Choosing the right copy of Microsoft Office

Tips & Hints

Updated 8 December 2007

Choosing the right copy of Microsoft Office

The single most important piece of software on most computers is the office suite they run. For most computer users, the basic task of their computer for writing letters and sending emails. For most people, this means using Microsoft Office.

Sadly Microsoft have made it very difficult to choose the right versions, they have confused the market with way too many versions.

So, in conjunction with our buying a new computer page, here's our guide to making sense of the Office mess.

OEM versus boxed product

This is a big topic. If you get Microsoft Office supplied with the new computer you may get it at a discount to the retail price. This is called OEM software and we discuss it in detail on a separate page.

OEM software was once the cheapest and best way to buy Office, but now the price and the attached conditions don't make it as appealing. It's best to check retail prices as you may get a better deal as, for instance, the box version of Office Home and Student is valid for three computers while the OEM version is only good for the computer it comes on.

Home use versus business use

One popular package is the home and student edition. It's important to note that this edition is explicitly for home use. If you are running a home business then this is legally not for you.

One of the bizarre policies of Microsoft is to exclude Outlook from Home and Student edition. This is an important change at up until the latest release, all the versions of Office had included Outlook or it's predecessors.

Outlook is definitely the best of Microsoft's email programs and we'd suggest this is important in many households and offices.

However it should be pointed out that families aren't using the ISP provided email but take advantage of web based mail or messaging programs. So it may be you don't need Outlook, if so the Student and Home edition may be adequate.

Academic editions

Like many other software companies, Microsoft also make available academic editions. These are intended for students and teachers with licence expressly prohibiting commercial use. These are full features products that are the same as the full priced editions in every respect except the licence.

If you are a home user with an eligible student or academic in the house then you are entitled to buy and use the academic editions. Retails are supposed to check for relevant ID but few do in practice.

Keep in mind that a business using these editions risks substantial fines should they be caught. Technically a household where the kids have left school could also be in breach of an academic licence.

Choosing the right features

The bewildering array of feature across the eight different versions makes it difficult to select which product is right. It depends upon your needs.

Microsoft Word

Standard across all versions.

Microsoft Excel

Standard across all versions.


Not included in the Home and Student edition. The business editions include the Business Contact Manager with Outlook. We've found Business Contact Manager to be a pain we'd recommend you uninstall it before using Outlook.


This is a must have in many homes and offices. It is included in all editions except Office Basic. If you only want to look at Powerpoint presentations then you can do without it and just download the Powerpoint Viewer.


If you still want publisher then you should get any of the business versions.

Publisher is a weird beast that Microsoft seem to have grown bored with. These days Word seems to do most of Publisher's basic tasks and Microsoft have conceded the mid and higher end ground to companies like Adobe.

Unfortunately there is no Publisher viewer available and Microsoft have no intention of releasing one. Their reasons are interesting and explained at the Microsoft Developer Network website. We'd argue the lack of a Publisher viewer is one of the reasons Publisher is dying.

If you must use Publisher, make sure you send out documents created in it as a .PDF attachment. We like and recommend CutePDF as a way to create these attachment.


Like Publisher, Access is another program that Microsoft seem to be letting die on the vine. The only thing we suspect that keeps MS Access alive is it is a useful way of easing people into the industrial strength SQL server.

If you have to use an in house database for your business. We recommend you use Filemaker or hire someone who knows how to develop MS SQL or MySQL databases.

Suckers for punishment that want to persist with Access in their business can use any of the business versions EXCEPT for Small Business.

OneNote, Grove, InfoPath, Accounting Express and other stuff

All the other options in Office are irrelevant noise. The number of people who actually use any of these functions can be counted on one hand.

If you do want or need any of these functions, consult Microsoft's chart. We certainly wouldn't recommend basing your decisions on these features.

Our recommendations

It's difficult to recommend any one product as there are such a bewildering array of features. If you are an existing Office user, then you should make sure the new version includes the features you currently use. Powerpoint and Outlook are the two obvious candidates for upgrading users to be caught out.

Home users

Microsoft Office Home & Student is our choice. The three most important apps for students; Word, Excel and Powerpoint are there and it's difficult to go past it on price, particularly for the three user edition. If you need Outlook, then MS Office Standard is the way to go.

Business users

For the basic business user, Outlook is a must have. So we'd go with MS Office Standard. If you have need to use Publisher or Access, then MS Office Professional is the way to go, but at $850 per copy, it's an expensive luxury.

Office Alternatives

Another aspect to consider is ditching Office altogether. There are a number of alternatives which we've discussed previously. It's important to remember there is a learning curve in going to another Office suite and there are some differences between the versions.

The problem with ditching office is sharing documents and presentations becomes tricky. For most students and many business, this is too risky. But for home users an alternative like Open Office might be worth trying.
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