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Office 2016 for Mac finally catches up to its Windows equivalent

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It’s slowly approaching five years since Microsoft first released Office for Mac 2011 in October 2010. While a final version of Office 2016 for Mac isn’t ready just yet, Microsoft is announcing a preview program today for Mac users to get an early look at the company’s work. Microsoft has been doing some great work with Office, bringing it to the iPad, extending it to Dropbox, and even acquiring impressive apps like Acompli to power Office on iOS and Android. Office 2016 for Mac is the latest result of Microsoft’s focus on cross-platform apps, and it finally matches its Windows equivalent.

The first thing I noticed about using Office 2016 for Mac is the user interface. While the existing 2011 version looks old in comparison, Microsoft hasn’t ditched parts of the aging UI entirely. It looks and feels like a mix of the fresh Windows design and Office for Mac 2011. "We think we’ve done a good job of striking a balance that customers expect," explains Eric Wilfred, the head of Microsoft’s Office for Mac apps, in an interview with The Verge. "Our internal tagline, and we’re actually corny enough to say this in the hallways, is 'Unmistakably Office and optimized for the Mac.'" The result is the familiar Ribbon user interface that fits in with the OS X theme and features like sandboxed apps, fullscreen view, and Retina screen optimization.

Word 2016 for Mac
Like Office 2013 for Windows, Microsoft is integrating its cloud storage services directly into Office 2016 for Mac. That means Office 365, OneDrive, OneDrive for Business, and Sharepoint are all integrated. If you use OneDrive to store and edit Office documents with an iPad or a Windows laptop, then you can quickly access them from the recent documents location in Office 2016 for Mac. Microsoft’s cross-platform app strategy, powered by the cloud, is a reality, and this is the latest piece of the puzzle.

Word 2016 for Mac looks a lot like the iOS and Windows equivalents, and Microsoft is supporting co-authoring to allow several people to simultaneously edit a document. Alongside co-authoring, there’s also new threaded comments to track comments more easily next to the relevant text. Microsoft is also adding a new navigation pane to quickly flick between pages in Word documents, better dictionary support, and a style pane to apply styles to an entire document. The vast majority of Word features are what you’d expect from the existing Office for Mac, but everything feels a little more polished thanks to the new look and feel.

Excel 2016 for Mac

Excel has some more significant changes. If you’re a Windows user that switches between Mac and PC, then you’ll be pleased to learn that the Excel keyboard shortcuts are now consistent between Mac and PC versions of Office. That means you can use ctrl + shift shortcuts instead of cmd + shift. As someone who regularly switches between a Mac and Windows PCs, I’m very thankful for this change. Of course, you can still use the cmd shortcuts if you’re used to them. Microsoft is also adding slicers to re-pivot data, printing to PDF, a full formula builder, and autocomplete improvements.

PowerPoint picks up an improved presenter view, new slide transitions, and an overview of all animations in a slide deck. The new presenter view allows you to see notes alongside slides, and the additional slide transitions give you more ways to keep your audience awake with crazy animations. There’s not a huge amount of change to PowerPoint, but like the rest, it more closely matches the Windows version.

Office 2016 for Mac will also include Outlook and OneNote, both of which have been available on Mac for some months now. While Outlook for iOS is amazing, the Mac equivalent falls short for several reasons. There’s no account picker, which results in a confusing and frustrating way to add your account at first, and it’s surprising that Microsoft hasn’t even optimized the app for its own service. Otherwise, it’s a good combination of email, calendars, and contact management for those who are familiar with Outlook and rely on Exchange day to day.

Outlook 2016 for Mac

Overall, during my testing I noticed that Office 2016 for Mac doesn’t seem that much faster than Office for Mac 2011. I’ve grown tired of using Office for Mac 2011 as it’s simply not fast enough and reliable enough for my needs, and I’m disappointed there haven’t been many performance improvements nearly five years later. I was hoping for a lightweight version of Office for Mac, but there’s hope yet. "We have focused a lot on performance in the run up to getting preview out, and we believe we’ve got it to the point where it’s worth getting feedback," explains Wilfred. "We know that we’re not done, we have more performance work to do before general availability."

Final version available this summer

Speaking of availability, Microsoft is aiming to have this ready in time for summer, with a release focused on Office 365 customers once the bits are ready. Microsoft is also planning to sell the suite of apps standalone, but the company is not yet announcing pricing or exact availability dates. If you’re interested in testing out Office 2016 for Mac then you can download a copy over at Microsoft’s Office site.

Office 2016 for Mac preview photos