with a new build that runs natively on Apple Silicon Macs (such as the latest MacBook Air); these new apps run at amazing speed.

The right office suite for you may very well depend on the platforms and devices you use. Microsoft still does not offer versions of Office apps for Linux platforms—hopefully, the release of Edge for Linux is a sign that Microsoft will more broadly support those systems. There’s nothing to stop you from using the web-based version of any office suite on Linux. The open-source LibreOffice and SoftMaker Office offer dedicated apps for that platform.

Google Workspace is the closest rival to Microsoft 365, but its apps are online-only. LibreOffice doesn’t offer mobile apps except through a third-party version called Collabora Office. Softmaker Office and Corel WordPerfect Office are desktop-only suites.

Lots of Features in Slick Apps

The suite’s core apps—Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook—have been growing and changing for almost forty years, and they’re stuffed with features that can make them seem heavy and unwieldy compared to relative newcomers like Apple’s Pages and Numbers. Also, Microsoft still uses a single app, Outlook, for the email, contacts, calendar, and to-do-list features that other vendors, such as Apple and Google, have separated into smaller, sleeker apps that work together smoothly.

Microsoft Word templates

Word, like most modern word-processors, offers over-elaborate templates that you can use to organize your own documents, though you’re probably better off using them simply as examples to learn from when building your own documents.

As far as the design of Microsoft’s individual offices apps goes, the company has clearly outdone itself. They’re easy on the eyes, highly customizable, and offer a spacious interface that feels at home in modern hardware in ways that rival apps don’t. Microsoft keeps improving its Dark mode support, and the latest enhancements include subtle color-shifting effects. These are available now in the beta channel and will probably soon arrive in the release version. Another neat trick is that if you change a setting, such as the default color scheme, on one platform, the change automatically gets applied to all your Microsoft apps on other platforms. The ribbon can still be confusing—I have to keep reminding myself to go to the Insert tab to edit an existing header or footer—but a “Tell me what you want to do” icon on the top-line menu lets me jump instantly to the feature I want.

A Familiar Office Suite Keeps Improving

Word and Excel are probably the most-used apps in the suite, and for good reason. Both run well, are highly polished, and get frequent updates that make them easier to use. For instance, while Excel already towers over all rival spreadsheet apps and has no trouble handling enormous worksheets without strain, Microsoft keeps adding features. One recent addition is the LET function, which enables you to use named variables inside a formula and insert that function multiple times in a worksheet; this makes calculations faster and easier to maintain. This is typical of the types of updates that Microsoft 365 subscribers get, but which don’t get added to the standalone Office version.

Both Word and Excel also offer conveniences that you won’t find in any competitor. For example, Word makes it possible to type long documents in a viewing mode that shows the actual formatting on the page but hides the white space at the top and bottom of each printed page. That way, a sentence that extends across a page break doesn’t have two inches of white space between the beginning and end of it. Double click on the space between pages to turn on this feature.

Microsoft Word options

This is only a sampling of Word’s dozen of fine-tuning options for formatting and organizing documents. If you open a document created by an older version of Word, or import documents from other formats, the options includes dozens of settings that preserve the imported format or adjust to Word’s preferred formatting.

Here’s another example with Excel. If your worksheet has a list of people with their first names in one column and their last names in another, you can quickly build a column where each cell contains each person’s first and last name. Start by going to an empty column and typing the first person’s first and last names in the first cell. When you move to the next cell and begin typing the second person’s first and last name, Excel will offer to automatically fill the whole column with the first and last names of everyone else on the list. That’s a smart and handy productivity feature.

Excel also gives clear feedback before actually applying an automated feature. For example, when you Autosum a column of figures, Excel displays the formula that it will insert into the current cell. Or, when you use the above technique for combining first and last names in a single column, Excel first displays the combined names in gray and gives you a chance to stop the action.

Microsoft Excel charts

Excel’s charting feature easily handles massive data, and offers subtle color palettes, unlike the garish colors used by older spreadsheet apps.

Excel supports dozens of third-party extensions and features for performing specialized functions. For example, a new Money in Excel feature partners with the Plaid service for convenient personal money-management.

PowerPoint is the only presentation app that’s comparable to Apple’s KeyNote in terms of features. Like its counterpart, PowerPoint lets you manage and edit videos inside the app, without using a separate video-editing app. It also lets you add online videos to your presentations. As with KeyNote, you can waste endless hours in PowerPoint customizing transitions and making other subtle changes. For those not working in the Apple universe, PowerPoint is our top choice among desktop-based presentation app for creating dazzling effects.

