Surviving your first hour with Office 2013

Woody Leonhard

If you’ve looked into Office 2013’s “improvements,” they might have struck you — as they did me —as largely gratuitous, cumbersome, and designed more to add to Microsoft’s coffers than to improve Office productivity.

Fortunately, there are ways rid yourself of Office 2013’s worst changes — if you know the tricks.

Getting started with the latest Office

Whether you’re upgrading an existing edition of Office or adding it to a new system, installing Office 2013 is unlike installing previous versions. If you expect to insert an installation DVD and run the setup program, as you’ve done in the past, you’re in for a surprise: Office 2013 doesn’t come on an installation DVD. Whether you buy Office 2013 or rent it through Office 365 Home Premium, all installation files come through the Internet. Better hope you have a good connection to the Web.

In the Feb. 13 Woody’s Windows column, “Software SmackDown: Office 2013 vs. Office 365,” I discussed the key differences (of many!) between buying Office 2013 and renting Office 365. The somewhat complicated details are poorly documented by Microsoft. In either case — buy or rent — all acquired Office components are installed on your computer. Despite what you might have heard, there are no obligatory Office 365 components in the cloud. All Office 365 apps run on your PC — as Office apps have since the start of time. There’s no operational difference between purchased and rented versions.

Office is, of course, designed with “New” Windows (the Metro interface) in mind. Start Word or PowerPoint, for example, and you’re immediately presented with a Metro-like Start screen containing a list of available templates. (In New Windows, everything seems to start with a Start screen.) Don’t be put off — just select a new blank document (or presentation or workbook) and carry on. The real surprise comes next: a truly jarring, spaced-out main screen. PowerPoint’s is shown in Figure 1.

PowerPoint 2013

Figure 1. As the PowerPoint main menu shows, Office 2013's new interface seems surprisingly shrill.

Once you recover from ALL CAPS SHOUTING menu tabs, you’ll find that Office 2013 looks and behaves reassuringly like Office 2010 — with two exceptions:

Click File/Open and try to find a file located on your computer. Instead of going to the familiar file-open dialog box you’ve used for the past — couple of decades? — Office 2013 takes you to a touch-friendly window that reeks of SkyDrive (see Figure 2).

Office 2013 File Open

Figure 2. Office 2013's new File Open dialog box doesn't make it easy to open a local document on your PC.

Next, make a few changes to your document and try to save it; you’ll discover that Office 2013 makes it more difficult to save files to your computer. That simple process seems designed to drive you to SkyDrive. Whereas a typical file-save in “Old” Office (pre–Office 2013) might take three or four clicks, a local save might take six or eight clicks in “New” Office.

Sure, you get some free storage on SkyDrive, but ultimately Microsoft wants to sell SkyDrive space. Most Office 2013 users, however, will want to save files as they always have: on the local PC — or possibly in Dropbox or Google Docs.

Although I’ve been using Office 2013 continuously for months, I still find the formerly simple task of opening and saving files the suite’s most irritating change. But I’m also not fond of double-clicking an attached document in Outlook and having Word start in Read Mode — the finger-flipping-friendly, scroll-left-to-right mode works fine on a tablet but bites massively on the typical mouse-oriented desktop. I also dislike the way Outlook 2013 hides replies while I’m composing them. More on that shortly.

Fortunately, those “enhancements” can be changed back — mostly.

Getting a grip on starting, opening, and saving

As all Office users know, “Old” Office automatically started you off with a new, blank document. Start an Office 2013 app (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc.) and you’re immediately presented with a Metro-like screen containing a list of recently opened files on the left and a patchwork quilt of suggested templates on the right. Seemingly, Microsoft thinks you need a constant reminder that new documents can be created using … a template! (Wow!)

If you’d prefer that New Office apps act like Old Office apps, start Word, Excel, or any other Office 2013 component and jump past the Start screen (to wit, create a new document or open a recently used one). Click File, then Options; at the bottom of the General section, uncheck the box next to Show the Start screen when this application starts. Restart the application; you’ll never see the Start screen again. If disabling the Start screen in Windows 8 were only that simple.

The irritating screen (see Figure 2) shown by New Office apps when you Open or Save As can be eliminated as well. These intermediate windows are called backstage screens, for reasons probably known only to the Office development team. To be rid of them, click File in any Office 2013 app and then Options. On the left choose Save. Under the Save Documents section (or Save Workbooks or Save Presentations), check the box marked “Don’t show the backstage when opening or saving files.” Restart the program, and the backstage should be gone (although there are reports that this option doesn’t work fully on every PC). While you’re at it, you might want to right-click your frequently used, Office-app tiles in the Win8 Start screen and select Pin to taskbar.

If for some strange reason you actually like the backstage screens, go into File/Option/Save and click the box next to Save to Computer by default. And if you want to add a Dropbox or Google Drive folder to the Open window (Microsoft, naturally, offers only SkyDrive options), there’s a script you can run (more info) that adds a Google Drive or Dropbox drive to the list. (Note: you might have to copy and paste the link —!msg/drive/F4qdX-a5Ew4/uu5MoTMRaYIJ — directly into your browser.) A similar add-in script is available on an MS Office TechCenter page.

Dropping Office 2013’s new SHOUTING CAPS look

It defies understanding, but Microsoft’s interface gurus decided that all Office 2013 menu (er, tab) names looked best in ALL CAPS! — perhaps to make New Office’s layout more touch-friendly. Or possibly they thought it would give Office a more modern look. If that’s the case, why didn’t Microsoft add all-cap menus to Windows 8’s File Explorer, or IE 10, or the new Paint?

Fortunately, it’s easy to get rid of the all-caps labels. Right-click any tab name and choose Customize the Ribbon. On the right, select the name you want to change, and then click Rename. Note, however, that if you try to change “HOME” to “Home”, Office will revert back to all caps (HOME). To avoid getting recapped with the default tab names, type a space or an underline or some other character to just slightly change the name. You can, for example, use ” Home” or “Home ” or “-Home-” — or any other name that strikes your fancy.

Zapping a few other New Office annoyances

In my opinion, Word 2013’s reading mode is an abomination. Double-click a Word document attached to an email message, and it’s opened in protected view, which is fine for security, I guess, but document scrolling is set by default to left-to-right (not vertical). That’s great for viewing on a tablet, but it’s a pain in the neck on touch-challenged PCs. To get around it, click File/Options and, at the bottom of the Options dialog box, uncheck the box labeled “Open e-mail attachments and other uneditable files in Reading View.”

One last pet peeve is Outlook 2013’s inline replies. In every version of Outlook since the beginning of time, when you click on Reply, Reply to All, or Forward, the message appears in a new window, ready for you to type. Not so in Outlook 2013; clicking Reply, Reply All, or Forward, put the new message in precisely the same location as the original message, making it easy to lose track of messages. I’ve had replies sit around for days — until I realized I hadn’t sent the message (simply because it was sitting in the same location as the original message).

To make New Outlook behave like Old Outlook, click File/Options, select Mail (on the left), scroll down to the Replies and Forwards section, and check the box marked “Open replies and forwards in a new window.”

If you spend your first hour with Office 2013 mending its errant ways, you might actually end up liking the product. (Personally, I remain ambivalent.)

Do you have any tips for improving Office 2013’s settings? Drop by the Windows Secrets Lounge and sound off.

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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.