MS adds more options to Office 365 Home Premium

Woody Leonhard

No matter how you measure it, Office 365 Home Premium has defied the odds and become a surprising success.

This quick overview of Microsoft’s for-rent Office suite for home users tells why — and reveals new features available to you any day now.

For years, individual PC users (including yours truly) have resisted software-for-rent — or, as publishers prefer to call it, “Software as a Service.” But in less than a year, Microsoft has succeeded in changing many users’ minds with its Office 365 Home Premium (site). Microsoft claims that it has sold two million licenses since its subscription-based Office suite was released early this year. (For more on buying versus renting Office, see the Feb. 14 Woody’s Windows column, “Software SmackDown: Office 2013 vs. Office 365.”)

And the pace appears to be accelerating — for good reasons. Surprisingly, Microsoft priced Office 365 Home Premium reasonably and bundled it with some worthwhile extras.

For U.S. $99 per year, individuals and “family” groups can purchase a single subscription and load the suite on as many as five systems. (You can have a mix of PCs and Macs, though Mac users get fewer apps.) The only catch: it can’t be used for business purposes. For comparison, for-purchase Office licenses cost:

  • $120 to $140 for a single-license copy of Office Home and Student 2013
  • $180 to $220 for Office Home and Business 2013 (which includes Outlook)
  • $380 to $400 for Office Professional 2013 (adds Access and Publisher)

You can do the math.

What, exactly, do you get with Office 365?

Given the just-mentioned flavors of Office 2013 offered, you might wonder what bells and whistles Microsoft included in Office 365 Home Premium. The short answer: it covers all the bases. You get the latest versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher, and Access, all running on your computer — not sitting up in the cloud.

You don’t get enterprise-specific components such as Exchange Server, Lync, and InfoPath, nor some of the more specialized apps such as Project and Visio.

You can run the suite on Windows 7, 8, or 8.1 — but not on Vista or XP. Also, the installations aren’t set in concrete; you can add or remove computers from your pool of five at any time.

To sweeten the pot, subscribers get additional SkyDrive and Skype access. Anybody can get 7GB of free SkyDrive storage space, but Office 365 Home Premium subscribers get an extra 20GB of space.

Subscribers get 60 free minutes per month of Skype calling, but only to land lines in 60-plus countries and regions (more info). You also get free Bing apps for Office 365 (info), which you might find worthwhile.

Many Office reviewers — and, in some cases, Microsoft itself — have described Microsoft’s Office Web Apps as part of the Office 365 bundle. Malarkey! Office Web Apps, which includes online-only versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote, is free as a breeze. It’s available to anybody who has signed up for a SkyDrive account — free or paid. And those online apps aren’t anywhere near as powerful as their namesakes in Office 365. (However, they do have one big advantage over other online suites such as Google Apps and Apple’s iWork: they rarely break documents.)

Although few people consider them worthwhile, Microsoft’s iOS (info) and Android (info) Office apps are included with an Office 365 Home Premium subscription.

That’s a solid package of features. But renting software is not the same as buying it. You no longer own a copy of Office, which you can keep as long as you like. To continue using Office 365, you must keep your subscription current. Let your subscription lapse, and you’ll have to find alternative apps for editing your documents. That’s not particularly difficult: you can use Google Docs or an alternative suite (see the March 14 Top Story, “Two free, full-blown alternatives to MS Office”). But Office 365 is still considerably more capable than Google Docs, and other suites such as LibreOffice and Open Office lack Office’s (and Google Doc’s) collaboration and cloud integration.

Drop your Office 365 Home Premium subscription, and you also lose that free 20GB of extra SkyDrive storage. Keep that in mind because, by default, Office 365 saves documents to SkyDrive. You have to go through a few extra steps to save Office docs locally. (Regardless of your subscription status, you’ll always be able to download, copy, and read your Office 365–generated documents stored in the cloud.)

Those bonus items coming free this month

When Office 365 launched, many journalists, pundits, and users thought Microsoft’s promise to keep Office 365 updated rang pretty hollow. We were wrong. Microsoft has been steadily updating and upgrading Office 365 Home Premium since its release. Some improvements were met with nearly universal scorn — the iOS and Android versions, for example — but other, somewhat minor, changes (noted in a September Office 365 blog) served useful purposes.

Now it appears that we have some truly substantial improvements arriving this month, as reported in a recent Microsoft News Center post.

For example, anyone presently purchasing Office 365 Home Premium has to install the suite on the systems sharing the subscription. Once the suite is installed, individual users must set up and use their own Microsoft accounts. The initial subscriber gets all of the 20GB of SkyDrive space, and the other (up to four) users get only the free 7GB. (The other users can get more if they’re willing to pay for it.)

Starting in December, the subscriber will be able to designate up to four additional Microsoft accounts, authorizing them to install (and deactivate) Office 365 Home Premium on computers chosen by the other four accounts. Moreover, the primary Office 365 subscriber will also be able to divvy up the 20GB of SkyDrive storage to the other accounts as he or she chooses.

To stay up to date on Office 365 Home Premium changes, check out the “What’s new” entries on the official Office Blog.

How Office 365 stacks up for old Office hands

Office 2013 represents a rather minor improvement over Office 2010 — unless you rate capitalizing the menu names as a major improvement, I suppose. Yes, it’s nice that you can (finally!) open PDF documents in Word 2013, but many of us gave up on using Word for PDFs long ago. I certainly wouldn’t shell out $400 to upgrade from Office 2010 to 2013. You can buy a decent iPad for that much.

That said, if you don’t already own a copy of Office 2010, or you’re going to install Office on additional computers (or you have a mixed PC/Mac household), the economics lean pretty heavily in favor of Office 365 Home Premium. The primary apps — Word, Excel, Outlook, and so on — have the same feature set in both Office 365 and Office 2013.

Plus, with Office 365 Home Premium, you’ll get a free upgrade to the next version of Office, whenever that might happen. Just what the next version of Office will offer is unknown outside of Microsoft, however. Most likely, touch-happy tappers will get the lion’s share of attention. But small, incremental enhancements might give Office 365 Home Premium added value in the interim.

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Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.