Office 2011: Should you upgrade?

By now, you probably know that Microsoft is releasing Office 2011, the latest version of its productivity suite, on October 26. (We’re posting our reviews of Word 2011, Excel 2011, PowerPoint 2011, and the rest this week.) What you may not know is whether or not you should buy that suite when it arrives.

"Buying" in this case means shelling out $200 for the single-license Home and Business Edition (which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and Messenger) or $280 for the Multi-Pack; the Home and Student Edition (which omits Outlook) will retail for $120 for a single license, $150 for a three-install Family Pack. There's no special upgrade pricing, unless you bought Office 2008 after August 1, 2010, in which case you can upgrade for free.

Based on what I’ve seen of the new Office so far, and on input from our reviewers, here’s how I'd sort out that buying decision.

The cross-platform Office

If you’re in an office full of Windows users, or if you frequently collaborate with them, upgrading to Office 2011 is really a no-brainer: You’ve got to do it.

Start with the suite’s powerful co-editing tools: You and your co-workers or clients can all edit Office documents at the same time, regardless of whether you’re using the Windows or Mac version. And you can switch from one platform to another yourself without undue confusion; there’s greater feature parity between the Mac and Windows suites than ever before.

There’s also better file compatibility: Documents, spreadsheets, and presentations created on one platform should open perfectly on the other. If, for example, you add things like conditional formatting, sparklines, or pivot tables to a spreadsheet on your Mac, they should appear exactly the same on a Windows machine. More significantly, now that Visual Basic for Applications is back on the Mac, you can feel confident that macros you create on your Mac will work fine for anyone else, regardless of their machine. (Note: We’re continuing to test cross-platform compatibility; we’ll let you know what we find as soon as we can.)

My only hesitation in recommending Office 2011 whole-heartedly for business users: The licensing terms for the Home and Business edition, which prohibit you from installing the suite on more than one machine unless you buy the Multi-Pack, aren’t great. More on that in a bit.

Upgrading from 2008 (or before)

The should-I-or-shouldn’t-I-buy question is almost as easy to answer for anyone who owns an earlier version of Office: Assuming the price is no barrier, Office 2011 has enough new features to make the investment make great sense. In addition to the Windows compatibility I extolled above, there’s also:

  • The ability to save documents to the cloud (using Microsoft’s SkyDrive or SharePoint services) and then edit them from anywhere, using either the Office desktop client (Windows or OS X) or the Office Web apps;
  • The new Ribbon interface, which replaces 2008’s much-maligned Elements Gallery. It makes commonly used tools easily accessible, and (if you don’t like it) is easily and completely removable;
  • The Template Gallery, which makes templates both easier to use and more powerful;
  • Outlook 2011’s new e-mail database system, which makes the program more compatible with both Time Machine and Spotlight than Entourage was.

The list goes on: There are tons of new features in Office 2011 that, cumulatively, should be worth the price of admission for all but the tightest of tightwads.

Who shouldn’t buy Office 2011

All that said, there’s one big group of users who can probably ignore Office 2011: those who currently use, and are perfectly content with Apple's $79 iWork suite, the free Google Docs, or some other Office alternative.

Sure, if you use Google Docs primarily because it makes your documents available from any computer, you might consider using Office 2011 in conjunction with SkyDrive or SharePoint. Or if you like Google Docs’ collaboration tools, you might also consider switching to Office 2011, now that it can do co-editing. Probably most persuasively, you might sometimes get files from Office users that you can't work with in another suite. As one of our reviewers put it, “Sometimes you just need Office.”

But otherwise, if you're happy with whatever you're using now, Office 2011 isn't a must-have.

Watch out for licensing gotchas

I have just one major caveat in recommending Office 2011: the new licensing system. Unlike previous versions, Microsoft Office 2011 validates each product key and locks it to a single computer. Microsoft has done this in order to protect itself against piracy. The problem is, the change will heavily impact legitimate Office users.

Do you work on a desktop computer at the office, but use a laptop when you're traveling? Previously, you could install Office on both your systems and then move freely from one to the other, as long as you didn't use both at the same time. With Office 2011, however, a single-license version of the suite will only work on a single computer. If you have two systems and want to run Office 2011 on both, you'll have to fork over an extra $80 (for the Home and Business Multi-Pack) or $30 (for the Home and Student Family-Pack).

So before you decide which version of Office 2011 to buy, consider how you'll use the suite—and factor in the extra cost accordingly.

The bottom line

Back when Office 2008 replaced Office 2004, one group of users definitely didn’t want to upgrade: Those whose workflows depended on Visual Basic for Applications. (Office 2004 had it, Office 2008 didn’t.) There isn’t any such clear-cut case against upgrading this time around. On the contrary, I think the majority of people who create business documents, spreadsheets, or presentations on Macs will want to move up to Office 2011—especially those who might have skipped Office 2008 to keep their macros. For most people, this upgrade makes sense.

Subscribe to the Apple @ Work Newsletter

Comments