Since I spend most of my day in Microsoft Word, I decided to see whether Word 2016 Preview for Mac finally lives up to the quality, usability and reputation of the Windows version. What I’m looking for is whether Word 2016 can approximate—if not duplicate—the productive experience I get in Windows.
This isn’t super-important to me personally—it’s not like I’m switching to Mac anytime soon, though I do of course keep modern Apple devices of all kinds on hand to test Microsoft solutions on those platforms and see what the competition is up to. But it’s important to Microsoft’s “mobile first, cloud first” strategy, which is at heart a goal to get its productivity experiences out onto every platform so that its customers can get work done no matter which devices they choose (or are forced to use by their employers).
For many years, Office for Mac has been a lackluster experience. Oddly, I’ve heard more than one Mac user make the crazy claim that, “ironically, the best version of Office is on Mac,” but that’s never been the case. Indeed, I have always found Office for Mac to be a maddening experience, and even if you do prefer the Mac, the suite’s bizarre combination of Apple and Microsoft UIs in recent versions is both ugly and inefficient.
But now we have Office 2016, at least in Preview form. The goal here, Microsoft says, is to unify the user interface with that of Windows, providing a more consistent experience between the desktop platforms. This is also what Microsoft is doing with the mobile Office apps: Office for iPad, iPhone, Android and Windows universal all share the same UI as well.
On a surface level, this change appears to be successful. Sticking with just Word 2016—again, I just know this application better than the other Office applications—we see the same document gallery on launch, the same basic ribbon UI and some of the same panes, like the Navigation pane I use regularly.
One might take the time to compare each ribbon in both Word 2013 (the current version on Windows; an Office 2016 for Windows is coming this year as well) and Word 2016 to ascertain “what’s missing” from Word for Mac. And I did do a bit of this, actually, until I lost interest. But long story short, available ribbons and the available command set in each is both mostly consistent and laid out nearly identically.
For example, here is the Home tab in both Word 2013 for Windows (top) and Word 2016 for Mac Preview (bottom).
The Mac version lacks only the File tab, which in Windows opens the Backstage interface, with access to document information, New, Open, Save/Save As, Print, Share, Export, and Close functions, as well as account and settings interfaces. But that’s because Mac OS X provides a system-wide menu for these features, and as a Mac app, Word 2016 uses that system as it should. You can access most of that stuff from the File menu, while Preferences—the Mac standard term for what we call Options—is available from the Word menu.
What I don’t like about Word for Mac 2016 and the other Office 2016 applications is that their ribbons are somewhat 3D and appear to visually bulge out toward the user courtesy of a subtle gradient. This compares sharply—and negatively—with the utterly flat ribbon in Office 2013 on Windows. Curious why Microsoft made this dubious visual choice, I started hunting around Mac OS X to see whether built-in applications, or Apple productivity applications like Pages or Keynote also used this style. And I guess they do. Certainly, Mac OS X controls have a rounded rectangle style that helps complete this terrible look, and Word 2016 shares that with other Mac apps for better or worse. Long story short, I prefer the flat Windows look.
For now, Word 2016 does not offer any themes as does the Windows version, so you’re stuck with that middle of the road gray color. But a Preferences pane indicates themes could come in a future release, and I’d like to see that happen.
More important than the look, of course, is whether Word 2016 can work enough like Windows so that users could go back and for the between the two platforms easily. The consistent ribbons really help with that—and here we see a huge improvement over Office 2011 for Mac—as do the built-in styles, which are now consistent as well. But when I set up Office on Windows for the first time, I always make a number of configuration changes. And I wanted to see to whether these changes were all possible in Word 2016.
Here’s the basic series of steps I take to configure Word on Windows (and why this stuff isn’t saved and synced between installs through my Microsoft account or Office 365 is beyond me): I turn off the Start screen at launch (templates), make very specific changes to Auto Format and Auto Format as You Type, and make one very specific change in Auto Format (I don’t like “…” being transformed into a single character). I also change the auto-save routine to 5 minutes and make the Save location changes I just wrote about in Office 2013 Tip: Skip the Cloud Integration.
So. How did Word 2016 Preview fare?
Very well, actually. Virtually every one of those changes was possible in Word 2016 Preferences, and while that Preferences window looks absolutely nothing like the Options window in Word 2013, everything was where I expected it. The one difference is that Word 2016 lets you configure Auto Format as You Type but has no separate Auto Format configuration.
I also use the Navigation pane regularly in Word 2013. In Windows, this pane defaults to a Heading view, which is particularly useful on long documents, like my books. You can expand and collapse the headings as needed, and it makes navigating around these documents much easier.
On the Mac, the Word 2016 navigation pane works … different (sic, I know). It default to a thumbnail view, which graphically displays each document page. This is useless to me and any other serious writer, and I have to think the sensibility here was driven by how Microsoft thinks Mac users are more creative and would prefer this view.
You can of course switch to the Headings view, and I did. It works much as on Windows, but features a pointless backdrop design that alternates between dark and light lines. I guess the flat Windows look wasn’t pretty enough. But I prefer it.
The only other oddity I’ve noted is that you really need to zoom documents to see them at an acceptable size, which is not an issue I’ve ever had in Word for Windows on a non-Retina-class display like that on the MacBook Air 13 I’m using. In Word for Windows, I usually zoom to 120 percent, but to achieve this same size/readability in Word 2016, I need to zoom to about 175 percent. That’s a very strange difference. Here’s what 125 percent zoom (one of the presets) looks like. Terrible.
Quibbles aside, I could actually get work done in this application and do so much more quickly and efficiently than was possible in previous Word versions on Mac. What this tells me is that Word 2016 at least—I’m not as sure about the other Office applications—has finally risen above second-class status. And that’s a good thing, for the platform and for Microsoft’s customers.
Back to Windows. 🙂