Microsoft Office 365 Home Premium Review: Is it Worth $100 a Year?

PHOTO: An Excel spreadsheet in Office Web Apps, which lets users review and edit documents within a web browser.

Between my computer at work and the one at home, my tablet and my smartphone, the bits and pieces of information created and collected are getting harder and harder to keep track of. I imagine it's like being a mom to teenage kids. You know they exist, but damn it if they ever come home for dinner. Wouldn't it be nice to get everyone around the table once in a while?

Microsoft's equivalent of home base is the recently released Office 365 Home Premium, a subscription cloud service that allows anytime-anywhere access to your documents, across multiple devices. The main idea being that what you start on one device, whether a Word doc or PowerPoint presentation, can be picked up on another, exactly where you left off.

An Office that Lives in the Cloud
Microsoft bills the service as a "complete office in the cloud" and its strength is twofold: Subscribers get to use Microsoft's premier productivity suite while having multiple options for accessing their work. Besides local access, subscribers can get their content through one of three online platforms: Office.com, SkyDrive or Office on Demand. Having choices is convenient when you're on the go, especially when a lot of us are already working away from our desks - on a laptop at the coffee shop, a tablet on the plane, jotting quick notes on our smartphone.

A subscription is $100 a year and allows you to install Office 365 Home Premium on up to five devices. For college students and faculty, Office 365 University is essentially the same service, but installable on up to two devices. It retails for $80 for a four-year subscription.

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Users have access to the latest versions of Microsoft's flagship applications: Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Outlook, Access, Publisher and OneNote are also included. When updates are released, subscribers receive them automatically.

Similar Look and Feel
But even with all these new connected features (more on that coming below), Office and all those included programs are still desktop programs, with a similar look and feel to Microsoft's previous version of Office. Microsoft has added a couple of tweaks, however. The ribbon, the toolbar that lines the top of each program with formatting and other tools, is now collapsed automatically, giving you more more space to just focus on your document, spreadsheet or presentation. Click on one of the menus and the ribbon with all its features and tools will appear.

One of the biggest changes to this version is the "tablet mode" setting. Given that Windows 8 was built around touch, the new setting adjusts the spacing of menus, making it easier to hit the targets. It's helpful, but the program is still very much built for mouse and keyboard input.

Synced Files and Settings
When you first install Office 365 Home Premium, you're asked to create or sign in with an existing Microsoft account (which can be the same as your log-in for other Microsoft products and services like Hotmail or Xbox Live). If you don't already have one, go ahead and create an account, it'll make it easier to sync your settings and content across all devices. I used my SkyDrive log-in, since I already have an account with the free online cloud storage service. Office 365 Home Premium subscribers get 20 GB of SkyDrive storage, compared with the free 7GB allotted to regular SkyDrive users.

Also new to Office is the ability for users to sign in, both within applications like Word or through their web browsers at Office.com, to access customized settings for each application. These are things like personalized background styles, ribbon setup, etc. As long as you're signed in, your settings will carry over to the platform you're working on. It's a nice touch, but not the most essential feature unless you're super picky about how your toolbars are laid out. I personally care more about features and functionality.

Using Office.com, it's easy to see at a glance all of your documents, spreadsheets and presentations under the "My Office" section. The clean, uncluttered layout looks great, but organizing and syncing your documents between Office.com and SkyDrive can be confusing. For example, I wasn't able to create new folders in "My Office" to throw existing docs into. New folders have to be created from within the program applications, but when I created a folder and added an existing doc in SkyDrive, it didn't immediately sync to Office.com. Although I could see the doc in Office.com, I got a message saying it was no longer available when I attempted to open it. All edits and changes to content should sync with versions that live elsewhere, but there's definitely a bit of a learning curve when it comes to figuring out how one cloud platform communicates with the other.

When you open a document within Office.com, you have the option of editing it in the full-fledged application (if it lives on your device) or within the web browser, using an abbreviated "web app" version of that application. Either way, all changes will sync to SkyDrive. I tested the cloud syncing using a Samsung ATIV Smart PC with Office 365 installed locally and ran into issues only once while working in Word. At one point, the cloud syncing of my edits stalled, but this could have been due to my weak WiFi signal or the device's battery, which was on its last legs. I was charger-less and when my device shut itself down, my edits hadn't completely synced to SkyDrive.

Luckily, an offline copy was saved. Still, it's disappointing when compared to the almost instantaneous auto-saving of web apps like Google Docs. With Office 365, your work has to be actively saved as you go.

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On the flip side, the limitations of competing web apps like Google's means that users have to contend with water-downed versions of Word or Excel, whereas Microsoft's web apps definitely feel more robust in terms of features and functionality.

Sharing and collaborating with others can also be enabled through Office.com and SkyDrive, although real-time edits and changes aren't obvious at first. If two or more people are working on a document at the same time, each person has to click "Save" to see the most recent edits appear. An easy-to-miss message at the bottom of the window states "Updates Available" to alert you to new edits, but these still won't appear in the document until you click "Save" to refresh. It all feels a bit counterintuitive to the collaboration process.

Office on Demand
Signing into Office.com also allows you to stream a full-featured version of Office to any PC running Windows 7 or 8. It's a service dubbed Office on Demand, and is ideal when you're using a PC that isn't your own, say, at a hotel or different office within your company. I tried using Office on Demand to stream the full version of Word to a Surface RT tablet, hoping since it already ran Windows 8, it might recognize the tablet as a PC. It didn't work. My documents opened in Word's web app instead. Office on Demand is a novel feature, but could potentially be hampered by the unpredictability of users running into PCs with older, incompatible versions of Windows.

One cool feature of Office 365 is the ability to access documents even if they aren't already stored in the cloud. By downloading the SkyDrive desktop app at work, you can remotely fetch docs that live on your home PC for example, in case you didn't them initially sync them to SkyDrive. A few caveats though, the remote PC you're accessing has to be turned on, connected to the internet and have SkyDrive running with the "Fetch Files" setting enabled.

Bottom Line
So is it worth paying Microsoft $99.99 a year for a version of Office that is connected and constantly evolving?

Office 365 Home Premium is a great value for families who are going to install it on multiple machines and makes sense for busy professionals who work frequently on the go, but the typical PC user might find that sticking to the previous version of Office and using SkyDrive separately to store and access their most important documents in the cloud, works just as well.

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