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Microsoft Office is one of the more expensive sets of productivity software most people will purchase. The new Office 365 will cost you around $9/month, and a stand-alone copy of Office 2013 costs over $100 even with a discount. That’s not so expensive, per se, if you need to use Office all day, but if all you need to do is type up a few letters and organize your personal finances, it’s definitely expensive.
You could use LibreOffice or Google Docs for free, or if you have a Mac you can use Apple’s iWork apps for far less than Office costs. But what if you really would rather just use Microsoft Office apps, since they work great with the files you already have and you’re already used to them?
You’re in luck. At the new Office.com, you can use basic versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote for free in your browser. They’re the same Microsoft Office apps you’re used to, only they run online and are 100% free. In this tutorial, I'll show you how to make new documents, spreadsheets, and presentations using Office, for free, and also how to open and edit your existing documents online.
Office Online: The Free Office You've Always Wanted
The new Office Online is actually nothing terribly new. Back in 2010, Microsoft added "Office Web Apps" to their Skydrive online storage service, which let you edit your Office documents online with a basic copy of Office 2010-styled apps. It worked nice, but was always hidden inside Skydrive. Now that they've recently rebranded Skydrive as OneDrive, they've also set the Office Web Apps free to live on their own as Office Online, complete with a new Office 2013-style UI.
Now, before we get started, it's important to clear up a bit of confusion. These free Office apps are web apps—that is, they run in your web browser, and yet they feel more like an "app" than a standard site. You can't install them on your PC or Mac like you can install normal Office apps, and they won't work when you're not connected to the internet. That's not a huge problem, though, since most of us are online all day already. Best of all, Office Online saves the files you make online to OneDrive, which you can sync for free with your Mac or PC to see your documents when you're offline. That's not too bad for free.
With that, let's get started.
Creating a New Word Document Online
To start using Office for free, all you've got to do is open your browser, go to Office.com, and select the app you want to use. There's online copies of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote you can choose from, as well as contacts and calendar apps and the OneDrive online storage. To try it out, let's select the Word Online icon. You'll first need to login with a Microsoft account (an account you may have from Hotmail, Xbox Live, or Skydrive), or you can create a new account for free. Then, seconds later, you'll see a screen asking if you'd like to make a new blank document, browse templates, or open a document from OneDrive.
If you want to create a blank document, just click the New blank document button. Otherwise, click the Browse templates button to pick from the standard new document templates you'd see in your PC when you make a new Word document. Here you can look through the top templates or browse through the categories of templates available. When you've found the perfect one, select it, then click the green Open in Word Online button.
You'll have to click one more button to save the document to your OneDrive storage, and then you'll see the full Word Online app open in your browser with your template. Everything should look very familiar if you've used any recent versions of Word. There's the toolbar on top with the default tools—and essentially anything in the normal Home tab is still there, including font and alignment options, styles, lists, and more. Your normal keyboard shortcuts will work as normal, so you can tap Control-B or Command-B to make text bold, for instance. Or, you can select text, and a mini formatting toolbar will appear over your cursor just as in Office apps on your PC, where you can change font options and more on the fly.
Editing a template is very easy, just as you'd expect. You can select the placeholder text and images, and add the text and content you want instead while keeping the same formatting. And as you're typing, Word will automatically check your document for spelling errors with the language of your choice, and will show the word count at the bottom of the app. It'll even automatically save the document as you're working.
You'll find the rest of the tools you need to edit your document in the other ribbon tabs in the app. There's less tools than you'd find in Word on your PC, but you'll at least find basic tools to add your own pictures or clip art from Microsoft and tweak them, along with table, header and footer tools, page layout options, and more. If you can't find anything, all you'll need to do is type the command you want in the search box in the top center, and it'll find the option for you. And if you want the ribbon out of the way to give you more space to edit, just double-click on it and it'll hide away, ready for you to re-open it when needed.
The other Office Online apps work just as nicely. You can make a new PowerPoint presentation online, complete with dozens of pre-made templates or using the default Design themes that you'd expect in PowerPoint. There's only a couple transitions and animations, but everything else is included in PowerPoint Online, including SmartArt graphics and slide notes. You can duplicate slides, copy content between them, insert your own pictures, and more. You can even click the Slideshow button in the bottom left corner and present your presentation full-screen right from PowerPoint Online.
