Microsoft Office: Why are there so many different versions and do you really need to pay for it?

The days when you could just ‘buy’ the latest version of Office are long gone, but do you need to pay for it at all? We look at Microsoft’s many options.

Not so long ago, using Microsoft Office couldn’t be simpler. In return for a wedge of cash, you got a box with an installation disc inside and a handful of applications you could use on your PC for as long as you liked, or until you wanted to update to a more recent version.

Things are a bit different today. Microsoft still updates its Office suite on a regular basis – the most recent being Office 2016, which can be bought from the Microsoft Store for around £120 or Amazonon a physical disc or as a download.

[Read more: 16 things you didn't know about Microsoft Word]

But buying a ‘copy’ of Office isn’t the only option around. Poke about the Microsoft web site and you’ll see that you can also pay £5.99 a month for Office 365 — which includes Office 2016 — or use Office Online for free. Or if you own an Android or Apple tablet, you can install the free Microsoft Office app instead.

That makes figuring out which version of Office to use and how much it’s worth paying more than a little confusing. But we're here to clear things up.

Microsoft Office

A one-off price for Microsoft Office Home and Student 2016 may be the best option if you want to pay up front for an office suite.

Microsoft Office 2016

This suite gives you the most recent versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, meant for one PC only (Mac also comes with Outlook).

Microsoft added a number of new features to Office, including the ability for multiple users to edit one document together.


Microsoft Office 365

Office 365 is essentially Microsoft’s Office subscription service.

£5.99 a month gives you one copy of the software to install on one computer (and you can switch at will, if you want), or £7.99 gives you software to install on up to five different computers at once, including smartphones and tablets — but more on those later.

Microsoft Office 2016

Better still, Office 2016 is a dramatic improvement over the earlier versions. Both Windows and Mac versions not only have the same apps (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Access and Publisher), but they also look extremely similar. That means if you do switch between a Mac and PC, you shouldn’t be left scratching your head over difference in each version of the suite.

£5.99 a month — or £59.99 a year — isn’t a bad deal, but it’s made more tempting by the 60 Skype minutes and 1TB (1,024GB) of cloud storage that are included in the price. Don’t forget, BT Cloud gives you even more storage for all your photos and music too.

Even so, you’ll still pay less if you buy Office 2016 outright and use it for two years, but you will be stuck on that version. Office 365 subscribers, on the other hand, get to use the latest version of Office as soon as it’s released — the next version (Office 2019) is expected in the second half of 2019.

Something else worth bearing in mind is that Office 365 is also often bundled with other products, search ‘Office 365 laptop’ on Amazon and other sites.

[Read more: Free alternatives to Microsoft Word]

Office Online

If you only use Microsoft Office occasionally on your PC or Mac, or even a computer with another operating system then you might not need to pay for it at all.

Office Online provides web-based versions of most Office apps and although they’re ‘lightweight’ versions that lack some features, few people are likely to miss them. More importantly, the apps are free to use.

Microsoft Office Online

Since they’re web-based, Office Online apps work best with cloud storage, but non-paying users still get a 5GB of space via Microsoft OneDrive. The only catch is that you can’t upload existing documents from your computer from within the apps themselves, but dragging files to cloud storage is a simple extra step.


Microsoft Office for Mobile Devices

It sounds too good to be true, but Microsoft also offers a version of Office for Android, Apple and Windows smartphones and tablets that you can use for free. The versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook and OneNote are a good deal simpler than their PC counterparts, but they look very similar and are still very capable.

Microsoft Office Mobile

The catch is that you need an Office 365 subscription to unlock the full features in the apps, but that only means you’ll then be able to save and open documents using Microsoft’s cloud storage for businesses. If that sounds like something you won’t ever need, then you’d be right, which makes Microsoft Office for Mobile Devices a brilliant freebie.


Don’t forget…

Don’t just think you’re tied to Microsoft Office, even if you need to edit Office documents. Both Google Docs (web-based) and Libre Office (download) can open and save documents in Office format, and both cost nothing to use. 


[Read more: Who invented Microsoft Word]

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