Microsoft offers a wide range of Office 365 subscription plans that target individuals, households, and businesses (and business-like entities) of all sizes. But given the tremendous value and the sheer amount of choice here, how do you choose? Ultimately, it just comes down comparing the consumer and business versions of Office 365, and then understanding the benefits of each subscription.
In Why Office 365?, I wrote about the challenges that Microsoft faces as its moves its most successful software product line to a subscription model. The issue, of course, is twofold. First, many modern Office competitors, like Google Apps and Apple’s iWork, are free or essentially free to users of those ecosystems. And even Microsoft is offering a ton of Office functionality for free—especially on the web and mobile devices—at least to consumers.
Why one might choose Office 365 over the competition, or even over Microsoft’s free Office solutions, is a good question, and something I’ll be addressing in the near future. Today, however, I’d like to simply reiterate something I’ve said many times, that Office 365 is a no-brainer, especially for those individuals, families, or small businesses that use PCs and/or Macs in addition to smart phones and tablets. And with that simple statement as a backdrop, let’s look at the available Office 365 options so you can pick the version that is best for you.
Consumer vs. business Office 365: How they compare
The first step is choosing between consumer Office 365 versions—for individuals and families—and Office 365 for business use, the latter of which includes a few product versions that are in fact also appropriate for individuals as well. (And educational versions of Office 365 are part of the business side, for comparison purposes.) At a high level, consumer Office 365 versions and Office 365 for business versions can be compared at a high level by noting the following:
Microsoft account vs. work account. With consumer Office 365 versions, you will use the Microsoft account you already have (*.hotmail.com, whatever), and you can only have one Office 365 subscription associated with that account. Office 365 for business versions utilize a work account that is akin—and often identical—to an Active Directory domain account as found in corporations with managed computing infrastructures. But there is another distinction: whereas you can (and should) add a custom domain to your business Office 365 account, you cannot do so with consumer Office 365 accounts. (At least not within the Microsoft ecosystem.)
OneDrive vs. OneDrive for Business. Consumer Office 365 versions use the OneDrive cloud storage service that you get with your Microsoft account, but bump the storage allotment up to unlimited storage (vs. a default 15 GB) for the duration of your subscription. Business versions of Office 365 use OneDrive for Business, which is based on SharePoint and Groove technologies, but they likewise include unlimited storage. Microsoft is working to move consumer OneDrive and OneDrive for Business closer together—and they will soon use the same clients across PCs, Macs and mobile devices—but they are different as of this writing. (And, honestly, consumer OneDrive works better at the moment, at least for individuals.)
Outlook.com vs. Outlook Online. Consumer Office 365 versions use the Outlook.com email/contacts/calendar service that you get with your Microsoft account, while Office 365 for business provides Outlook Online, which connects to Exchange Online, a cloud-based successor to Microsoft Exchange. Both work similarly on mobile email clients—they both support Exchange ActiveSync, for example—but the web clients are quite different. I happen to prefer Outlook.com over Outlook Online, as I find it to be simpler and more attractive. There’s little difference on mobile clients, however.
Skype vs. Lync (soon to be Skype for Business). Consumer Office 365 versions use the Skype communications service that you get with your Microsoft account, whereas business Office 365 versions utilize Lync (soon to be renamed Skype for Business). Lync isn’t just a client-side app, however, it’s a cloud-based communications infrastructure with online meetings, IM, audio calls, and video conferencing functionality. But consumer Office 365 subscribers get 60 minutes of free Skype to mobile phones and land lines each month, too.
Full Office. All consumer Office 365 subscriptions and most business subscriptions (including some of the versions I will focus on) provide access to at least one install of “full” Office on PC and/or Mac. On Windows, this means Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, OneNote, Publisher, and Access. (This is the equivalent of Office 2013 Professional Plus, a software package that sells for $400 at retail. But that standalone software can only be installed on a single PC, and once you’ve used the product key it’s tied to that PC.) Some Office 365 subscriptions let you install Office on up to five PCs and/or Macs, and you can arbitrarily uninstall and reinstall as often as you want. Keep all this in mind when you consider the cost of an annual Office 365 subscription. (If you’re on Mac, the current full Office version is Office 2011, but that will soon be upgraded to the more capable Office 2016 for Mac.)
Office on mobile devices. All versions of Office 365 unlock the full functionality of mobile Office app functionality on all supported platforms (Windows, Windows Phone, iOS/iPhone/iPad, Android, and Amazon Fire OS). And you can use mobile Office apps on as many mobile devices as you wish.
Always up to date. The promise of subscription services like Office 365 is that all of the constituent parts—the online services and web apps, the full desktop applications, and the mobile apps—will be kept up to date on an ongoing basis. That is, when a new Office version is released for PC or Mac—and both are getting updated this year—you get them automatically, unlike with packaged software where you’d have to pay for the upgrade. All Office 365 subscriptions support this functionality.
