Microsoft Office remains hugely popular (well, as popular as a spreadsheet and document creator can be), but with a raft of free office suites to compete with, it's got its work cut out to stay on top of the pile. So what thrilling bells and whistles will the latest 2013 edition offer to save you from a soporific slump at your desk?
Office for Mac was last updated in October 2010, so this time around it's Windows users who get a tasty new set of tools, with revamped versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Publisher, OneNote and Outlook.
You can download the customer preview right now by following this link, and install it on up to five PCs. In the meantime, I'll run through the new features in the suite's four headline applications: Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook.
Look and feel
This is the fifteenth PC edition of Office. When it ships it'll be available for the 32 and 64-bit versions of Windows 7 and 8 and -- importantly -- the version built to run on ARM processors. The latter will open it up to tablet devices and, if the rumoured iOS edition doesn't ship in the interim, could be enough to give Microsoft's nascent Surface tablets a significant boost.
It's not surprising that the interface has had a significant overhaul. In places, it now sports the Metro interface, which first appeared in later releases of Encarta and now fronts Windows Phone and half of Windows 8.
This is most obvious when you click the file menu, which is highlighted with the application's colour. So it's blue in Word, green in Excel, orange in PowerPoint and so on. Rather than dropping down a menu or changing a ribbon along the top, this actually switches you to a Metro-style interface for performing common tasks such as opening and closing, protecting your file and checking for compatibility.
The disconnect between this and the editing environment isn't quite as stark as between the Metro and traditional 'desktop' halves of Windows 8, but it's still a slightly uncomfortable jump.
Overall, the button graphics have been simplified and the colours have been knocked back, so there's less visual clutter and fewer distractions from the actual working area.
Every application in the suite is touch enabled, and Microsoft has even built in a specific touch mode that gives the various interface elements a little extra space so they're easier to tap.
Office 2013 integrates with Microsoft SkyDrive to make your documents available not only on your primary work machine, but also any others logged in to the same account, including mobile devices.
You'll need a Windows Live ID to log in -- as you will to download the Office Customer Preview -- after which it'll appear in the Windows Explorer sidebar so it's always available through the regular File dialogs and the Metro-style File screens.
Documents saved to SkyDrive can be shared with people you're collaborating with. You can also give presentations remotely using the Office Presentations Service, even if your audience members don't have their own copy of PowerPoint.
Each of the constituent applications features a template chooser that gives you access to a generous library of templates stored on Microsoft's servers. They are downloaded to your PC when you want to use them and provide the basis for a new document. Be prepared to do some tweaking here and there as some have a US bias, with dollars on financial spreadsheets and an American slant to the 'resumes'.
Integrating with blogs and services
Microsoft's wrists are clearly still smarting from the slap it got for favouring Internet Explorer over its rivals. That's good news for us users, as Office 2013 is more aware of third-party services than any other suite.
You can publish directly to common blogging platforms, including WordPress, Blogger and TypePad, and add new services to your integrated Office account. Doing so will let you add photos and videos from Flickr and YouTube, and share documents with colleagues on business networking site LinkedIn.
It's also taken a step away from promoting its own file formats over all others. Word's .doc and .docx, and Excel's .xls and .xlsx have established themselves as the primary formats used in businesses worldwide. However, in Office 2013, Microsoft recognises the alternatives from the outset, giving you the option of switching to the OpenDocument formats popularised by OpenOffice upon first launching an application.
You might wonder what else you could do to so long-established a text editor as Word. It's ages since Word was just a simple tool for banging out letters and bills though.
New in Word 2013 is the ability not only to save as PDF, which you could already do, but to open and edit native PDF files too. How much you can do here depends greatly on how the PDF was created in the first place. I tested it using a regular text document printed to PDF on a Mac, and it opened for editing just fine. A council refuse collection calendar, however, which had been embedded within a document, couldn't be touched.
It handles font conflicts very gracefully. With neither Helvetica Neue or Cochin installed on my PC, each of which appeared in my original test PDFs, it swapped them out for Arial and Calibri respectively, without throwing up a warning dialog.
The Read Mode is perhaps the most Metro-like aspect of Word, splitting the screen in two and displaying your document contents in columns with a navigation bar to the left displaying headings, page thumbnails or search results. If you prefer, you can dispense with the columns and read straight across the display.
Word feels very responsive, even in this pre-release edition. Firing it up just to tap out one short letter doesn't feel quite as laborious as it once did. It's lithe enough to enable proper live previews of set styles by reformatting your document on the fly as you roll your pointer over the various style options in the Design ribbon, which is now distinct from the separate Page Layout tab.
This new-found slickness is threaded through the suite, with the cursor bar subtly sliding from one letter to the next in Word. Cell highlight sweeps to newly selected cells in Excel, rather than jumping from one to the other as you click around your sheet.
By knocking back the visual mechanics of its spreadsheet, Microsoft has made it far easier to concentrate on your work area, which now has far greater prominence. Even the sheet tabs, which are coloured with a subtle bevel, feel more functional rather than being ugly blocks on the bottom of your pages.
