Hands-On with the Office Visual Refresh

Posted on July 15, 2021 by Paul Thurrott in Microsoft 365, Office, Windows 10, Windows 11 with 43 Comments

It’s unclear why I had to wait so long to get the Office Visual Refresh, but it has finally arrived, so here’s a quick peek at the changes it brings.

For background, Microsoft announced the Office Visual Refresh on June 28, the same day that it announced Windows 11, and it originally promised to deliver it by the end of that week to those who enrolled in the Office Insider Program’s Beta channel. But the firm never met that promise and then later said it would arrive the following week. Which it did, sort of. Few people had access to the refresh two weeks after the announcement, and it appeared that Microsoft was, for whatever reason, only slowly rolling it out.

For whatever it’s worth, I enroll in the Office Insider Program on every single PC I use, and I’ve done that for years, literally, ever since I switched back to using Microsoft Word, instead of Markdown, for writing. And the reason I did that, originally, was because I’ve been hoping to experience a version of Word with the Simplified Ribbon. But that has never appeared: Only Outlook offers the Simplified Ribbon on Windows, and the only version of Word that offers it is Word for the Web. Cue Charlie Brown “sigh” graphic.

Well, with the advent of the Office Visual Refresh, there’s a new reason to be on the so-called leading edge. And while it is not the Simplified Ribbon I’ve been wanting to use for years, it is, at least, an attractive change.

Speaking of the Simplified Ribbon, I get around the ugliness and cluttered look of the standard Ribbon by hiding (collapsing) it. So my default view of Word, the only Office desktop application that I use every day, is still very much a simplified one. And that doesn’t change all that much with the Office Visual Refresh. Instead, there are just some rounded corners—on those Comments and Share buttons, most obviously—and no more Quick Access toolbar (which I very rarely use anyway, mostly for its quick access, ahem, to multiple levels of Undo and Redo).

When used in this mode, you can access the Ribbon by clicking on a tab name—Home, Insert, and so on—and here you can see the impact of the rounded corners even better.

But the view most people will see is this, with the Ribbon pinned open.

The biggest news here, perhaps, is that with the Office Visual Refresh, the core Office desktop applications can be configured to automatically use the Windows 11 theme you selected. I’ve been using a dark mode/black theme in Office since it was offered, and I especially like that the writing canvas can be made dark, which is much easier on my eyes. But I can also see the appeal of mapping the Office theme to the Windows 11 theme. Here, for example, you can see the impact of switching to a light Windows 11 theme.

And yes, you can, of course, override this behavior and choose an Office theme that’s not tied to that used by Windows.

The other big feature is the ability to customize the Ribbon by putting the commands you use most often where you want them. This was the purpose of the now deprecated Quick Access toolbar, but I suppose some power users overloaded that little menu with too many commands, so Microsoft decided to make Ribbon customization a thing.

Granted, you can customize the Office Ribbon already, so I’m not entirely sure what’s changed: I never really bothered trying this before because the interface is so complicated, and it never synced these changes between PCs. Maybe it does now.

Overall, I’d say that this is a minor but pleasant change. But I would still prefer a Simplified Ribbon on the desktop, and I don’t understand why that can’t be an option as well.


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Comments (43)

43 responses to “Hands-On with the Office Visual Refresh”

  1. wright_is

    I think minor, but pleasant sums it up.

    Unfortunately, the first document I created in Word was corrupted - I lost around 20 screenshots and half a page of text to a random corruption. Luckily I could use Volume Shadow Copy on the server to recover the last save, so the screenshots were recovered, but not the half page of text I'd written.

    • hrlngrv

      In Excel even more wasted vertical space. There are before and after screen snippets for Excel on reddit which show the latest & greatest Office swine makeover has row 1 in after where row 2 is in before. It was already a royal PITA trying to run Excel on a 1366x768 laptop, now even worse.

      The new Office: looks great . . . except where you do work.

      • wright_is

        Just had another look at mine, it is just as compact as it was in the normal version - although I did turn off the quick shortcuts bar, which I never use. The rounding of the elements might add a couple of pixels, but not much, I would suggest.

        One thing I have noticed in Excel, The cell reference and the cell contents boxes at the top of the sheet aren't rounded, even though they sit in free space above the table...

  2. marcwickens

    Does it still use a custom open/save user interface? This is probably one of the most frustrating things I find about Office is that it takes too many clicks to get the standard Windows save dialog.

    • hrlngrv

      There are ways to edit the ribbon XML configuration file to use traditional Explorer-like Open/Save As UIs. At least in Excel. Non-MSFT user-to-user Excel support forums might be useful to search.

