Hands-on: Microsoft Office apps for Windows 10 Technical Preview


H aving already furnished iPad and Android users with touch-friendly versions of its Office apps, Microsoft has finally thrown a bone to Windows tablet users. Well, sort of. Although polished versions of the Office apps are now in the iTunes App Store and Google Play, the touch versions of Word, PowerPoint and Excel are only available on the Windows 10 Technical Preview and are still in beta.

Still, they’re good enough to provide a feel for what Windows 10 users will have access to when the OS launches this autumn, and how they compare to the Office apps on rival platforms. Has Microsoft saved any special treats for the loyalists? 

On first inspection, there’s little difference between the Word apps for iOS and Android and the version for Windows 10. They offer the same tabs in the ribbon menu and a similar set of features lurking beneath. The only notable difference is that both Windows and Android have a File tab that opens the Open/Save/Share screen that will be familiar to Word 2013 users, while the iPad app tucks that behind a small arrow in the top-left-hand corner of the screen.

That consistency of design isn’t a bad thing. Many Windows users will also have iPads and Android devices, and will appreciate not having to  relearn a UI every time they pick up a new device. Nobody familiar with Office 2013 or any of the other Office apps will struggle to adapt, which is a bonus for businesses thinking of deploying these apps to staff. 

The Word app contains only a subset of the features you’ll find in the full desktop version of Word 2013, but there aren’t any show-stopping omissions. There’s a decent selection of templates to choose from when creating a document from scratch, and as with the other Office apps, we encountered no problems when opening and editing large, heavily formatted documents – something that can’t be said for online services such as Google Drive.

There are one or two advantages of running the Word app on Windows, as opposed to the other platforms. The choice of fonts is greater, and there are no device-specific fonts like there are on the iPad, which can cause compatibility issues later. Assuming you have OneDrive or Dropbox synchronised to your Windows device, access to documents when offline is also easier, since you get full access to the file system; on Word for the iPad, you have to open documents in the app before you go offline.

On the downside, there are currently fewer options for handling tracked changes than there are in the iOS version of Word, and the design of the button doesn’t make it clear if tracking is switched on or off. We’d also urge Microsoft to do some work on the default software keyboard in Windows 10: it swallows half the screen when you’re typing in landscape mode, making it difficult to navigate around documents. 

Nevertheless, we’d be perfectly happy to write, tweak and edit documents using the Word app.  

It’s much the same story for Excel as Word, with little visible difference between the Windows and other versions of the app. Manipulating a spreadsheet on a pure touchscreen device could have been tricky, but Microsoft has done a good job of making Excel finger-friendly without fundamentally damaging the utility of the spreadsheet. Entire columns or rows can be moved by pressing down on the header and dragging the row or column to the desired position; autofit can be applied to a row or column by simply double-tapping the header.

These touch shortcuts take a little learning, but soon become second nature, and make manipulating even the biggest of spreadsheets simple. That said, we’re grateful for the prominence of the Undo button in the top-right corner to help correct touch-induced errors.
Composing formulae is handled well in the app. The Formulas tab provides shortcuts for different types of formulae (Financial, Logical, Date & Time and so on), and once you’ve chosen the relevant formula you select which cells to apply it to by simply prodding them in turn; the keyboard isn’t really necessary. That said, we note that Microsoft has devised a keyboard specifically for Excel on both iOS and Android, which provides a numerical keypad, cursor keys for easily moving between cells and keys for common functions. As yet, there’s no such facility for Windows. 

As with all the other Office mobile apps, some features are off-limits if you’re building a spreadsheet from scratch. There are no conditional-formatting options, for example, nor options to create pivot tables, although they’ll continue to work as expected if they’re already in an imported spreadsheet.

PowerPoint is the most disappointing of the new Windows apps. It’s perfectly adequate for editing existing slideshows, or even creating presentations from scratch. There’s a reasonable selection of templates to choose from; image handling is excellent, with transparent guidelines to make sure photos are lined up properly with text; and there’s a good stock of transitions and effects for those who like to give it some visual pizzazz. The only major omission is the inability to insert videos or play clips already inserted into slide decks.

What really lets down the Windows 10 app is the Presenter mode. The tablet is the perfect tool for presenting your PowerPoint slides, letting you address the audience while swiping through slides and using your slate as a prompter. However, it isn’t a patch on its iPad equivalent. On the iPad, you can have your existing slide in a large window, with thumbnails of upcoming slides running along the foot of the screen and your presenter notes running down the edge. You can’t even see your notes in the Windows version, and you have to pinch to zoom to get the thumbnails, which is awkward.

The Windows app does include the same virtual laser-pen and inking options as the iPad, but the controls are difficult to access, and we often found ourselves accidentally advancing to the next slide when trying to activate them. We hope Microsoft gives the Presenter mode a good dollop of elbow grease before the apps are finalised; we wouldn’t want to stand on stage delivering a presentation with the current tools.

OneNote has been available as a Windows 8 touch app for some time, but there’s a new preview version in the works. We can’t say we’re impressed. First, it adopts a different layout to the main OneNote Windows application, with individual pages listed down the left, rather than the right, of the screen, and with previews of the page contents included. This means only four or five page titles can be displayed onscreen at a single time.

It also had a bug in our tests, where notebooks that had been previously renamed were still displaying their old names. These new names showed in every other version of OneNote we’ve tested, suggesting it’s a gremlin that Microsoft needs to sort out if it wants to avoid any ugly synchronisation errors. 

At best Office Apps are as good as the equivalents for iOS and Android. In some cases, such as with PowerPoint and OneNote, there’s a lot of work to be done. While we’re mindful that these are works in progress, we can’t help noticing that Windows users are being offered almost nothing that hasn’t already been released on rival platforms. If even Microsoft can’t provide compelling reasons to choose Windows over iOS or Android, what hope have third-party developers got?

That said, the Office apps for Windows could prove valuable for Windows tablet users as they take up a fraction of the storage space of the full desktop applications. The Word preview takes up 25.8MB of disk space on our test tablet, for example, while Office 2013 consumes 3GB on our laptop. For those running tablets with only 16GB or 32GB of storage, that alone could make the difference.