Office 365 versions for consumers compared
Microsoft offers two versions of Office 365 for consumers. Office 365 Personal is aimed at individuals only, and Office 365 Home is aimed at families with up to five members. They break down like so:
Users. Office 365 Personal supports just a single user. Office 365 Home supports up to five users in a household.
Full Office. With Office 365 Personal, you can install a full version of Office on one PC or Mac. With Home, you can install full Office on five PCs and/or Macs, which can be spread out over up to five different people in the family.
Office on full-sized tablets. With Office 365 Personal, you can also install Office apps on one full-sized tablet (iPad or Android) and gain access to the premium features that only come with this subscription. With Office 365 Home, you can do so on up to five full-sized tablets (again, across up to five different users).
Office on smart phones. With Office 365 Personal, you can also install Office apps on one smart phone (iPhone or Android, currently, Windows Phone is a freebie) and gain access to the premium features that only come with this subscription. With Office 365 Home, you can do so on up to five smart phones that are used by up to five different users.
Online versions of Office. Both subscriptions provide access to Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote Online on the web. Office 365 Home applies to five users.
OneDrive. Every Office 365 Personal and Home subscriber gets unlimited cloud storage on OneDrive, but with Office 365 Home, all users get unlimited storage.
Skype calling. Every Office 365 Personal and Home subscriber gets 60 minutes of Skype calling to mobile phones (in 8 countries) and land lines (in over 60 countries).
Cost. Both subscriptions are tremendous deals. Office 365 Personal costs just $69.99 per year—though you could pay $6.99 per month, instead, which works out to about $84 per year. And Office 365 Home costs $99.99 per year, though you could pay $9.99 per month, which works out to about $120 per year. (Given the unlimited OneDrive storage alone, the value here is inarguable, as I wrote recently in Amazon Offers Unlimited Cloud Storage for Individuals: How Does It Compare to OneDrive?)
Choosing between these two subscriptions is simple, I think. If you absolutely, positively only need a single full Office install, just grab Office 365 Personal. But if you need two or more—for yourself or with one or more other family members, Office 365 Home is a tremendous deal.
But depending on your needs, you may want to consider a business version of Office 365. I’ll look specifically at those subscriptions that target small businesses, since they can be used by individuals, including power users or those who want a custom domain (like thurrott.com or whatever) too.
Office 365 versions for small businesses compared
On the business side—in particular those offerings that are aimed at small businesses—Microsoft offers three basic subscription plans and they do a nice job of building on each other, so they’re a bit easier to describe. There’s one plan for just the services, one for just the client applications, and one that combines them both in a single all-inclusive offering. They break down like so.
Office 365 Business Essentials. This offering provides access to the online services—Exchange Online with a 50 GB email mailbox, SharePoint Online with unlimited file storage and sharing through OneDrive for Business, and IM and HD video conferencing through Lync Online, plus the Office Online web apps—for $60 per user per year (billed monthly) or $6 per user per month.
Office 365 Business. This offering provides access to the client applications, meaning full Office on up to five PCs and/or Macs and mobile Office on up to five tablets and an unlimited number of smart phones, plus the Office Online web apps and unlimited file storage and sharing through OneDrive for Business for $99 per user per year (billed monthly) or $10 per user per month.
Office 365 Business Premium. This is the full meal deal: it includes everything from Office 365 Business Essentials and Office 365 Business at a cost of $150 per user per year (billed monthly) or $15 per user per month.
What I choose
Choosing between the consumer and small business versions of Office 365 may be straightforward or not depending on your needs. When I think about these offerings, I do so in terms of the higher-end offerings in each category, Office 365 Home ($99 per year) and Office 365 Business Premium ($150) per year. Both offer full Office on 5 PCs/Macs, and both offer unlimited cloud storage. But I prefer OneDrive (consumer) to OneDrive for Business at the moment, though those distinctions may change over time. I also prefer Outlook.com to Outlook Online. Office 365 Business Premium lets you use your own domain name (e.g. thurrott.com) with your account, which is important for small businesses and some power users. And so on.
But the big central difference, aside from cost, is the audience. With Office 365 Home, you are explicitly getting multi-user support. With Office 365 Business Premium, that cost is for one user, and those benefits—five full Office installs, etc.—are only for that one user. Five users on Office 365 Home is $99 per year. Five users on Office 365 Business Premium is $750 per year.
So what do I do? Because of my admittedly unique needs, I do both: I personally pay for both Office 365 Home and Office 365 Business Premium. My family—wife, son, daughter—use the licenses on the consumer-focused Office 365 Home. And I personally install Office from my Office 365 Business Premium account on five PCs/Macs. But because the Office 365 Home account is associated with my personal Microsoft Account, also use the unlimited OneDrive storage that goes along with that.
I’m not recommending that anyone do that. As I said, my needs are unique. But I do think that Office 365 Home will satisfy the needs of most households and power users. And for a cost of $99 per year, it’s amazing how much you get.