First look: Microsoft Office 2013

The next revision of Office adds touches of Metro without itself being a Metro app

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Some other minimal changes are the kind you only blunder across at random. The Status Bar at the bottom of each Office app has been restyled to match the general Metro look of the suite. Not bad, but as is often the case with Microsoft products, some familiar elements have been arbitrarily yanked. The shortcut to Draft mode in Word, for instance, isn't there anymore. This was annoying for me since I use Draft mode constantly with most documents.

Other changes are fairly blatant, and the better for it. When you switch to the File tab and elect to open a document, you're given not only a list of recently opened documents but a list of locations (folders, network paths) where documents were recently opened. For someone like me, who's constantly squirrelling around in the same directories for different files, this is a godsend.

The biggest feature being touted with Office 2013 that isn't actually part of Office itself is the suite's online integration, both with services like SkyDrive and with Office 365. Most of the latter is still in the vein of allowing people without a copy of Office to see and interact with an Office document, even if the feature set isn't as complete as the full program. Being able to save documents directly to a common cloud location is handy, even if many of the same features can be had with earlier versions of Office via a service like Dropbox.

Beneath the Metro veneer
Most of the actual feature additions to each Office app are incremental, not revolutionary. A few convenient new features have been added here and there, some rough edges smoothed down, but for the most part these apps are Office as we remember them from 2007 and 2010.

Some of the cleanup is mostly a matter of being able to find features, a problem that has plagued Office for many years. The problem is, Microsoft never seems to go far enough. For example, in Word, the new Design tab is where all the document-theming controls live now. These used to be jammed into a subset of the Page Layout tab and were consequently hard to find. Fine, but why not just take the type-to-search-the-ribbon function, which was available as an add-on for previous versions of Office, and make that a standard feature? That right there would solve many of the organizational issues.

One widely touted feature in Word 2013 is the ability to open and edit PDFs -- which amounts to Word having a native filter that converts PDFs to Word documents. It's useful, but limited: The simpler the PDF, the more likely it is to survive the conversion with its formatting intact.

I fed Word a few book-length PDFs just to see what would happen. They were mostly preserved, but certain kinds of formatting elements -- the positions of page breaks, the lengths of lines with tabs, and headers and footers -- were regularly mangled. I do see this feature as being useful for creating an editable document if you have only a PDF copy of a file (I'm dealing with it right now, actually!), but the end result still requires a lot of manual tweaking.

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