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Microsoft Office is now more than three decades old, having first launched all the way back in 1990. That predated widespread availability of the internet, so few could have predicted the impact it would have on society.
The likes of Word, Excel and PowerPoint soon established themselves as the go-to productivity programs, whether you’re writing an article, managing a spreadsheet or creating a presentation. All three have undergone huge changes over the years, while the core Office suite also now includes OneNote (note-taking) and Publisher (publishing).
But these days, Microsoft Office is synonymous with Microsoft 365, the company’s productivity subscription service. Previously known as Office 365, a monthly subscription gets you access to all five apps mentioned above, plus Teams for communication and Outlook for email. Even more software is available on professional and business-focused plans.
While this article is designed to help you decide between them, it’s far from your only option. As has always been the case, Microsoft continues to release standalone versions of Office apps every few years. The latest version was released in 2021, but aside from software patches, you won’t get any updates.
For some people, it’s also possible to access Microsoft Office free or at a discounted rate. Here’s everything you need to know.
In years gone by, the best (and only) way to get Office was to buy a CD-ROM for a one-off price and install it onto your PC or laptop. These days that would be a bit of a faff, with many laptops not even having disc drives anymore, but it was one way to ensure you had a physical backup.
Nowadays, Office is available as a download, but you can either buy it outright with a one time purchase, or as a monthly subscription. There are advantages to either options.
Any Microsoft product under the ‘365’ umbrella is subscription-based, referring to the number of days in a year. Any Microsoft product without ‘365’ in its name is likely to be a one-time purchase – good if you only want to pay once, but you won’t be able to upgrade the software with online updates like you can with 365 subscriptions.
There are also several different versions of Office available, and you should choose the best one for you depending on your needs. It’s worth noting that while this buying guide covers every platform, Mac users might want to take a look at the specific Office for Mac buying guide on our sister site Macworld.
First, we’ll break down Office options if you are buying for personal home or student use, and then go on to the options if you are buying it for work or use within a small business.
If you’re looking to upgrade, it’s easy to check which version of Microsoft Office you have installed. Provided you’ve downloaded all the apps at the same time, they should all be running the same version.
For the purpose of this article, we’re using Microsoft Word. The process may vary slightly depending on your device and app, but it should still be easy to find:
However, the process differs on older Office apps. In Word 2010, you need to choose ‘File’, then ‘Help’. The information will then be displayed on the right side of the screen, as you can see below.
It’s different again in Word 2007. Click on the round Microsoft Office icon in the top left and then ‘Word Options’ at the bottom of the menu. Next, choose ‘Resources’ – the last option on the left-side panel. You should see an ‘About’ button at the bottom of the list which will provide you additional details about the version that you own.
In the 2003 version, go to the ‘Help’ option in the top menu bar, and then the ‘About Microsoft Office Word’. In the pop-up, you will see the MS Office World version along with the suite it belong to, like the Microsoft Office Professional Edition 2003.
No, it doesn’t. Windows 11 is expected in late 2021, but Microsoft Office apps won’t be included. The key exception here is if you already have a standalone version (such as Office 2019 or Office 2021), but everyone else will need to subscribe to Microsoft 365 for access.
Learn more in our separate guide: Does Windows 11 come with Microsoft Office?
Microsoft’s productivity-focused subscription service was known as Office 365 from its initial launch in 2011 until 2020. Since April 2020 it’s been known simply as ‘Microsoft 365’. However, aside from the name, the only other changes were a few new features.
First up are the options designed for the individual consumer (i.e. probably you). There are three different options to choose from, alongside two pricing tiers for the Microsoft 365 subscription, and one version of Office Home & Student 2021 that you can buy outright (non-subscription).
There’s also a special free version for students and university staff which we’ll get to later. Let’s tackle Microsoft 365 first.
The main benefit to opting for Microsoft 365 is that you’ll get regular updates for as long as you’re a subscriber, with no need to jump from one version to the next every few years, and no headaches about file compatibility.
You can also save your work to the cloud, similar to Google Docs. Microsoft also throws in a few extra benefits such as 1TB of cloud storage and full access to Microsoft Teams.
