On Thursday Microsoft released the preview edition of Office 2016 for Mac. It's downloadable here for free, with a final release expected "later this summer" and available for use via an Office 365 subscription.

I spent this morning trying out the new editions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Here's an initial hands-on report.

Unified look

Office 2011 for Mac was a mess of a release in terms of interface. At the top of the document window was a toolbar, followed by a collapsible tab bar with multiple levels of buttons, all in various shades of gray. Office 2016 is a vast improvement. There's a unified tab/ribbon bar that's reminiscent of the version found on Windows and iOS; the design picks up the mostly monochromatic stylings of OS X Yosemite. Toolbar buttons have been freed of heavy borders and gradients. The toolbar at the very top of the window is now smaller and shares space, Yosemite-style, with the open/close/minimize buttons.

As with Office for Windows, the per-app color highlights (which are visible in the tab bar on iOS) are displayed at the bottom of each window in the status bar. That's a nice concession to the Mac's interface metaphor while also managing to keep a connection to the identity of each of these apps.

As a long time Mac user, though, it still feels fundamentally wrong that every window in Office is topped with a collection of text items, just below the open/close/minimize widgets. Almost no Mac app window looks like that--and almost every Windows window does. It's consistent with the rest of Office across platforms, and it's attractive, but when I'm using it I keep feeling like I'm using Windows. But this is Microsoft's flagship productivity suite--maybe that's not surprising.

Word

Word for Mac now allows multiple users to edit a document at once, and supports threaded comments. As someone who used to spend endless hours battering manuscripts into shape in Word, it's nice to see support for chained comments rather our old tried-and-true methods of adding comments on each additional word, or trying to add your comment to an existing comment.

I'm a little disappointed by the way Word (and really, all of Office) handles multiple editors. When a user saves a document, they're informed that there have been changes elsewhere in the document. This is great if you've got different people working on different parts of a document, but if you want truly synchronous collaboration, Google's web apps are a better choice.

It's not fair to judge beta software on performance, and so I'm going to enter a no-judge zone here to say that typing text into Word on this beta felt kind of jerky and hesitant. That's obviously a no-go for a word processor, especially one running on a Mac with a 4GHz Core i7 processor, so I'll just whistle past the graveyard and assume it'll all be ironed out before final release.

Excel

Fans of Windows keyboard shortcuts rejoice--Excel (but strangely not Word?!) has mapped all of the standard Windows keyboard shortcuts onto the Mac version. Mac users trained in the ways of the Command key will still feel at home, but if you habitually use the Control key, you'll find that all of the standard Excel for Windows keyboard shortcuts will work on the Mac.

In another first for Mac users, the selection cursor in Excel is now animated. It's been like this on Windows for a while, but this is the first time Mac users of Excel have been able to click on a cell and watch as the selection cursor flies over to the cell via an animation. It's a little weird, if I'm being honest. That's an unnecessary animation flourish that feels more Apple than Microsoft. And yet Apple's Numbers spreadsheet doesn't do it, and Excel does.

PowerPoint

The app that has benefited the most from the Office 2016 for Mac redesign is probably PowerPoint. PowerPoint 2011 (the lower of the two windows in the image below) always felt heavy and cluttered and I really hated working in it. The new PowerPoint looks much better, even though it's still undeniably powerpoint. Not even the double-stacked rows of toolbars on the Home tab can weigh things down.

Powerpoint 2011 and 2016

PowerPoint also picks up the same comment threading and multi-user-editing as Word, but its marquee feature is probably a more customizable Presenter View. It's a big step up from the old one, which was markedly inferior to the view offered in Apple's Keynote.

Also present...

Microsoft's preview download of Office 2016 also includes the new Outlook that it first offered as a download in late 2014, as well as the previously-released OneNote for Mac.

All of these apps won't be finalized before sometime this summer, so there's plenty of time for improvement. There's a feedback button at the far right of the tab bar in the form of a smiley face, so that Microsoft can gauge the feedback of Office for Mac users. (Yes, you can actually send Microsoft negative feedback too--there's both a smiley-face and sad-face option beneath that button.)

Mac users have long had a fraught relationship with Office. It's a vital business lifeline, but on the Mac it's often also been a frustration. It's been five years since the last major Office release on the Mac, and that's painful--but these new apps don't just look and feel good. They feel like a first-class citizen in a new Office world where many platforms--not just Windows, but the Web and iOS and Android--are welcome.