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Hands-On with the Office Visual Refresh

Posted July 15, 2021 | Microsoft 365 | Office | Windows | Windows 10 | Windows 11


It’s unclear why I had to wait so long to get the Office Visual Refresh, but it has finally arrived, so here’s a quick peek at the changes it brings.

For background, Microsoft announced the Office Visual Refresh on June 28, the same day that it announced Windows 11, and it originally promised to deliver it by the end of that week to those who enrolled in the Office Insider Program’s Beta channel. But the firm never met that promise and then later said it would arrive the following week. Which it did, sort of. Few people had access to the refresh two weeks after the announcement, and it appeared that Microsoft was, for whatever reason, only slowly rolling it out.

For whatever it’s worth, I enroll in the Office Insider Program on every single PC I use, and I’ve done that for years, literally, ever since I switched back to using Microsoft Word, instead of Markdown, for writing. And the reason I did that, originally, was because I’ve been hoping to experience a version of Word with the Simplified Ribbon. But that has never appeared: Only Outlook offers the Simplified Ribbon on Windows, and the only version of Word that offers it is Word for the Web. Cue Charlie Brown “sigh” graphic.

Well, with the advent of the Office Visual Refresh, there’s a new reason to be on the so-called leading edge. And while it is not the Simplified Ribbon I’ve been wanting to use for years, it is, at least, an attractive change.

Speaking of the Simplified Ribbon, I get around the ugliness and cluttered look of the standard Ribbon by hiding (collapsing) it. So my default view of Word, the only Office desktop application that I use every day, is still very much a simplified one. And that doesn’t change all that much with the Office Visual Refresh. Instead, there are just some rounded corners—on those Comments and Share buttons, most obviously—and no more Quick Access toolbar (which I very rarely use anyway, mostly for its quick access, ahem, to multiple levels of Undo and Redo).

When used in this mode, you can access the Ribbon by clicking on a tab name—Home, Insert, and so on—and here you can see the impact of the rounded corners even better.

But the view most people will see is this, with the Ribbon pinned open.

The biggest news here, perhaps, is that with the Office Visual Refresh, the core Office desktop applications can be configured to automatically use the Windows 11 theme you selected. I’ve been using a dark mode/black theme in Office since it was offered, and I especially like that the writing canvas can be made dark, which is much easier on my eyes. But I can also see the appeal of mapping the Office theme to the Windows 11 theme. Here, for example, you can see the impact of switching to a light Windows 11 theme.

And yes, you can, of course, override this behavior and choose an Office theme that’s not tied to that used by Windows.

The other big feature is the ability to customize the Ribbon by putting the commands you use most often where you want them. This was the purpose of the now deprecated Quick Access toolbar, but I suppose some power users overloaded that little menu with too many commands, so Microsoft decided to make Ribbon customization a thing.

Granted, you can customize the Office Ribbon already, so I’m not entirely sure what’s changed: I never really bothered trying this before because the interface is so complicated, and it never synced these changes between PCs. Maybe it does now.

Overall, I’d say that this is a minor but pleasant change. But I would still prefer a Simplified Ribbon on the desktop, and I don’t understand why that can’t be an option as well.

 



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