Which Office suite to use on the Mac?

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The Microsoft Office suites: Office for Windows, Office for Mac, and Office for iPad provide the greatest level of compatibility between any disparate suites, but there can never be complete compatibility between different apps, except for the most trivial of apps. And, like them or hate them, no one can ever call the Office apps “‘trivial”.

Comparing the feature set of these three suites, I think everyone can agree that Office for Windows is on top, Office for iPad is at the bottom, with Office for Mac squarely in the middle. (See a detailed comparison here.)

Win Office > Mac Office > iPad Office

Don’t get me wrong – I have all three suites, and I use and like them all, but that doesn’t mean I am blind to their differences. (And that doesn’t mean I have given Microsoft a boatload of cash — I got all three suites as part of my $100/year Office 365 subscription — a bargain at twice the price, IMHO.)

A Windows user has only one choice: Office for Windows. Similarly, an iPad user can only choose iPad Office. But a Mac user can choose to run Office for Mac natively or Office for Windows in Parallels Desktop in a Windows virtual machine. Which one to choose? Any performance or usability differences? What about feature differences?

First, let’s dispel any talk of performance differences. Macs today have an over-abundance of processing power and Parallels Desktop for Mac runs so efficiently that there is no perceptible performance difference between Office for Mac running natively and Office for Windows running in a virtual machine. Perhaps, with a stopwatch and a really quick trigger finger you could measure some sub-second differences, but you would never notice these differences in actual use.

Usability differences between these two suites have gone by the wayside in the 2016 suites, with MacOffice largely adopting the WinOffice user interface (UI), and losing most of its unique Mac UI advantages that made it so distinctive in past years.

Office suite on Mac

So, what about feature differences, since as stated above Win Office > Mac Office. What does a Mac user lose if they pick MacOffice over WinOffice to use on their Mac? There are a bunch, and here is a list, which I have divided into major and minor differences:

Major differences:

  • Ink

There have been several truly important additions to Office in the last five or six years — Office Open XML-based document file formats, the Ribbon, and SmartArt, to name a few — and these have appeared in both WinOffice and MacOffice. The latest important addition to Office, however, is only in WinOffice, and that is Ink. Ink is the ability to annotate or add content to an Office document with a stylus or finger on a touch screen in an extraordinarily natural way. There is no stylus or touch screen on the Mac, so naturally Microsoft has not brought Ink to MacOffice.

But, if there is no stylus or touch screen on the Mac, how does WinOffice in a virtual machine provide any differences? Parallels Desktop 12 for Mac, when running WinOffice 2016 in a Windows 10 virtual machine does give the user the capability to use Ink on the Mac.

Office suite on Mac

Office suite on Mac

See this blog post (and others in the near future) for all the details and lots more examples.

  • A slew of features in Outlook

There are more feature differences between WinOutlook and MacOutlook than there are between any other pairs of apps in the two suites. Some of these differences are support for older Exchange versions, voting buttons, Visual Basic support, conversation clean up, and many, many more, but see this blog post for a much longer, but non-exhaustive list.

Minor differences:

  • Pivot charts + other features in Excel

Despite an immense amount of excellent work by the MacExcel team in recent years, there are still some WinExcel features that are not supported in MacExcel. Opening a spreadsheet containing one of these missing features results in the dialog you see in figure 3.

Office suite on Mac

  • PowerPoint add-ins

Among my many character flaws, I am a font addict. (My t-shirt that states “Who ever dies with the most fonts wins.” kind of gives this away.) Often, just the right font will convey exactly the feeling I want in a presentation. But, if I show this presentation on another computer, or email it to someone, that font will not show up. So, a PowerPoint add-in like Convert Text to Outlines is a godsend, enabling me to make sure that font will always show correctly, and Convert Text to Outlines, like almost all other add-ins, is only available in WinPowerPoint. However, once converted to outlines in WinPowerPoint, the slide will render correctly in WinPowerPoint or MacPowerPoint on any computer, even if that special font is not available there.

Office suite on Mac

To be fair, in choosing WinOffice over MacOffice for use on the Mac, you do lose the fantastic Reorder Objects feature in PowerPoint, and that is a significant loss. It used to be the case that choosing Word in MacOffice gave you Publishing Layout View, but, alas, Microsoft removed this powerful, groundbreaking feature from Word in MacOffice 2016. A real pity.

So, for me, WinOffice is the clear best Office to use on my Mac. What’s your clear best choice? Leave your answer in the comments.

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Kurt has been a Mac developer since before the Mac came out. Today he is the Senior Product Manager at Parallels where he works on both Parallels Desktop for Mac and Parallels Access. Prior to Parallels, he was the Senior Mac Evangelist in the Macintosh Business Unit (MacBU) at Microsoft Corp. Kurt is the author of three books and has lectured internationally on object-oriented programming, UI design, and virtualization. Kurt is also a Microsoft Office for Mac and iOS Accredited Support Professional for 2014 and 2015. Outside of work, Kurt has been a fencer for many years, has four times been a member of the US team at the world championships, and has also been the coach of the US team: http://www.naginata.org.