Excel 2013 makes it very easy to integrate data thanks to support for a broad range of data types, including XML and MySQL, the latter of which can be drawn from live database tables. If you need to import data from a website -- perhaps where it's been published in a table -- you can draw it in directly by clicking the relevant data within Office's integrated browser.
This was a little hit and miss in my tests and it was always easier to select more than I wanted, but at least you can then go on to strip out what you don't want. Grabbing less than you needed would have been more problematic.
Novice users will welcome the ease with which you can now find your way around Excel and manipulate your data. The improved ribbon gives direct access to all of the application's common formulae. By breaking them down into colour-coded lists, it's made them easier to find too.
The real boon though is the appearance of the smart analysis tool, which pops up when you select a range of data on the active sheet. This presents relevant formatting options for the selected data in a floating panel.
Dragging your mouse across the various options, which include heat maps, data bars and sparklines, lets you preview in an instant how the results can be presented in a graphical manner, without committing to any one of them.
If you need to go further and render them as a full-blown chart, clicking to the Charts tab gives live previews of each chart style in a floating bubble. The value of this tool alone in making data analysis more approachable and less complex can't be overstated.
PowerPoint is built from the ground up for widescreen displays, as is obvious from the options in the template gallery. If you're still designing for the 4:3 generation, you can switch to that aspect ratio from the Design ribbon. Digging deeper lets you pick a range of common alternatives including 16:10 (the default is 16:9), regular paper sizes and even 35mm slides.
The range of formatting options is truly impressive, so the chances of your audience spotting immediately that you're using one of the regular templates should be dramatically reduced.
Each slide style has a number of variants to choose from, and as with the formatting in Word and analysis tools in Excel, they're previewed on the fly as you move your mouse over each one. For example, PowerPoint temporarily applies the changes to your active slide, while moving the mouse away reverts to your original design or previews the next style.
There's a huge selection of vector shapes to choose from. In the unlikely event that the shape you're after hasn't been included, you can now easily make your own using the new 'merge shapes' feature. So, if you need a rectangle with an arrow coming out of it to show a process in a flow chart, you simply drag out your rectangle, drag out an arrow overlapping it and then pick Union from the Merge Shapes menu.
Alternatively, use combine, fragment, intersect or subtract to perform various exclusion tasks, depending on your requirements. Again, hovering over each one previews the result in real time.
PowerPoint arrives pre-loaded with a wide selection of vector shapes, but if the one you need hasn't been included, you can create it yourself by combining existing shapes from the library (click image to enlarge).
The presenter view gives a Metro-like behind-the-scenes layout and a grid option that gives you an at-a-glance overview of your complete presentation. The laser pointer (controlled by your mouse, rather than a real external pointer) works in this mode too, so you can point to bullets on the display screen from your presenter screen.
Outlook 2013 does a great job of pulling together all of the relevant data connected to a contact or particular message. Much has been made of the 'peak' feature that lets you hover over your calendar or contacts to see what's coming up, without opening each module entirely, but that's only half the story.
Feed it your LinkedIn and Facebook details and it interrogates your contacts on each network to pull out postings from the senders of your incoming messages. These are threaded together in chronological order, so if a contact posts two updates to Facebook, one business story to LinkedIn, and then a couple of photos to a Facebook album, you'll see each in turn.
Helpfully, these are all hidden inside a collapsible panel, so they shouldn't distract you. You can also add contacts to your social networks directly if they aren't already in your friends lists.
Working with a widescreen display really gives Outlook room to breathe, but it collapses in a very logical and manageable way when confined to smaller windows, which is good news for anyone planning to buy the ARM edition. A reading view shrinks the sidebar so that your mailboxes pop out when needed, rather than being permanently on display. You can thread conversations so that only the most recent post appears in your inbox.
Office 2013 overall
There's no single killer feature in Office 2013. The touch-optimised interface will only be of interest to tablet users. Previous editions had something new to shout about such as the arrival of the ribbon and XML file formats in Office 2007, OneNote in Office 2003 and Office Assistant (RIP), which seemed like a good idea in Office 97 (but isn't missed).
What you do get is an altogether more rounded, mature and efficient suite. Microsoft should be congratulated for creating so complex and lively a bundle of applications that is so responsive. Live previews of document formatting in Word, and data visualisations in Excel, are precisely the kind of feature that would have the potential to slow your PC to a crawl if not handled well. Not so here.
Microsoft Office 2013 is an altogether more pleasant working environment than its predecessors. If I were to reach for an analogy, it's like someone has come in and knocked down the walls in your real-world office, creating a more roomy, brighter environment in which it's easier to collaborate with colleagues. This is thanks to a refreshed interface and deep online integration.
Were it to ship today in its current state, I'd have little reservation in recommending it right away. It will be interesting to see how far Microsoft goes in further refining the code between now and its release, the date for which has yet to be confirmed.