Office 2013 not ready for a tablet

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Office 2013 with Windows 8 touch interface is disappointing.

Last week had a chance to try out a Windows 8 tablet with Office 2013 and it was the most underwhelming Microsoft demo we’ve attended in 15 years.

We were given Windows 8 tablets to try out, the Samsung Series 7 Slate models with a mouse, keyboard and stylus as well as a touch screen. This is running ‘traditional’ Windows 8 for Intel that will go on sale next month, not the ‘RT’ version for ARM chips. Office 2013 Preview was installed so we’ll not be discussing bugs in the beta software, just the overall design and features.

Talk about clumsy. Making your way around Windows 8 using touch alone was an exercise in frustration, and we’ve been using Windows 8 on desktop and laptop machines for some time now.

The touch interface kept getting stuck and would not accept finger or stylus input; even the Microsoft staff were perplexed. The fix was to Alt + Tab on the keyboard which temporarily fixed it. That software problem aside, the machine was speedy enough but you’d demand that in a tablet costing over US$1,000.

Typing on virtual keyboard was cramped. Perhaps you can get used to it but it didn’t seem as comfortable as the iPad equivalent (and that’s not an ideal experience either). Handwriting recognition worked well even with infantile scrawl but writing text to insert into a document or email is still a slow way to do it.

Trying to work with Office 2013 using touch or stylus was just plain annoying. As we’ve noted already, the virtual keyboard takes up a lot of screen space, leaving little left to see were you’re typing. It’s hard to reply to a message in what’s left of visible Outlook, after the keyboard has grabbed most of the screen. You spend a lot of time arranging things into the ‘least worst’ configuration (ie turn on virtual keyboard, minimize ribbon, turn on Office full screen mode) and end up with something like this as the ‘best’ possible view:

Outlook%202013%20full%20screen%20with%20virtual%20keyboard - Office 2013 not ready for a tablet

Given this screen squeeze, it’s little wonder that Microsoft now lets you reply to a message within the old reading pane. This is nice new feature which is rightly promoted as letting you ‘retain focus’ within Outlook while replying. We can only hope some of the small limitations of ‘inline reply’ are fixed before the final release.

On the plus side, the new ‘peek’ views are handy to look at calendar, tasks and contacts without leaving your main view and make sense in a touch screen interface for viewing only.

Outlook%202013%20calendar%20peek - Office 2013 not ready for a tablet

Editing or writing with Word and PowerPoint are barely tolerable with a touch screen, don’t even think about Excel. Navigating Excel cells and formulas requires a good eye and steady hand with a stylus or the small fingers of a five year old.

Overall though, we’re left with two impressions of Windows 8 tablet and Office.

Tablets of any kind (Apple, Android or Windows) are primarily consumption devices not well suited to entering text or editing in general. As methods of playing music, watching video, browsing the web and reading emails or documents it’s fine. Typing small replies or simple editing is possible but slow. Doing more substantial Office work on a touch device is frustrating and time consuming. You need a keyboard and mouse to get things done.

Secondly, Office 2013 developers have been given the impossible task of taking existing Office software and trying to make it work with a new touch interface that it was never intended for. To make things more difficult, Office 2013 is also supposed to also appeal to keyboard/mouse/non-touch users. The result is a messy and conflicted interface that Microsoft spokesman are tellingly calling ‘beautiful’ apparently to distract from the poor functionality.

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