Microsoft Office versions: Know the difference

No matter what your job is, it will most likely entail having to deal with Word documents, spreadsheets, and the occasional presentation. If you have a Mac, you’re probably already covered by Apple’s triplet of office productivity applications, that is Pages, Numbers and Keynote. But if you belong to the other half of the sky, that of Windows users, or if you just prefer Microsoft’s suite, you may be interested in choosing the version that suits you best.

Retail Office vs Office 365 vs Office Online

When it comes to Microsoft Office, the first distinction to be made is that between Retail Office and Office 365. There’s still a lot of confusion about the two, mostly because some OEMs use Office licenses or trial versions to entice customers into buying their product, with some bundling a trial version and others offering a free one-year Office 365 subscription.

To put it simply, Retail Office refers to the version of Office you buy a license for and then it’s yours to use forever, as long as you don’t break the License Agreement (although, to be completely fair, there isn’t much Microsoft can do to prevent from using it anyway). If a new version is released, however, you have no other choice but upgrading if you want to use a feature that your current version lacks. Generally, however, versions of Office tend to be rather conservative in their upgrades, with very few features being added or removed between releases, so you could be perfectly happy with an Office 2007 license even today.

On the other hand, with Office 365 you aren’t purchasing a license for Office, but rather a subscription for accessing the suite and their updates (including new versions as soon as they’re released), generally for a year. This method of deploying software is known as Software as a Service or SaaS and is a trend that started to get more and more traction in recent years. One notable company that spearheaded SaaS is Adobe, which stopped offering retail licenses for their productivity applications a few years ago to tackle the rampant piracy it suffered from, especially for Photoshop.

There’s a third way you can use Office which is completely free. Office Online is a feature of (previously known as Live Mail or Hotmail) that lets you create, edit and share documents within your browser. The obvious drawback is that if you don’t have an Internet connection, you cannot view or edit your files. Office Online stores your document in the cloud. More specifically, it uses Microsoft’s cloud storage service, known as OneDrive, to store documents. These documents can still be opened with regular versions of Office and downloaded to your local computer.

Retail versions of Office

Despite popular belief, you don’t simply buy Office and then decide what you want to install and what not to. There are three different versions you can choose from, with different included apps and different prices. All retail versions of Office can only run on one PC at a time.

Office Home & Student

This is the simplest and least expensive version of Windows, retailing for 149 €. It actually comes in two variants: one for the PC, and one for the Mac, but besides the platform they run on, they’re virtually the same. Home & Student includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote (although the latter is available for free on the Windows Store anyway).

Office Home & Business

A “midrange” version of Windows, so to speak, it includes all the features of Home & Student, plus Outlook, an email client. Despite Outlook being so, so good, its inclusion almost doubles the price, compared to Home & Student. You should decide if paying this much money for an email client (even a good one) is worth it.

Office Professional

For the low, low price of one kidney and your firstborn, you can purchase a license for Office Professional, which includes all of the previously-mentioned apps in addition to Access, a database application, and Publisher, a simplified desktop publishing program.

Office 365 subscriptions

All Office 365 subscriptions include the applications that come with Office Professional. However, Access and Publisher are only available on Windows. In addition, subscribers also get 1 TB of cloud storage per user and 60 minutes of Skype calls.

Office 365 University

This version of Office is reserved for University students only. They buyer must provide proof that she’s currently enrolled in a higher education program. Instead of paying a yearly fee, this version costs 79 € for four years, which makes it particularly attractive for students that need Office but don’t necessarily have a lot of money. To make this subscription even more interesting is the fact that you can install it on two devices.
However, some universities give out a subscription for 5 devices for free. Before you shelf out your hard-earned money, ask your institution if you’re eligible for a free version.

Office 365 Personal

For 69 € a year, the user gets to install all Office applications on 1 computer, 1 tablet and 1 phone.

Office 365 Home

Similar to Office 365 Personal, but Office is available for up to 5 users. Note that accessing multiple users on the same computer is the same as installing Office on different devices.

Why should I ever choose Office 365 if it entails paying forever?

There are cases where Office 365 is a really attractive product, actually. If you plan on upgrading to a newer version of Office as soon as it gets released, a subscription allows you to get what is essentially one or five copies of Office Professional for considerably less.
A copy of Office Professional retails for 549 € and you can expect a new version every three years. By comparison, an Office 365 Personal subscription is 69 € a year, or 207 € every three years. With that said, there’s no real compelling reason to upgrade to the latest version of Office. Differences between the two latest releases are often incremental or tweaks to the user interface, which are not generally a deal breaker. The ability to share one subscription with five other users, however, may be compelling in some cases, like a family of four only having to pay for Office once.

About Andrea Luciano Damico 137 Articles
Andrea Luciano Damico is a freelance translator from Italy. Among his interests are linguistics, technology, video games, and generally being a chill guy. He runs Let's and