Microsoft Office 2016: buy vs. subscribe

Microsoft doesn't want you to buy Office outright. The standalone suite and apps have no free trial, no multi-user license, and no mobile version, and they're practically hidden on the Office site.

Microsoft's game plan, from Office to Xbox to Windows 10, is to get users to think of its products as services, and to subscribe rather than to pay one time. There will be casualties of this strategy. This week Microsoft released Office 2016 for Windows and Mac (following Mac's Office 365 edition in July), and now comes the reckoning of what you get if you buy the suite outright, versus what you get if you opt for Office 365, which requires a monthly or annual fee. If you prefer to pay for Microsoft Office once and use it for several years before upgrading to a new version, you're going to find a lot of limitations.

No free trial

First, the most obvious absence is a free trial. Whereas Office 2013 could be tested for 60 days straight, no such option exists for the standalone version of Office 2016. If you want to give this new suite a trial run, Office 365 is now your only option.

No mobile or cross-platform

Microsoft does a lot to sweeten the Office 365 option. Only 365 throws in a version for tablets and mobile phones. The standalone suite's lack of mobile access to Word and Excel stings, given how much more popular mobile computing has become since the previous version of Office came out in early 2013. Similarly, if you want Windows and Mac versions of Office, you must buy them separately, whereas the 365 subscription includes both. With 365 you choose between a 1-user license for $70 per year (or $7 per month) or a 5-user license for $100 per year (or $10 per month). In addition to Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote, Office 365 unlocks Outlook, Publisher, and Access at every subscription level.

How to find the standalone Office suite and apps

If you want the full standalone suite, you'll have to hunt for it. If you go to the product comparison page on the Microsoft Office website, you are not shown the standalone versions that offer Outlook, Publisher, and Access; you'll see only the Home & Student SKU for $150. To see the other two versions, you have to scroll down to the Resources section and click the See Options link under Compare All Options. Then you'll find the $230 version that adds Outlook and the $400 edition that also gets you Publisher and Access. Even at these steep prices, the license is limited to one user.

Office 2016 compare

However, you may be able to save money if you want just one or two of the Office apps. To find them, don't bother looking on Office.com; go to Microsoft's online store, where you'll find Word, Excel, and the rest priced at $110 each. So, for example, if you need Word 2016 and Access 2016 and nothing else, you can pay $220 instead of forking over $400 for the standalone version of Office 2016 that bundles Access. The individual programs are still limited to one user per license.

Also, be aware that the paid apps are downloads only; you cannot currently buy them on disc. However, if you need to reinstall the suite or one of its apps later on, you'll be able to retrieve the necessary files by logging into Office.com with your Microsoft account username and password. If you don't have an Microsoft account, Microsoft can help you create one the first time you install Office. If you have an account for OneDrive, Xbox Live, Skype, Hotmail, or MSN, then you already have a Microsoft account and can use that login.

Here are the direct links to the purchase pages for the downloadable versions of Office 2016's apps:

Skype and OneNote limits

Some exclusions or reductions are understandable. The standalone version does not give you 60 free minutes of Skype per month, and the bundled OneDrive storage (Microsoft's competitor to Google Drive and Dropbox) is reduced from 1TB to 15GB. These services cost money to operate, so it makes sense for Microsoft to charge a periodic fee for them.

Should you subscribe or go free?

Given Microsoft's stark limitations on the standalone license (particularly the lack of multi-user licenses), Office users may look to free options. If you can make do with streamlined, cut-down Office apps, Microsoft offers free Web apps on Office.com that have roughly the same amount of functionality as Google Docs. These apps are dependent upon a constant connection to the Internet, and the files created on Office.com are stored in your OneDrive account, which you can access from Office 365 and the standalone versions of Office 2016 and Office 2013.

word online web app

You might also be tempted to switch to Google Docs or LibreOffice, free alternatives that have made great strides in recent months. Both can create and read documents that use Microsoft Office's file formats. Before you spend more money on Office, it's worth giving these apps a spin and testing their compatibility with your Office documents and spreadsheets.

More resources

Office 2016 first look

Preview of Office 2016 for Mac

The best cloud data backup service

Should you get Windows 10?

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About Tom McNamara

Tom is the senior editor covering Windows at Download.com.