Automated Features and Hidden Complexities

Some of Word’s automated features can be annoying, however. For example, you may not want Word to format ordinals (the letters that follow the numbers in 1st and 2nd), but Word superscripts them automatically unless you backspace over the ordinal number and type it again. If you want to turn off this automated feature, you’ll need to know enough about Word to go to the Options > Proofing > AutoCorrect Options > AutoFormat section. Not many ordinary users will figure this out. Word has other bad habits too, such as inserting horizontal lines when you type a series of hyphens—another automated format feature that requires multiple steps to turn off. Word’s massive Options menu gives you some idea of the dozens of settings you can use to fine-tune the way Word formats and manages files.

If you use Word’s powerful Styles feature, in which you choose a set of layout and formatting options that can easily be applied to a section of text, you’ll find that Word sometimes, but not always, removes existing formatting (like italics) when you apply a style. In situations like this, Word seems unpredictable. That’s mostly because Microsoft doesn’t document the rules it uses when applying styles. For instance, Word will remove any existing formatting when applying a style if the existing formatting affects more than 50% of the text in the paragraph. I know this only because an anonymous source deep inside Microsoft whispered it to me years ago.

In the course of Word’s almost four-decade history, many of its most powerful and once prominently displayed features have gradually disappeared from the interface but remain available to expert users who know where to find them. For example, Word pioneered the use of variables in fields. If you place the title of your book in a field called BookTitle use the field in place of the actual title everywhere in your document. If you decide to change the title later on, for example, from War and Peace to Captain Underpants; you could simply change the content of the field to update every instance. In the current version of Word, this feature isn’t available in Word’s ribbon toolbar; the help system at least tells you which keystrokes to use to manage it.

Mail and Web Apps

Outlook manages to pack all its many features into an impressive package, but it can feel a bit overwhelming. For personal use, I prefer leaner apps like the open-source Thunderbird, commercial newcomers like Mailbird on Windows, and Apple Mail on the Mac. Even Window 10’s built-in Mail app has merits. But for corporate use, Outlook’s one-stop interface for managing mail, calendars, and contacts offers power and flexibility that rivals don’t.

Microsoft Outlook

Outlook’s interface sometimes seems to have as many controls as a jumbo jet’s instrument panel, but it puts a massive number of features within easy reach.

Microsoft’s browser-based apps stand out for their elegance and usability, surpassing even the minimalist design of Google’s Workspace suite. Like Google’s apps, Microsoft’s apps let you dictate text through a microphone as well as transcribe text from an existing recording. For me, Microsoft’s voice-to-text feature worked impressively well from mobile apps on a phone or tablet, but I could never get it to work inside a desktop or laptop browser on either a Mac or a Windows machine.

I had endless trouble even accessing my Office documents through most browsers that I used on a Windows or a Mac device. I could open and edit in Firefox or Safari, but Chrome and Microsoft’s Edge browser said they couldn’t find the address of the remote files. This seems to be a longstanding problem, and before you commit to using Office through a browser, you should see whether you have the same problem.

Both Microsoft 365 and Google Workspace let you collaborate in real-time through a browser in similar ways, with plenty of visual cues to indicate what your colleagues are doing. If you store your documents in OneDrive, Microsoft enables you to collaborate with others in the desktop apps and take advantage of all of the convenience and power that those desktop apps offer. Google Workspace can’t match that capability. LibreOffice, in contrast, has collaboration features only in its Calc spreadsheet, without real-time collaboration.

Microsoft 365 on Mobile

The mobile versions of the core Word, Excel, and PowerPoint apps are surprisingly powerful and elegant. If you don’t want to clutter your phone with the full feature sets of separate mobile versions, you can download a combined iPhone app called Office with the main features of the separate apps.

Microsoft Office iOS apps

If you want Office on a phone, consider the all-in-one Office app that works with documents, worksheets, and presentations.

The separate mobile apps—I tested only the iOS versions—feel like native mobile apps, not miniaturized versions of the desktop apps. They have more usable interfaces than Google’s counterparts. The Microsoft apps also include many nifty features that I value on the desktop, like a Welcome Back banner that tells me where I was working when I last saved a file and the ability to export in multiple formats.

Mobile Outlook and OneNote round out the offerings, but you may also want Microsoft Lens, a mobile scanning and OCR app that lets you photograph text with your camera and insert it into an office document. I got mixed results when I snapped photos of books, but it was better than nothing, and the smooth integration with Word and Excel is a major plus.

New Name, Same Excellence

Microsoft’s Office apps are the best at what they do, bar none. If you want to exchange editable documents with anyone else, you’ll almost certainly want to send your documents in a format that is compatible with Microsoft’s apps—a reasonable way to ensure that everyone else can work on them. The only serious glitch I found with Microsoft’s suite was the spotty online access I experienced on many browsers during testing.

On my desktop, laptop, and mobile devices, I’ve been using Microsoft’s Office apps for many years. If you need to get serious work done in documents or worksheets, Microsoft’s suite is not merely worth the money, but an amazing bargain. Google’s Workspace is another top choice for users and businesses who are comfortable with a cloud-first document-editing approach.

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