Our Verdict

Office 365 is a simple and cost-effective way to get a powerful range of cloud Office services plus access to regular new features in desktop Office 2016. Microsoft is doing well in terms of making useful improvements on a regular basis, although some fresh tools are basic and some changes are a step backwards. Smaller companies will appreciate the reliability and the simple interface, but there are powerful options for larger firms too.

For

  • Regular new features in Exchange, SharePoint and more
  • Regular updates to the Office 2016 desktop apps
  • Familiar tools work well, new services build on existing investment
  • Simple and cost-effective plans

Against

  • Some new features like Planner are still underpowered
  • New features don't reach all customers immediately
  • Some changes to Office desktop apps remove features
  • Mobile Office apps for Windows remain less powerful

Note: Our Office 365 review has been fully updated for September 2016

It's been a long time since Office just meant Word, Outlook, Excel and PowerPoint. In fact, there's a confusingly wide range of tools and services under the Office umbrella. In the last couple of years Office 365 has established itself as the definitive business cloud service bringing together those familiar productivity services, plus an ongoing range of new features.

Apps

There are personal and business versions of Office 365 – home users get the latest version of the Office desktop and mobile applications plus email with Outlook.com and extra cloud storage with OneDrive, along with free Skype minutes every month. If you want to edit documents in Office on your iPad, or using the mobile Office apps on a Windows 10 PC, you need an Office 365 subscription.

Office 365 Personal is for a single user and allows one download of Office. Office 365 Home Premium costs $99.99 per year (£79.99, AU$119.99) for Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, OneNote, Access and Publisher.

That's good value if you share it with the family; up to five people in the same household can have their own installations of Office on their PC or Mac at the same time (for the Office programs that run on a Mac). When the next version of Office comes out, you'll get it on the same subscription, and you'll get new features as they become available. If you're at college or university (or you teach at one) you're eligible for Office 365 University on a four-year subscription for $79.99 (£60, AU$99) that you can use on up to two PCs or Macs.

Office 365 for business

Microsoft offers three tiers for businesses with less than 300 seats. Office 365 Business Essentials allows you to use online Office apps only (no desktop applications) plus 1TB of online storage per user and a 50GB Outlook inbox with email, calendar and contacts for £3.10 ($5, AU$5.50) per month per user on an annual contract.

Licence

Office 365 Business offers Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Access, Publisher and Lync, with a subscription licence for each user to run them on up to five PCs or Macs at once. You still get the online storage but no email services. Office 365 Business Premium combines Office 365 Business and Business Essentials; all the applications, plus email and storage.

Download Office

Enterprise business users get a full collaboration service with Exchange email, SharePoint document storage, Skype for Business unified communications, OneDrive for Business storage sync and sharing, Yammer enterprise social networking, Delve for tracking what your colleagues are working on, and Groups for ad hoc collaboration.

All that, alongside an increasing list of new services like GigJam (for sharing just parts of documents so you can have the right information available in a meeting) and Planner (a simple planning tool for groups), plus a subscription to the Office 2016 desktop and mobile applications, which includes early access to new features.

Delve

There are several different plans, depending on what mix of services you need. The E5 plan, for example, includes rights management services for encrypting documents and choosing who can see them and how long they're available for, Delve Analytics for tracking how people are spending their time, Power BI for graphical data analysis and business intelligence, and the Office 365 video portal for publishing video inside your company.

In the year since Office 2016 was released, Microsoft has continued to add new features to both the Office 365 service (which you expect in a cloud service) and the Office 2016 applications (which you might not), as well as the mobile versions of the apps for iOS, Android and Windows, new apps like Sway for 'digital storytelling' (that's somewhere between making a mobile app and designing a website), and the Office Online web apps.

That includes new admin features like the new look portal, customising sign-in pages, improved encryption controls, self-service password reset, plus a deal to use Wix to build websites after SharePoint public websites were removed.

New features arriving

The Office Online apps get regular updates, including new features plus integration with other cloud services like Skype and Dropbox – Word and PowerPoint now have the Format Painter for transferring formatting from one section to another, and Excel Online has more number formats, more features in Pivot tables and a high contrast view for accessibility.

Office Online updates

The mobile apps keep adding features like Find and Morph transitions in PowerPoint, or ink annotations in Word, Excel and PowerPoint. You can record audio in OneNote for iOS and on the web; that's better than OneNote on Windows 10 Mobile where audio recordings cut off after a minute.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Contributor

Mary (Twitter, Google+, website) started her career at Future Publishing, saw the AOL meltdown first hand the first time around when she ran the AOL UK computing channel, and she's been a freelance tech writer for over a decade. She's used every version of Windows and Office released, and every smartphone too, but she's still looking for the perfect tablet. Yes, she really does have USB earrings.