Microsoft 365 has two options: Family (previously Office 365 Home) for £79.99/ US$99.99 per year or Personal (previously Office 365 Personal) for £59.99/ $69.99 per year.
The key difference is that Microsoft 365 Family allows up to six users to use the software across multiple devices at one time, whereas the Personal account is intended for a single user.
The Family option licenses up to 6 people and offers up to 6TB of cloud storage. In 2018, Microsoft lifted the device limit on Office 365 installations, which means both Family or Personal subscribers can install the software on as many devices as needed.
The extra £20/$30 per year or £2/$3 per month for the Family subscription is a great deal if you choose to share the subscription costs among friends. The yearly subscriptions save you on two months of payment as well, compared to the £7.99/US$9.99 or £5.99/US$6.99 monthly fee for each subscription type, respectively.
UK: £79.99 per year or £7.99 per month
US: $99.99 per year or $9.99 per month
UK: £59.99 per year or £5.99 per month
US: $69.99 per year or $6.99 per month
Office 365 Education is (as the name suggests) a special version of Microsoft 365 for students and university faculty or staff. Students and teachers can sign up for free web access to Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and Microsoft Teams under the Office 365 A1 plan.
Unsurprisingly, you’ll need a university email address or other proof of your status to claim it. See our full article on how to get Microsoft Word for free.
There’s also the Office 365 A3 plan if you want desktop access to the apps, which costs £2.20/US$2.50 per month for each student and £2.85/$3.25 for each teachers or other member of staff. The top-tier Office 365 A5 plan, which costs £5.30/$6 per month for students and £7.05/$8 per month for teachers, offers desktop and web access along with added security features.
If you want to look for other great student tech deals, check out Tech Advisor’s back to school hub.
If you would prefer to pay a one-off price, Office Home and Student 2021 is the right package for you. You lose the automatic software updates of Microsoft 365, but that means you can technically use the software for years without being tied into a subscription.
However, there are other reasons you might want to stick to Microsoft 365.
You don’t get full access to the mobile and tablet apps here (anyone can still use them to view documents for free, just not edit or create them), there’s no cloud storage included, and you don’t get access to the full suite of Office programs included in Microsoft 365.
The latest full standalone release available to buy now is Office 2021, which includes new features such as a black theme in Word, new learning tools, new charts and timelines, new transitions in PowerPoint and loads more.
It’s important to note that to run Office 2021 on your PC, you will need to be running Windows 10. The functionality is also more limited than Microsoft 365.
UK: £119.99 one-off purchase
US: $149.99 one-off purchase
Microsoft also offers business-minded versions of its software. We’re focusing on the options for small businesses here, but Microsoft also offers Enterprise plans for larger companies. Once again, there’s a split between the 365 subscription packages and the one-off purchase version of Office 2021.
There are three main versions of Microsoft 365 Business available, each offering very different software packages, so make sure you pick the right one. Be especially mindful about Microsoft 365 Business Basic (from £4.50/ $6 per user per month), which doesn’t actually include desktop versions of the core Office software like Word and Excel – just Microsoft’s online and cloud tools.
Also note the Microsoft 365 Apps for business plan ( £7.90/ US$8.25 per user per month) includes both desktop and mobile version of the apps but without the other productivity tools such as email, calendar and Teams conference call features.
Here’s a summary of all four main business-focused plans we’d recommend:
UK: £9.40 per user per month
US: $12.50 per user per month
UK: £16.60 per user per month
US: $22 per user per month
UK: £4.50 per user per month (annual plan)
US: $5 per user per month (annual plan)
UK: £7.90 per user per month (annual plan)
US: $8.25 per user per month (annual plan)
The prices of some of Microsoft’s commercial and business-focused plans have recently increased in price.
In an official blog post from August 2021, Microsoft 365 Corporate VP Jared Spataro says the new pricing “reflects the increased value we have delivered to our customers over the past 10 years”. It’s the first hike we’ve seen since Microsoft 365 launched as Office 365 in 2011 – the likes of Teams, OneDrive, To-Do and SharePoint have all been added since then.
As the resident expert on Windows, Senior Staff Writer Anyron’s main focus is PCs and laptops. Much of the rest of his time is split between smartphones, tablets and audio, with a particular focus on Android devices.
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