Microsoft offers two different versions of Office for Windows 10. Traditional desktop apps are available for keyboard-and-mouse, and universal apps are available for touch. But it’s not that simple.

The desktop version of Office still has a touch mode, and those Office universal apps can run in windows on the desktop. You might want to use the desktop apps on some tablets and the universal apps on some desktops.

Desktop Office vs. Universal Office

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The traditional line of Microsoft Office desktop applications continues with Windows 10. Office 2016 is the successor to Office 2013. These are the typical Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and other Microsoft Office applications you’ve been using forever. Yes, they’re improved — they gained a “touch mode” around the time of Windows 8, they’re now gaining real-time collaborative editing, and they’re integrated with Microsoft’s OneDrive. However, they’re still the typical Office applications Windows users around the world already use.

Microsoft now offers “universal app” versions of Office. These aren’t the traditional desktop Windows applications, but will run in windows on the desktop. They’re the Windows version of the Office applications available for iPads and Android tablets. Because they’re universal, they’ll also run on Windows phones.

These are available in the Windows Store. Their interfaces are more designed for touch use. They’re also more lightweight, trading the huge amount of features that have built up in the desktop Office apps over time for “modern” Windows apps that use MIcrosoft’s new universal app platform.

It’s Not As Simple As It Seems

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These new “touch” Office apps were originally supposed to be released sometime for Windows 8. And, if they were, it would be simple — the touch apps would just run in the new “Metro” interface and be ideal for tablets, while the Office desktop apps would run in windows and be ideal for laptops and desktops.

But things are less simple now. The desktop apps still have that “touch mode” which makes them more usable on a touch screen. The universal apps run in windows on your desktop. Most of the apps included with Windows 10 are universal apps Microsoft wants you to use on the desktop, after all.

So, which should you use?

Advantages of Desktop Office

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The desktop Microsoft Office apps are Office as you know it — packed with a huge amount of features that have built up over the years, with everything from mail merges to macros included.

Microsoft is pushing these as “best suited for keyboard and mouse,” and they are. If you’ve ever used Office on Windows in the past, these are the applications you’ve been using. They have all the typical features you’d ever need, and they’re optimized for traditional Windows desktop use. But, if you absolutely need advanced features, you could still run these on a Windows tablet with a touch interface.

These applications aren’t free. You’ll have to buy a boxed copy of Office 2016 or pay for a Microsoft Office 365 subscription to get them.

Advantages of Universal Office

Universal Office apps are new — they’re the Windows versions of the iPad and Android tablet Office apps Microsoft released recently. They’re much more simplified and have less features. There are also less apps — only universal versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote are offered. There are also simplified universal versions of Outlook Mail and Calendar.


Microsoft is pushing these as “designed for touch and mobile.” They’ll “be pre-installed for free on phones and small tablets running Windows 10, and available to download from the Windows Store for other devices.” The message is pretty clear — use these apps on phones and small tablets, and use the traditional desktop apps on desktop PCs. But you’ll be able to install these universal apps on Windows 10

Microsoft is hedging their bets a bit here. On iPads, Android tablets, iPhones, and Android phones, the Office apps are free to use and don’t require a paid subscription. It’s possible that the universal apps won’t require a subscription at all on Windows 10, allowing you to use them for basic editing — even on the desktop — without paying anything. If Microsoft does make the universal apps free, they’ll be a good option for desktop users who don’t need the full Microsoft Office suite. We’ll have to see what happens when Microsoft releases Office 2016 — sometime before the end of 2015.

So, Which Should You Use?

Microsoft’s argument is pretty simple: Use traditional desktop apps on a PC with a keyboard and mouse, and universal Office apps on small tablets and smartphones.

Transforming devices like the Microsoft Surface make this a bit more complicated, though Microsoft would likely recommend using desktop Office applications both in keyboard-and-mouse and in touch mode.

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So far, it’s simple. But price throws a wrench into things — if universal Office apps are cheaper on Windows 10, or perhaps require a more inexpensive one-time fee that’s cheaper than buying a full copy of Office 2016 or a subscription to Office 365, they may be the best option for many desktop PC users. Likewise, people who only need basic editing features may want to use the universal apps anyway for their cleaner interface. On the other hand, if you need business documents with macros on your tablet, you’ll just need the desktop version of Office — even without a mouse and keyboard.


Microsoft also offers Office Online, which is completely free. As long as you’re happy using a browser, you can get a version of Microsoft’s Office suite for free. Yes, Google Docs offers offline support — but Office Online offers a familiar interface for Office users and likely better compatibility with Office document formats. It does require you save your documents to OneDrive.

Microsoft will probably simplify their messaging before Office 2016 is released by the end of the year. Currently, searching the Windows Store brings up the universal versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, with Office 2016 located outside the Windows Store on Microsoft’s website. If Microsoft wants most Windows users to get the desktop version, they’ll need to push it more.

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Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read nearly one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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