Microsoft Office 2016 for Mac review

A strong if imperfect upgrade – but should Mac users still care about Office?

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Our Verdict

This suite is a good product with a welcome level of modernisation, but Office for Mac is much less of a no-brainer than Office on Windows. Unless you really need Office, in other words, you don't need Office.

For

  • Smart and thoroughly modern design
  • Improved compatibility and familiarity with Office 2013
  • Support for some Mac features such as multi-touch gestures

Against

  • Other Mac features such as Handoff are missing
  • Still not perfect feature parity between Mac and Windows
  • Collaborative tools are good, but inconsistent and clunky

Microsoft Office may have started life on the Mac before it ever came to Windows, but for many Mac users it feels like that was the last time we ever had anything 'Officey' before our Windows-using brethren.

This release of Office, then, is mostly about closing the gap with Office 2013 for Windows, in terms not only of feature parity and document compatibility but also by harmonising the interface across Mac, Windows and mobile – a boon to productivity if you regularly work across different platforms.

It mostly, if not entirely, succeeds in this, and moreover it looks and feels like a contemporary Mac citizen – although Office 2011 (the previous Mac version) supported Retina displays, it had started to look very old fashioned as the OS X aesthetic moved on.

Modern Mac

However, while Microsoft has finally embraced some modern Mac developments – multi-touch gestures for zooming and panning, native full-screen – there are more which it hasn't bothered with.

Predictably, for example, there's no iCloud Drive integration. This isn't a show-stopper since Microsoft's own OneDrive cloud storage provides some if not all of the benefits of iCloud Drive – notably, files don't appear in the Finder as usual unless you install the OneDrive app, and the open/save dialog is a bit inelegant, which could be irritating depending on your workflows. OS X's versioning – specifically – isn't supported either; there is versioning available through OneDrive, but it's clunkier.

And perhaps most egregiously, despite close parity between the iOS apps and new Mac Office apps – and despite OneDrive already being baked into both to handle the back-end – there's no support for Handoff between desktop and mobile. That's hardly calamitous, and it may be coming in an update, but it's frustrating to see Microsoft still dragging its heels over implementing exciting new capabilities of the Apple world.

Aesthetic appeal

Overall, Office 2016 still feels a little siloed from the broader Mac world – using its own dictionaries rather than OS X's, say – an approach which is neither empirically good or bad, but the appeal of which depends on whether you're invested more in the Mac or Office ecosystems.

Even if nothing else, though, Office 2016 looks fantastic – simultaneously familiar to users on Windows but also thoroughly Mac in terms of the visuals – and the optional coloured title bars help orientate you in the suite's apps. The redesigned Ribbon menu groups tasks logically and in the same way as the Windows version, and though there is still sometimes a confusing proliferation of ways to achieve the same things, most would agree it's a good solution to making Office's complexity more palatable and generally usable.

Ribbon
Here's a comparative shot of the Ribbon on Mac, Windows and iPad

Windows compatibility and collaboration

Windows compatibility for documents has been significantly improved, with more Excel functions and PowerPoint transitions making it to the Mac version from Windows, but be warned that, bafflingly, there are still disparities. Likewise, with questionable benefit, some Windows-style shortcuts – Ctrl-S as well as Cmd-S, say – work in Office for Mac now, but some don't.

Microsoft touts its new Task Pane, but honestly it's done little more than dock the floating Toolbox from earlier versions – fine, but not worth so much hype.

Collaboration and co-authoring tools are welcome, though they're sub-par compared to the office suites from Google and even Apple – when working together on a Word document, say, both parties have to save their changes before they appear on the other's screen. It's not live, as with its competitors, though the new threaded comments feature is great. It's not consistent, either – OneNote collaborative changes are live, and although you can share Excel documents, only one person can work on the file at once.

Note, finally, that at the moment you can only get Office for the Mac as part of Microsoft's Office 365 subscription package. Redmond isn't saying why, but one interpretation is that it's keen to sign as many people up to Office 365 as it can. A standalone, subscription-free version will be available in September.