Microsoft Word remains the world's beefiest and most popular word processing program. It's no easy task to simplify an application that has accumulated 30 years' worth of features, but Microsoft has improved the 2013 edition in several key ways, starting with a polished Read Mode and embedded PDF edits.
That said, though, not all of the tool additions, interface adjustments, and feature shifts make the program easier to use. Some aspects of the new Word are puzzling, and others are downright painful. Here's a look at the most baffling of these changes--along with solutions to a few choice problems.
1. Live Layout falls short
Word's new Live Layout feature is supposed to simplify the task of positioning images and other objects on the page. That sounds great, because reliable image positioning has been a problem for many versions. Unfortunately, though, Live Layout falls short of its promise. Many Word 2013 users report that images sometimes don't stay where they're put--and occasionally jump to another page entirely.
There's no easy solution to this problem, unfortunately. Drag an image around long enough, and eventually it settles down where you want it to be--most of the time. Some users are avoiding this capricious behavior by reverting to an older version of Word, but we can't say that this expedient qualifies as a fix.
2. AutoCorrect is considered 'clutter'
One terrible call on Microsoft's part was its decision to remove AutoCorrect from Word's Spelling Error Context Menu. In Word 2010, if you right-clicked an incorrectly spelled word, the program invited you to choose from alternate spellings. That feature is still available, but you can no longer choose to have Word correct the misspelled word fixed automatically every time you accidentally type it. Microsoft says that this omission reduces "clutter in the spelling error context menu" and thus helps users find popular commands faster, as well as fitting the menu on the screen much better. (Somewhat surprisingly, Word treats New Comment and Hyperlink as more popular commands than AutoCorrect for the spelling error context menu.) Regrettably, Microsoft also removed this option from the new spelling task pane.
3. The Dictionary is dead
For the first time, Word ships without a dictionary. Before you can look up a word from within a Word 2013 document, you have to download and install one of a handful of Web-connected Apps for Word dictionaries available from the Microsoft Office Store. Only then can you right-click a word, choose Define, and see the relevant definition. Unfortunately, those dictionaries won't work if you're offline, so pull your print Webster's out of storage and put it back on your shelf.
4. It's too easy to embarrass yourself
Edited documents no longer display bright-red altered or deleted text. Instead, Word's new Simple Markup feature hides tracked changes, marking them with nothing more than a subtle vertical line in the margins. This shift may soothe your ego if an editor has ripped your prose to shreds. But after you save and share a document, those hidden tracked changes could all too easily wind up being viewed by the wrong person--in some cases endangering your reputation.
Although Word 2013 has a setting that will warn you that you're about to save a marked-up file, you must activate the setting manually. (Why didn't Microsoft make it active by default, or at least park the option in an easier-to-find location?) To reach it, select File > Options > Trust Center > Trust Center Settings > Privacy Options. Then choose the option to have Word pop up a warning message before you save, send, or print a document that contains tracked changes.
5. Compatibility Mode is complicated
When you open a .doc file from an older version of Word in Word 2013, the label "[Compatibility Mode]" will appear after the file name in the document's title bar. You can convert an older document to the new Word 2013 mode and to the new .docx format, but doing so is undesirable if the documents belongs to someone else--especially if that person is working with an older version of Word.
To know which specific features Compatibility Mode is blocking in a given case, you must know which version of Word the document is compatible with. To find this out, choose File > Info > Inspect Document > Check for Issues > Check Compatibility. Next, click Select Versions; the version of Word that your document was created in will be checked. Microsoft provides extensive details about the process online, but couldn't the company display this information in the document title bar?
6. PDFs break in Word
Now that you can edit PDFs from within Word, why spend hundreds of dollars for Adobe Acrobat? The premise seems awesome: When your boss asks you to fix up her draft of tomorrow's big report, you simply open a PDF file of that draft in Word 2013, tweak the text, add a new cover image, and send it back.
The reality, though, is that when you tinker with a PDF on a PC other than the one it was created on, forms and charts often break, and the fonts in the original version of the file may not match what you see on your PC. The wisest approach: Unless you own all of the fonts that the original PDF uses, avoid using Word to do anything more than editing basic PDF files; and leave the heavy lifting to your graphic designer.
7. The cursor lags behind your typing
Word 2013 adds an animation effect that follows your cursor as you type--at least, it's supposed to. This video from Windows expert Paul Thorrott shows how the effect works out-of-sync with the cursor's true movements. This is especially troublesome if you're a speedy typist working with a slow PC. If your eyes (and inner ears) are sensitive, watching what you've typed appear just a little bit asynchronously with your actual keystrokes can even make you feel a little dizzy. You can disable the animation effect throughout Office 2013 with these steps from the Within Windows blog, but the Registry tweak isn't friendly for amateurs.
8. Windows litter the screen
This complaint isn't about something Microsoft has changed, but about an opportunity it has missed to introduce a change that would benefit users. When you open a new document, Word 2013 behaves as Word always has: It opens a new window. As a result, if you're juggling a dozen projects, Microsoft makes you juggle the same number of open windows. That's a lot to keep track of, even if you're using more than one monitor. At least you can Alt-Tab through the myriad windows.
But why can't Microsoft Word act like any contemporary Web browser, and organize your open files into tidy tabs? Surprise, it can--but only if you pay $25 for the Office Tab add-on from Extend Office.
9. Collaborative editing is quirky
Hooray, you can share a document with a coworker without having to email the file back and forth. First, you save the document to your SkyDrive account (and from the browser, you can invite others to do so). From the Word 2013 document itself, go to File > Share. There you'll find a bunch of choices, including the option to invite individuals via email, and the option to obtain a URL for sharing the document. Choose Invite People, in order to add a note to one or more people and to grant them either view-only permission or editing permission. Thankfully, the person you share with no longer has to sign in to make edits.
What's the headache? Well, unless you're working in a corporate SharePoint environment, Microsoft pushes your co-authoring to the limited Word Web App in a browser, not to your local, full-featured Word 2013 program. (Beware of confusion if the same document is open in the browser and in Word, too.) Furthermore, two people can't alter a document online at the same moment--something that competitor Google Docs allows.
Microsoft justifies the arrangement it adopted as enabling team productivity "without intruding on one another's work or locking out other users." Google's way may be riskier, but it's also more straightforward. After all, why grant someone permission to edit your document if you don't trust what they'll change?
10. Stark design is hard on the eyes
Microsoft has sucked the color and the curves out of Word. Welcome to sharp corners and seemingly endless white space. Features are harder to find in the flattened ribbon toolbar, and working in the ultrapale Word 2013 environment all day can strain your eyes. This is a purely subjective assessment, of course, but it reflects a common complaint.
One user describes the appearance as "a barren, Boot Hill-esque, cold wasteland...with grey and white tumbleweeds and gravestones." (It also clashes with Windows 8, which the same user likens to "Teletubbies land.") To adjust the look and feel of Word 2013 slightly, visit File > Account and choose Dark Gray from the Office Theme drop-down menu. Adjusting your monitor's brightness and contrast settings may provide some additional relief.