A Microsoft Office 2016 Preview: Smart & Subtle Changes

The shrouded veil of secrecy has been lifted from the latest edition of Microsoft Office. Excitement for Office 2016 is still lagging behind the Windows 10 enthusiasm camp, but following the July 29 release of Windows 10, attention will return to the world’s most popular productivity suite.

Office 2016, like Windows 10, has been re-designed within a revised Microsoft ethos. Office 2016 has been built from the ground-up with mobile and cloud users in mind, slotting in with the ever expanding fleet of Microsoft productivity applications. Office is, in general, a different set of tools from days gone by. We aren’t confined to the five-or-so core products, and we can expand the functionality of the Office ecosystem using a massive range of add-ins and templates.

Office 2016 logo

I’m using VirtualBox to preview Office 2016. Microsoft strongly suggested uninstalling Office 2013, which isn’t currently viable due to work commitments. Using a virtual machine, however is a great way to explore different Office products alongside each other, without having to uninstall your current suite. I’ve also had a look at Office 2016 on Windows 10 Build 10130. Verdict: good times.

Anyway, enough of that. Let’s look at Office 2016.

New Overview

Much akin to the extended and inclusive testing phase of Windows 10, the Office 2016 preview has now accumulated over 1 million users, each providing valuable feedback, spread across both Windows and Mac operating systems. Office 2016 comes with many key updates, some software specific, some suite-universal.

“We are moving from Office for us, to Office with others” – Satya Nadella, MS Build Keynote

What is noticeable is a consolidation and continuation of the Office user interface. Not much has changed as Microsoft further integrates the coming Office for Windows 10 mobile apps, and a mass redesign now would potentially alienate users seeking to expand their Microsoft/Windows/Office experience, especially those cross-platform users.


Part of the Microsoft productivity ethos is streamlining operations. Office 2016 doesn’t come as a mammoth download, rather, it comes in a click-to-run format, streaming the installation directly to your system when needed. We have seen this before, but it looks like a good step forwards from Microsoft.

Installation O2016 Open

Of course, around the Autumn release there will be an offline installation package, but this is pretty handy if, like me, you no longer own a disc-drive and bandwidth is not a limitation.

Tell Me Box

The Tell Me box is a nice addition to the Office tabs and ribbons toolbar. It acts as an extended help functionality that actually helps. For instance, typing “change how table looks” immediately delivers a drop down menu featuring Table Styles, Add Table, and more, plus the new Smart Lookup option. More on that in a moment.

Tell Me Bar Office 2016

The Tell Me box has echoes of fallen antihero Clippy (who will not be making a return), but only this time, it is actually really useful and unobtrusive.

Tell Me Bar Office 2016 Excel 2

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One drawback to this system is the very thing that makes it great: its ease of use. I learned how to use Word and Office by clicking menus. If you use this system all the time, you’ll be fine, but you’ll never learn where the individual menus are nested. New Office users suddenly in front of an old version could struggle.

Smart Lookup

Smart Lookup, or Insights from Bing is one of the best new features arriving with Office 2016. It is a relatively advanced search tool plugged directly into the Bing search engine. After highlighting a single word, or sentence, or even paragraph, you can then Press L, or right-click and select Smart Lookup. You’re then treated to the Insights sidebar which, depending on your selection and the software you’re using, will return very useful information.

Smart Lookup W10

For example, a single word selection in Word will bring back a range of definitions, synonyms, and antonyms. In Excel, it defines numerics. Honestly, in the latter, Smart Lookup could use a little more exploration, perhaps allowing Smart Lookup to define the standard formulas included with Excel, and explaining some of the mathematical formulas to boot. This will, like the Tell Me bar, become a very useful tool.

Smart Lookup W10 Excel

You can try this out in the Office 2016 Preview, but it is also available in Office Online. Go look!

New Themes and Backgrounds

This is a simple one. Microsoft has introduced some very nice new backgrounds, and we can alter our theme into a range of colors. Quite why you’d want to is beyond me, but the option is there nonetheless. I’ve gone with the rather natty Black theme with Circles and Stripes, because YOLO, and you can see the before and after shot below.

Office 2016 Theme Before After

Office Updates

Office can now update itself, whether you like it or not. As Microsoft shifts the update emphasis from end-users back toward a centrally dictated timeline, Office 2016 receives a portion of the same treatment. There will be options to control the regularity of these updates closer to the release date, but at the moment Microsoft hasn’t given us too much information about these processes other than Update Now, or Disable Updates.

Office 2016 Updates


Microsoft has tighten up Office 2016 security protocols. This means more control over sensitive data, and more flexibility with those that can view and edit your files.

  • Data Loss Protection: DLP will be available in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, and will let administrators centrally manage data policies for content authoring and document sharing. We will also see policy tips and advice when those policy-lines are being crossed.
  • Information Rights Management: IRM already existed, but has been extended to protect Visio files, protecting your data both on-and-offline.

Office 2016: Word

The new version of Word brings one of the biggest missing features of recent years: real-time co-authoring. This is one of the single-biggest selling points for Office alternative Google Docs, and its inclusion will likely bring some disillusioned individuals back to the Microsoft fold. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a go as this feature hasn’t made it to trial, yet.

