A Microsoft Office logo is shown on display at a Microsoft retail store in San Diego January 18, 2012. (Photo : Reuters)
Microsoft Office 2013 is here, and the productivity suite now has a rental option, Office 365. Which one is right for you?
Casual users who just want to write and edit Word documents and make spreadsheets in Excel still have the option to buy the traditional Office 2013 software package.
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The Home & Student version includes Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote for $140. As usual, you get a copy for use on one machine, and you keep it forever.
If you want Microsoft Outlook, the Home and Business version runs $220. And for Access and Publisher, you'll need to shell out $400. All version include 5 GB of cloud storage on Microsoft's SkyDrive service.
But users who need more than just the base version of office should check out Office 365.
For $100 a year, you get all of the above programs to use on up to 5 different computers. You also get an extra 20 GB of storage on SkyDrive and 60 minutes per month of international calling on Skype.
(A University subscription can be used on 2 computers for $320 over 4 years, and the Small Business version gets Exchange, Lync and InfoPath but runs $150 per year for each user.)
Doing the math, at first glance it look like Office 365 is the better deal. The subscription includes any updates Microsoft releases, plus you get more programs than the stand-alone installation and you can install it on up to four more computers, a nice perk for couples or a house with kids who need to do schoolwork.
It'll be at least a year and a half before the Office 365 subscription costs more than the base stand-alone version.
But after that, you're still shelling out $100 a year, and if your subscription runs out, you don't have the programs anymore. Buying the stand-alone version for $140 might be a bit more limiting, but you can still use it 10 years from now if you want to.
Of course, how many of us actually use decade-old copies of Word and Excel? If you've been buying new version of Microsoft Office every few years for the last two decades, you're already basically renting the software. And Office 365 automatically saves all your data to SkyDrive, so you can access it from other computers or on-the-go.
Office 365 includes desktop versions of the software, so you can create and edit even if you're not connected to the internet. But Microsoft warns that if your subscription lapses, the desktop programs revert to read-only mode. You'll still be able to view Office documents, but you won't be able to make any changes.
Fortunately, any data you've already produced is safe. You can move files from SkyDrive even without a subscription, and Microsoft won't delete them.
But if you're the type of person who often forgets to pay their cellphone bill or make their credit card payment, you could be stuck in the middle of a big project when your subscription runs out. Hopefully, you've got cash on hand to re-up.
Of course, Office 365 is a new revenue ploy by Microsoft. Subscriptions are much more lucrative than single sales, so they've made the Office 365 deal much sweeter than the stand-alone versions, even for more casual users.
If you're comfortable making those yearly payments to keep your subscription up-to-date, Office 365 is by far the better deal, especially if you have more than one computer.
If you're worried about losing functionality, pick up an old copy of Office Suite cheaply, and keep the install disk somewhere safe. That way you'll never be totally out of luck.
But let's face it: if you're a student or a business owner, you're definitely going to be paying for Office anyway. Even concerted efforts by open-source projects haven't been able to replace the productivity suite behemoth.
You might as well subscribe until someone comes up with something better. Hopefully, Microsoft won't make it too difficult to stop those recurring credit card payments.