Excel Online is equally nice, and since spreadsheets are mainly about crunching numbers, you'll likely be able to get everything you need to do in Excel done in Excel Online unless you need macros and add-ons. There's all the standard Excel functions and graphs, along with basic tools to sort your data and templates to give you quick ways to crunch numbers. You won't find the more advanced tools like Pivot Tables, but if you open an Excel document that already contains Pivot Tables in Excel Online, those Pivot Tables will continue to work as normal and you can edit them fully online.
Excel Online even includes a bonus feature: Surveys. This feature feels most directly copied from Google Docs Spreadsheets, since Excel on your Mac or PC couldn't be used for surveys, but it's still nice to have. You can use it to make simple online surveys, and then review the data from your responders in Excel Online or download the results to your computer in a spreadsheet.
Editing an Existing Office File Online
Now, if you already have Office documents—perhaps from a colleague or your boss, or from an older version of Office you had on another computer—you'll want to be able to view and edit them in Office Online too. That'll take just one extra step. You'll first need to go to OneDrive.com, sign in with your Microsoft Account as before, then drag-and-drop your files to the OneDrive page (or bulk upload them from the Upload button). Alternately, you can sync them to your account with the OneDrive Mac or PC apps.
Now, to open your documents online, just click on your document and it'll open in the appropriate Office Online app, though only in the view mode. To edit the document, you'll need to click Edit Document in the ribbon, then select Edit in Word Online (or Excel/PowerPoint Online if you're editing a spreadsheet or presentation, respectively). That'll send you to the Office Online app we looked at before, where you can take advantage of all the great editing features you need.
Collaborating in Office Online
The best part of editing Office documents online is that it's easy to share them with others and collaborate on them in real-time. To share a document in Office Online, click the Share button at the top of the window. There, you can invite people directly to help you edit a document, or you can copy a link to share with others where they can view or edit the document even without a Microsoft Account.
Word Online supports comments on your shared documents, to help you and your collaborators keep up with what's been changed, and discuss potential changes. To add comments, select text you want to comment on, click the Review tab, and select New Comment. You can also turn on or off the comments sidebar from that same tab.
Restore Previous Versions of Documents in Office Online
It's so easy to accidentally delete part of your document only to realize later that you deleted info you actually still needed—and that's only easier if you're collaborating with others on your documents. In Office Online, you'll never have to worry about losing your work since it automatically saves your work and backups previous versions of your files. To restore the previous version of a file, just click the File button in the top left of the ribbon, select Info, then click the Previous Versions button. That'll open a list of the previous versions of your file that you can view online, restore, or download a copy for safe keeping.
Print and Save Your Documents
When your work's done and you're ready to share your document, you'll most likely need to share a copy of your document file or print it out. That's just as easy in Office Online as it would be in any other copy of Office. Just click the File tab again and select Print to print out a copy of your document, or select Save As and click the Download button to save a copy of your document to your computer. The file that'll download automatically is a normal Office file that'll open in any other copy of Office, or in Office alternates like iWork, LibreOffice, and Google Docs. Alternately, if you're syncing your OneDrive files with your computer, your new document will automatically sync to your computer so you can copy it from your OneDrive folder and share it.
There's another nice option if you're sharing your document online: you can embed an Office Online document in your website so others can read it online. Just select the Share tab in the File menu, click the Embed button, and then click the Generate button, copy the code, and paste it into your site. That's a great way to share, say, your team newsletter document on your company site, or a spreadsheet of data in a research blog post.
If you've wanted to get Microsoft Office without having to pay anything, and don't need the most advanced features from Office, Office Online is perfect solution for you. Its free copies of Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and OneNote might have less features than you'd expect and only run in your browser, but they actually work great and will render the formatting of all your existing Office documents perfectly.
The next time you need to make a new document, spreadsheet, or presentation, or perhaps just need to edit a colleague's Office document, give Office Online a try. You'll likely find that it has the features you need, and that it works far better than you'd otherwise have assumed.