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Word 2016 Preview

Other than the introduction of the Tell Me bar, not much has changed for Word. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bad thing. Word 2013 is great and I use it successfully everyday, but perhaps we will see some other tweaks closer toward the fall.

Office 2016: Excel

Excel is still, well, Excel, excelling at what it does best: numbers, data, analytics, and more. But Microsoft has somehow boosted Excel even further into the data analytics stratosphere with a raft of new features:

  • Inbuilt Business Intelligence: Microsoft hasn’t quite brought it all under one roof, but there are more export options to PowerBI. Power Query, an Office 2013 add-in, has made it into Office 2016 as standard. Power Query used a built-in JSON parser, which has also made its way into Excel to help build visualizations.
  • Power Pivot: Essential data analysis tool Power Pivot has received a power boost and is now able to calculate and analyze millions upon millions of rows of data. Automating data grouping will provide a deeper analysis experience, along with updates for PivotTable and PivotChart.
  • One-Click Forecasting: Excel automatically scans your worksheets, searching for data trends, and extrapolating into charts and tables.
  • New Charts: Microsoft has moved a number of add-in charts to the standard build, including TreeMap, Sunburst, Waterfall, Histogram, and Pareto. Expect to see more charts appear as add-ins following the fall release.

Excel 2016 Preview

Excel remains the same visually, and will continue to hold its spreadsheet crown for some time.

Office 2016: PowerPoint

PowerPoint, like Excel, remains largely aesthetically untouched, with the addition of the Tell Me bar the only significant change.

PowerPoint Office 2016

The biggest innovation in PowerPoint is the continued integration of Office Mix to help authors curate content, and for end users to find that content easier. Office Mix groups content types together, organizing them as PowerPoint slides, and lets them skip directly to the bits they want. Mixes can be shared using Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Pinterest, and LinkedIn.

PowerPoint 2016

While this is pointed more toward PowerPoint online, there will be a gradual crossover of services.

I actually found the aforementioned Tell Me tool an excellent resource in PowerPoint. It isn’t my strongest Office tool, and having the option to ask for what I wanted was a welcome addition to the screen, and I can see this tool being extremely well used.

Office 2016: Outlook

Outlook, my email client of choice, has altered its attachment handling. This is actually quite a big deal. Attachment management has never been an Outlook strong point, and now we have a massive list of shiny new options to play with.

Outlook 2016 Preview

Attach File now delivers a drop-down menu illustrating your 12 most recently attached items. This list displays from both off- and online sources, including Dropbox, Google Drive, and of course, SharePoint and OneDrive. If the attachment is stored online, you can now choose from one of three options;

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  • Insert Edit Link: Recipient can edit this document
  • Insert View Link: Recipient can only view this document
  • Attach Copy: Everyone receives a copy of the file

When Office 2016 actually arrives in the fall, I’d like to see this tool functionality expanded slightly by offering senders the chance to upload their document on the fly, to OneDrive, and to send a link to that file.

Outlook now resizes well, too, in a small nod to the tablet market, as you can see in the picture below (Office 2013 on the right). In Office 2013, reducing the Outlook window size slowly crumples your folder list until they are unreadable. Outlook 2016 automatically collapses the list, hiding them until needed with a very handy back button. In a similar nod to devices with smaller storage, local mail storage can now be switched between 1, 3, 7, or 14 days, whilst Outlook 2013 defaults to one month.

Outlook Preview Resize

Something Microsoft Exchange account administrators will be interested in is that Exchange accounts must now be created using the Auto-Account setup; there will no longer be support for manually created accounts using direct server names. This means unless your organization supports and publishes autodiscover information, you’ll be out in the cold.

Email management tool, Clutter, will also be coming to Outlook 2016. Clutter is already available to O365 users, utilizing the Office Graph to help manage your inbox more efficiently. Clutter simulates the email aspect of your world, the regularity you interact with individuals, their location, and swiftly files away the more irritating mail that isn’t quite spam. Clutter isn’t spam removal. It is a machine learning tool designed to understand mail priority and offer you a personalized service. I’m looking forward to this one!

O365 Clutter

Finally, something to always look forward to are the updated Top-Level Domain junk mail lists, saving you and I a morsel of time each day.

Winners and Losers

The biggest Office 2016 winner is clearly Outlook. The attachment management, the introduction of Clutter, changes to local mail storage, and improved resizing lead me to believe this will be another year or more onboard the Outlook train.

Overall though, Office 2016 is nice. Not sublime, just really nice. There is an aesthetic consistency throughout the suite, as well as a continuation from Office 2013 which many users will appreciate. The visual changes–other than the introduction of the Tell Me bar–are relatively minimal.

It has been an important update period for Microsoft. Office has been a long running standard for Microsoft and with an increasing number of pretenders to the throne, it has been important to solidify an expanding user-base.

Are these changes key enough for you to switch from Office 2013 to Office 2016? Which updates to the Office suite would make that decision easier?

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