    • ianhead

      Not a solution, but I just hit F12 which brings the Save As dialog up straight away with nothing in between.

  3. innitrichie

    I love Microsoft Word. It's the best application on PC.

    It's so versatile too. I can produce all kinds of content from the centrepiece of my digital existence.

    You'll always get the best Microsoft Word experience within Windows 11. It's only OK on other platforms.

    • tony_ansley

      Let's not get carried away :D

      I use Word every day to create marketing material (product and solution briefs, etc), but my biggest challenge is layout. When you are trying to create short, compact marketing pieces, layout is critical and needs to be precise. I spend a large portion of time "fighting" Word's vision of how things should be done.

      Yes, there is MS Publisher, which I like for layout, but it just does not have the reviewing features (in-place change tracking, comments, etc.) that Word has, but it is much better at content layout.

      The "perfect" Word would combine current Word features and Publisher features/modes. Until then, I am in limbo.

  4. stephencwll

    The Quick Access toolbar isn't gone. It's still there. It just operates slightly different.

  5. omen_20

    Seems like the sub menus of the Home ribbon could still use work. It's a tightly jumped mess while the rest of the UI is starting to look pretty comfortable.

  6. james_makumbi

    Isn't the splash screen still a brilliant incandescent white? I have a version of Office 365 where all the apps have a white splash screen and yet I heavily use dark mode everywhere. It keeps blinding me like those in movie flashbang grenades.

    • ebraiter

      Shouldn't need a splash screen.

    • hrlngrv

      Add /e at the end of the command line (include a space between what's already there and this switch) in Excel's shortcut, and Excel launches without a splash screen. I haven't tried with the other Office programs, but it may do the same for them.

  7. 1speed

    I am one of those people who overloads the Quick Access toolbar with too many commands but it really saves me time in the long run. I keep a screenshot of them for each Office App to set up new machines. If this change makes my customizations transferable, it's a big win.

    • hensonr

      Also a heavy user of Quick Access. You can export/import your toolbar... Customize Quick Access Toolbar (from the dropdown at the right edge of it), More Commands, and in the very lower right of the dialog is the Import/Export button. Granted, no automatic syncing, but easier than setting up manually on another computer, unless I'm missing something.

    • hrlngrv

      You could export your ribbon/QAT settings to XML files, then import them on new PCs.

    • Leebing

      Also a HUGE QAT user. I am going to have a hard time without it. Fellow power users, you do realize that you can use the ALT key plus the number of your QAT icon order to have super fast keyboard shortcuts to even deep buried non-ribbon items! Like my constant use of the Power Query editor and many others.

  8. wright_is

    Paul, if you don't think the ribbons in MS Office are simple, look at the reference screenshots for LibreOffice, about 2/3 of the screen is taken up with menus and ribbons in some cases!

  9. mattbg

    Does OneNote get this refresh as well?

    The one app I use the QAT for is OneNote. Mainly because the panning hand tool is inexplicably not available as a keyboard modifier as it should be.

    Also, that Paste icon looks a little odd in dark mode!

  10. bleeman

    My only comment is the one I periodically bring up here. Will we ever get the option for a Dark Mode here on the thurrott.com website? As you mentioned in the article I too prefer the dark themes and would really like to see that option here. I've learned to not read your articles/forums late at night as the all white screen is too jarring. Not a big deal, but still hoping for the option some day.

  11. sledge

    Would prefer to have the option per application. Dark mode outlook sends me cross eyed. Excel and the rest are fine.

  12. sherlockholmes

    So Paul, why do you even bother Wird Word when there is Notepad? :-P

    • sherlockholmes

      with Word of course

    • mikegalos

      That really was my thought. We're getting a "Hands-On" view of a suite of applications which is mostly describing how Paul only really uses one of the applications in the suite and turns off most of the UI in that one.

      Of course there aren't going to be a lot of changes when all he is comparing is the tiny part of one application.

      • Paul Thurrott

        What a needlessly antagonistic reply.

        It's literally a Visual Refresh and what I described here is most of what changed. There's a slightly changed/improved Share interface, I guess.

        Here's the original post that Microsoft wrote. Please pull out all the changes I ignored. Not really. I don't care.


        Be nice.

        • mikegalos

          Paul, how much of the article was about what's changed in all the Office applications and how much was about how you don't use most of the applications and how little you use the two that you ever use and the limited set of features you use in the one you use everyday?

