Microsoft Office: Should you purchase, subscribe or turn to a free alternative?

Let's answer common questions about today's Microsoft Office.



Credit: Microsoft

With Office Online, Office 2019, Office 365—sorry, that's now Microsoft 365—and the Office apps for mobile devices, Microsoft is really making it difficult for users to compare all the offerings and choose the right package. We explain the differences here and present free alternatives for installation and use via a browser. Because Microsoft Office has long been the standard for word processing, email, spreadsheets, presentations, and much more, it is also ideal for private use. Indeed, why should you familiarize yourself with other programs at home, deal with compatibility problems, or forego important functions? Beyond the investment, there is little to be said against the established Office software.

On the other hand, it is more difficult to decide on the right variant. For a long time, a new program version came onto the market every few years, usually named with the year of publication: Office 2003, 2007, 2010, and so on. These were each available in different editions with a different scope of functions: For example, Home and Student, Home and Business, and Professional. What all versions and editions up to Office 2013 had in common was they regularly received and updated new functions via service packs.

Microsoft puts its subsription offering front and center on the Office product page, but options for the one-time-purchase package can be found below.Credit: IDG
Microsoft puts its subsription offering front and center on the Office product page, but options for the one-time-purchase package can be found below.

Differences between Office 2019 and Microsoft 365

With Office 2019, Microsoft has changed the procedure: Beyond the security patches, users of these purchased versions do not receive any major function updates. You have to be content with the range of functions that is current when the software is released if you opt for a one-time edition. It's important to know that patches for the older 2016 and the current 2019 version are only provided for just under five years: Support for both ends in October 2025.

Microsoft charges $149.99 for Office 2019 Home and Student (without Outlook), and $249.99 for Home and Business. In the free trade, the same software is already available from reputable retailers for half, but cheap offers for five or 10 dollars are hardly legal! 

In addition to this traditional office suite, which you buy once and then install it on your PC, Microsoft also offers its Office as a subscription. You pay on an annual or monthly basis for as long as you use the software. This is cheaper for short-term use than the comparatively expensive purchase, but the differences go further. Subscribers to the software, which was renamed from Office 365 to Microsoft 365 a few months ago, keep getting new functions. This can best be illustrated with an example: When Office 2019 was first released, it was virtually identical to Office 365 at that time. But since then, Office / Microsoft 365 has been expanded several times, making the differences between the two much bigger. Office 2019 buyers must also purchase the software anew in order to upgrade to a new version down the line. Microsoft 365 is always current.

Essentially, Microsoft 365 is quite similar to Office 2019 with a few additional functions. In contrast, it differs fundamentally from Microsoft's (free) web version Office Online (more on that below.)

Microsoft 365: More functions, more devices, more cloud storage

Microsoft 365's subscribers (on the Personal plan) get 1TB (1,000 GB) of storage space in the Microsoft cloud via OneDrive. With the annual subscription fees of $69.99 for a license (Microsoft 365 Personal) or $99.99 for Microsoft 365 Family (maximum of six people), this is a pretty good value—competing services like Dropbox charge similar amounts for online storage alone. If you book Microsoft 365 for individual months, it is a bit more expensive: $7 per month for the single license, $10 for the family license.

Microsoft 365 offers the full complement of Office products, in their most up-to-date form.Credit: IDG
Microsoft 365 offers the full complement of Office products, in their most up-to-date form.

Although you can still set the standard memory for documents, tables, and presentations as you like with all versions (including locally), the preset OneDrive makes sense in the 365 subscription. Because the storage in the cloud facilitates the collaboration on shared Office files, and Microsoft 365 saves all content automatically in real time and no longer just at regular intervals. In addition, there are functions that are only possible online, such as translating, looking up Wikipedia, or text recognition (OCR).

After all, Office 2019 can only be installed on a PC or Mac, while Microsoft 365 can be used on all (!) your devices, according to the company. Five of them can be registered at the same time, with "365 Family" this also applies to every user. And while mobile devices with Android or iOS are not included in the one-time-purchase Office, smartphones and tablets can be used without restriction on a subscription.

Note: Subscribers need an internet connection to install the Office applications on the Windows PC. The same applies to documents in the cloud, certain online functions, and the license control required once a month. Otherwise, you can also work offline with Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook from Microsoft 365. Files stored locally are synchronized as soon as you are back on the network.

Office Online, Google Docs, Apps, and alternative Office packages

This is naturally different with Office applications that run exclusively in the web browser and do not use any installed software: An internet connection is required not only for emails, but also for the other Office applications. In addition to the free Office Online from Microsoft, the colloquial Google Docs (formally, Web Office from Google) is the best-known alternative. In addition to word processing ("Docs"), Google's free suite offers a spreadsheet, presentation and form software.

The web applications from Microsoft and Google have a lot in common: They are free, personal files are stored in the cloud (OneDrive or Google Drive) and are therefore available across all devices. They can also be shared with other people and edited together. Compared to the “big” office packages that are subject to a fee, various functions are missing, but they are completely sufficient for many private purposes. At the same time, the reduction to the essentials offers the advantage that even beginners can quickly get to grips with the browser applications.

A free version, known as Office Online, offers the basics, and differs greatly from the paid-subscription experience.Credit: IDG
A free version, known as Office Online, offers the basics, and differs greatly from the paid-subscription experience.

Note, Google's online requirement for free use is not very strict. In the Chrome browser settings, opt for Google to save office files locally on the PC. These can then be edited with Chrome without internet access and are automatically synchronized again as soon as the computer is back on the network. To do this, install the extension in the Google browser Google Docs Offline, click on the three dots for the file of your choice and slide the switch to the right next to "Available offline.".

At Microsoft, offline use is more complicated in that Office apps are also available for offline use in the Windows, Android, and iOS app stores. However, these can only be used free of charge for mobile devices with a screen size of up to 10.1 inches. While the size limit for smartphones is not a problem, you have to pay on some tablets such as the iPad Pro.

Theoretically, Office apps can be used free of charge on the smartphone using the keyboard and mouse, and the screen can be displayed on the large PC monitor via a Chromecast stick, but the functionality of the mobile apps remains limited. There are the free software alternatives such as Libre OfficeApache Open Office and to a limited extent also Softmaker Free Office better.

Conclusion: Microsoft 365 is suitable for families and multiple devices

So which is the best office for you? We cannot answer for you; it depends on your preference. Because of the low price, Microsoft 365 is particularly attractive for families, and each of the up to six users receives 1TB of cloud storage on OneDrive. However, the cloud and AI-supported convenience functions mean that Microsoft can look into your file contents, which, by the way, also applies to the free Office web services.

If you don't want that, you are better off installing office software. It doesn't have to be from Microsoft. Libre Office, Open Office and Free Office are free. Softmaker also offers a good commercial alternative: The current Office 2021 costs just $49.99 per month, the license is valid for up to five private PCs in the same household or a business computer.

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