Love your Windows tablet, but getting tired of poking at tiny icons in Microsoft Office? Then you'll be happy to hear a new, touch-optimized version of Office is on the way. Sure, Office 2013 already offers a Touch mode that makes the icons a bit bigger, but navigating around the software with your finger still feels clunky. It's about time Microsoft created touch-friendly Windows versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint, too; similar apps are already available on iPads and Android devices.
The new apps are set to launch as part of Windows 10 later this year, but adventurous users can get them early by installing the Windows 10 technical preview on their devices. And even if you're content to wait, it's still worth looking ahead to the apps, especially since everyone running Windows 7 or Windows 8 will get a free upgrade to Windows 10 when the new OS launches.
I had a chance to go hands-on with the new versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint — which are totally free to download from the Windows Store — on a Surface Pro 3 running an early version of Windows 10. While the apps will undoubtedly undergo changes before their final release, here are some early impressions.
If you're used to the full desktop version of Word, the new touch-friendly versions will look familiar. Compared to Microsoft Office 2013, they feature similar layouts, and come with the familiar options "ribbon" at the top of the interface. The number of options, however, has been pared down and condensed. That's a good thing; it saves space, which is precious on small tablet screens, and makes more room for big, easy-to-tap buttons.
Most of the essential formatting options remain from the desktop version of Word. I easily changed fonts, text size, paragraph spacing and other text properties with my finger. Tables, pictures and shapes can also be inserted with a few taps. I especially liked that I had the ability to edit images and shapes with my finger. Tapping an image reveals big handles for moving, rotating and resizing it.
Other, nonessential features have been left out of Word. For example, while you can still add tables to your Word document, the complicated chart-creation tool from the desktop version — for making bar graphs, pie graphs and more — is missing. And the Design tab, which gives you quick access to formatting templates in the desktop app, is missing in the new touch version. In my opinion, mobile users won't miss many of the omitted features, and all the key features are still here.
Other touch-friendly features I appreciate include the big, easy-to-press undo and redo buttons. They're positioned along the right edge of the display, so you can easily get at them with your right thumb when working without a physical keyboard. There's also a new, dedicated button for sharing documents, when you want to collaborate with colleagues or coworkers.
Mercifully, Microsoft has finally delivered a version of Excel that isn't frustrating to use with touch controls. My favorite feature is touch navigation: Pinch-to-zoom works well, and I also enjoyed panning around spreadsheets by swiping with two fingers.
Plus, it's much easier to expand the width of a column; while the desktop version requires you to click and drag the tiny dividing lines between columns, the new touch-friendly version provides a chunky, easy-to-drag handle when you select a column.
A look at the formulas tab in the new touch-based Excel (left) and desktop version of Excel 2013 (right) reveals the difference in design. The new app pares things down to the essential functions, and leaves out options like the ability to trace precedents and dependents. The entire formula library from the desktop version is here, though, so you can manipulate data without a keyboard.
PowerPoint is inherently the simplest of the three primary Office apps, and the new touch version is even more trimmed down than the desktop version. Still, it has all the tools you'd need to build a nice-looking business presentation on the go.
The home page lets you choose from a variety of premade templates, each with a different background. From there, it's easy to add text, then tweak fonts and text sizes. You can also add transitions and animations to make your slideshow flow better. And like the other two apps, it's easy to add tables, pictures and shapes, then tweak them by touch.
One of the best additions to PowerPoint is an inking tool, which is accessible once you start a slideshow. The feature lets you draw right on your slides to circle items or add annotations on the fly. You can change the color of your pen, or select the highlighter tool to highlight text.
With manufacturers pushing touch-screen tablets, laptops and 2-in-1 hybrids, it's about time that Microsoft produced a true touch-optimized version of Office. The new, finger-friendly versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint are nearly identical to the iOS and Android versions — and that's mostly a good thing. They exclude nonessential functions to make space for big, easy-to-tap buttons.
The remaining functionality should be more than enough for most business users, and if you really need some of the more advanced features in Word or Excel, you can always open the desktop version. After all, Windows tablets can run both versions, so you can easily switch on the fly. The only downside is that most users won’t be able to get the new apps until Windows 10 drops later this year.