Microsoft announced some major changes to Office 365 this week, as it continues to feel the heat from Google Docs, which costs less and has built a reputation for simplicity and fluid collaboration. The changes -- which you may be seeing already -- include a trimmed-down ribbon interface, sharper icons and new color schemes, and a more tightly integrated search function. Let's walk you through the best new things about the Office 365 refresh.

1. The ribbon interface gets a big refresh

Microsoft introduced the ribbon to its Office products back in 2007, and it's been a hotly-debated topic ever since. Some users like the enhanced visual aid, while others find the menus confusing and cluttered. Regardless of which side you take, it's hard to ignore the fact that none of the Office rivals have ever tried to emulate it. They have all taken a more traditional approach, and now Microsoft is finally giving users the option to rein it in.

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What we have now is a single, compact row of labeled icons that change according to what menu you click on above it. For example, clicking on the Home menu shows you common actions like changing your fonts, adding italics or highlighting, adjusting line spacing, and creating lists. If you click on the Insert menu next to it, a new set of labeled icons slides in from the left, and you can now see the tools for creating a table, inserting an image, creating a URL, or adding a comment.

microsoft office 365 ribbon update
(Credit: Microsoft)

If you still prefer the "classic" ribbon, it's still there -- just click on the downward arrow on the far right. Chief Designer John Friedman said, "That option to expand [the ribbon] will continue to be available to users, so everyone can choose the experience they prefer."

2. Office.com gets a facelift -- and lighting-fast document loading

Office.com is the web browser version of the productivity suite, where you can view, edit, and share your documents online. This is handy when you're using a device that doesn't have Office 365 installed. However, loading a document into your browser takes some time. If you need to need to examine a lot of docs in a short amount of time, the wait can be agonizing. But in Microsoft's demo, documents loaded pretty much instantly. This should help a lot with workflow, and it makes Office.com feel less like a website and more like an office suite inside your browser.

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Outlook is also getting this new ribbon interface. But if you don't want to start using it right away, you can tap the Coming Soon slider in the upper right, and it will revert back to the original layout. Friedman added, "We're committed to making it easier for users to learn and explore these updates, before we roll them out... This new setting is a way to give our customers more control over the changes when they take effect."

Users of Office 2016 show note that the standalone version of the productivity suite will not get these updates.

3. Friendlier collaboration tools

Office is also getting updates to document sharing and group editing. The new ribbon has a compact set of icons on the right, where you will see color-coded portraits of other people who have access to the document, a counter for the total number of people who have access (which you can click on to see the full list), and buttons to share, review comments, and track changes. The color coding is applied to wherever that user is working in the document, so you can see at a glance who is making changes, which occur in real-time like Google Docs.

microsoft office 365 collaboration update
(Credit: Microsoft)

4. More potent search tools

Microsoft has beefed up searching on Office.com with what it calls "personalized intelligence search across Microsoft." Merely clicking on the search bar will open a suggestions box containing shortcuts to Office apps, recently opened documents, and contacts you've collaborated with in the past. Those suggestions get refined as you type, using machine learning and AI. The company will be featuring this in the web version of Outlook, and it sounds like it will get rolled out everywhere eventually. Personalized search looks like a very capable feature to improve your workflow.

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So when will you get it?

Microsoft says only that that customers will begin seeing these changes this month. The emphasis is on getting it right, rather than doing it quickly. Vice President Jared Spataro said, "We plan on carefully monitoring usage and feedback as the changes roll out, and we'll update our designs as we learn more."

We'll have more to come when we get our hands on the new Office 365 soon.

Further reading:

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