What’s the Difference Between Microsoft Office’s Desktop, Web, and Mobile Apps?

Microsoft offers several different ways to run the various Office programs—as desktop apps, as mobile apps for Android or iPhone/iPad, and online in a web browser. As you might imagine, the online and mobile app versions aren’t as robust as the desktop version, but you might still find them useful. And for some of you, they might be all you need. Here’s the breakdown.

The Different Versions of Microsoft Office

Microsoft’s offerings can sometimes be a little, shall we say, perplexing. Office is no exception. You can buy or subscribe to the full desktop version. The subscription option also offers access to their mobile apps for iPhone, iPad, Android, and (in turn) Chromebooks. And you can use an online version for free in your browser.

Office 365 (or Office 2016) Desktop

The desktop version of Office is the full featured version you’re most likely familiar with from years past. These are the full desktop apps that you install on your Windows PC or Mac. You can buy this version in one of two ways:

  • Office 2016: This is the traditional standalone app. You pay the upfront cost, get a license, and install it on your computer.
  • Office 365: This is the newer subscription model. You pay a monthly (or yearly) subscription fee. As long as you keep your subscription going, you always have the latest version of Office—including major new updates. The subscription also comes with some extra perks, like a large amount of OneDrive storage, a monthly allotment of Skype minutes, and access to the mobile app versions of the Office apps.

We’ve covered the difference between Office 365 and Office 2016 in detail before, so if you want to learn more about which version may be better for you, we suggest giving that guide a read.

Office 365 Mobile Apps (for iPhone, Android, and Chromebooks)

The Office 365 Mobile Apps include versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, and Outlook for the iOS and Android platforms. You can also use most of the Office Mobile Apps for Android on a Chromebook, assuming you have a Chromebook that supports Android apps (though a few don’t support PowerPoint).

To use the mobile apps, you’ll need to have a paid Office 365 subscription. That subscription gives you access to both the desktop and mobile apps—you don’t need a separate subscription.

The mobile apps offer a more limited feature set than their full desktop counterparts (more on that in a moment), but the look and feel is largely the same. The mobile apps also offer offline access, meaning you can view and edit documents even when you’re not connected to the Internet.

Office 365 Online

Office 365 Online lets you view and edit Office documents for free in your web browser (like Google Docs, but from Microsoft). All the same apps—Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote—are available. You do not need a subscription to use the online apps, although you will need to sign in with a free Microsoft account.

The Office 365 Online apps offer pretty much the same set of features you’d find in the mobile apps. The big difference (aside from being free) is that Office 365 Online does not offer offline access; you must be connected to the Internet to view and edit documents.

All three versions (desktop, mobile apps, and online) offer seamless integration with OneDrive, so keeping track of documents is easy when you move between platforms.

Are the Non-Desktop Versions Good Enough?

Let’s be clear up front: the non-desktop versions of Office are no replacement for the full desktop version. Office 365 Online and the Office 365 Mobile Apps both offer a feature set similar to what you’d find in their Google Docs counterparts. They’re great if you just need the basic features, or if you occasionally need to view or make minor edits to documents (without the compatibility issues you’d run into using Google Docs, LibreOffice, or another suite of programs).

For example, some of the major features you’ll find missing in the online and mobile apps include:

And there are a lot more, somewhat minor, features you won’t be able to take advantage of in the online or mobile app versions of Office, as well. For a complete list, check out the Office Online Service Description on Microsoft TechNet. While that list specifically talks about the Office 365 Online experience, most of the same exclusions apply to the mobile apps, too.

NOTE: Some of these features we mentioned are viewable in the online and mobile app versions of Office; you just can’t create them there. For example, you cannot create a table of contents form in the online or mobile app versions, but you will be able to view one that was created in the desktop version.

Which Version of Office Should You Use?

What version of Office is best for you depends on your needs. If you need the full desktop version, decide whether you want to go with the standalone Office 2016 or the subscription-based Office 365. Note that if you also want to use the mobile apps, you’ll need that Office 365 subscription, anyway.

When it comes to using Office 365 Online or the Office 365 Mobile Apps, we find that they really are good enough if you only need access to basic features, or if you mostly need to view (and maybe perform minor edits to) documents created with the full desktop version.

If you already have an Office 365 subscription, we recommend using the mobile apps primarily because they offer the ability to work offline. You can use them just fine on Android, iPhone or iPad, or even on the Chromebook.

If you don’t already have a Office 365 subscription and don’t really care about offline access, we recommend sticking with the free online app—it’ll let you at least do the basics, for free, with nothing but a web browser.

Walter Glenn is a long time computer geek and tech writer. Though he's mostly a Windows and gadget guy, he has a fondness for anything tech. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.