          Seriously, it's not antagonism. It's about possibly getting another team member who DOES use the suite to write the look at new features. What's changed in PowerPoint? Who knows. What's changed in Outlook? Who knows. What's changed in Excel? Who knows. What's changed in the parts of Word you don't use? Who knows.

          I, for example, have the greatest respect for Mary Jo but I also know she lives in Notepad so she's not the one to write about Word. If she wrote an article about the changes in Word and spent most of the time talking about why she didn't use Word I'd have the same kind of response.

          • jimchamplin

            The changes made to Word pretty much cover the changes to every other Office application. It’s a visual refresher, not a whole new design.

    • Paul Thurrott

      Mostly for the spelling/grammar checking, but also for a slightly more esoteric reason: Most of I what I write ends up on the web, and the Word to WordPress transition is seamless, with hyperlinks, headlines, etc. all working.

      • sherlockholmes

        No harm. Just wanted to make a little joke there ;-)

      • jbhenry

        Interesting. I'm just getting started with WordPress, so when you say "Word to Wordpress transition" so you mean copy-n-paste from Word to WP, or is there something else you're using for this?

  13. navarac

    So why move the Quick Access toolbar on update? Just leave things where they are, Microsoft.

    • hrlngrv

      Would MSFT really be MSFT if it didn't 'correct' every configuration change users make whenever anything MSFT upgrades?

  14. manicscholar

    Removing quick access is a downgrade. Another head scratcher from microsoft. It is been waiting years for these improvements: improved cross referencing UX that uses a pane instead of modal dialog, search that doesn't auto reset when you make a change, autoupdate fields and preventing publication with visible cross referencing errors.

    • stephencwll

      It's not gone. It's still there! I've got the refresh and still use the Quick Access Toolbar.

      • wright_is

        The same here, although I turned it off, because I don't use it. But it is still there.

    • behindmyscreen

      I presume the removal of quick access is due to the fact that people can customize the ribbon so it was seen as extraneous.

    • Paul Thurrott

      I'm guessing few people use it.

      • hrlngrv

        In all likelihood QATs are customized far more often in Excel and Access than Word, Powerpoint and Outlook. Which probably means the Office team will fubar Excel and Access even more by imposing more foolish consistency across all Office programs so that Word users aren't confused when they use them.

        The QAT still exists, but with all the crap MSFT stuffs into the application title bar area these days, it only makes sense to use the QAT below the ribbon. If only it were possible to ELIMINATE the Autosave control and Save icon, which are now separate from the QAT.

      • dougkinzinger

        I'm one of those few. Thankfully, it can still be enabled and still put above the ribbon. Mostly for obscure commands like 'edit message', 'change message format', 'sort', etc.

        • mebby

          Another of the "Few." I use Excel and Word every day with a dash of Power Point. Having the detailed menu in the Ribbon and the QAT is something I find useful. (Well I would go nuts without them.)

          • eddieb

            Apologies, late response but only came across the article now. Also one of the few who find the QAT very useful (it is still available on the Beta channel apps) - I mainly work on a 14" laptop, and the simplified ribbon is not yet available for the Office desktop apps. Fully agree, it is frustrating that the AutoSave control and save icon (and other unnecessary stuff) cannot be removed from the application title bar, to make more space available for QAT. Will the simplified ribbon ever be deployed on the desktop apps?

  15. hrlngrv

    I have a VM which hasn't received the visual refresh because it's NOT in the Office Insider Program, but it is MSFT/Office 365, and the latest non-Insider release, 16.0.14131.20278. I can customize the ribbon in it, so this doesn't appear to be a new feature. FWIW, I also have Office 2010 lingering around in that VM, and it also allows me to customize the ribbon. Looks like this functionality has been around for more than a decade.

    I thought one of the reasons given for the ribbon back when it was introduced in Office 2007 was to correct for abuses of Tools > Customize in Office 2003 and prior. In theory, customizing the menu made it harder for IT to provide support. I suppose there's a group policy to disable Office ribbon customizations; however, if one also uses Office at home, one could bring their Excel Customizations.exportedUI from home and import it at work unless there's also group policy to prohibit import/export. At that point, could group policy prevent bringing %LOCALAPPDATA%\Microsoft\Office\Excel.officeUI from home and using it to replace the same file at work? FWIW, the customizations I made in the MSFT/Office 365 Excel ribbon to test this were applied when I ran Excel 2010, so while one may install and use multiple Office versions on the same PC, Office keeps only one set of ribbon/QAT customizations, and that one set is used by all Office versions. Questionable.