Posey's Tips & Tricks

Is It Better to Purchase Microsoft Office or Subscribe to Office 365?

There's much more to consider besides willing to pay in full upfront vs. in perpetuity.

In spite of Microsoft's longstanding, cloud-first agenda, the company continues to offer customers the option of either purchasing a perpetual Microsoft Office license or subscribing to Microsoft 365. As such, those who wish to use the Office applications will need to decide which option is better for them. As with so many other things in life, the answer isn't always cut and dry.

Before I delve into the pros and cons, let me just say up front that with all things being equal, I would almost always prefer a perpetual license over a subscription. Maybe that's just the way that my brain is wired, but I would rather just pay for a product and never have to think about it again rather than having to pay a subscription fee month after month. Besides, the ongoing subscription costs will eventually exceed the cost of the one-time payment.

Having said that, the key phrase in that last paragraph was "with all things being equal." The problem with Office is that things are not equal. While there are undeniable benefits to purchasing a perpetual Microsoft Office license, there are also some serious disadvantages to think about. Microsoft is doing whatever they can to drive customers toward a subscription plan, and have therefore presumably taken steps to make standalone Office licenses less attractive. That being the case, I want to lay out what I consider to be the main pros and cons of each option.

The thing that I consider to be the biggest disadvantage to purchasing a standalone Office license is that doing so gets you fewer applications than you would get with a Microsoft 365 subscription. According to Microsoft, a standalone Office Home and Business 2021 license includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook. Teams is conspicuously absent from the list, but this probably isn't going to be a big deal for a lot of people since Teams is included with Windows.

So what is it that Microsoft 365 gives you that the standalone license doesn't? The feature sets vary widely from one Microsoft 365 subscription to the next, but a Microsoft 365 Apps for Business subscription (which is at least somewhat comparable to a standalone license) includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook, just like the standalone subscription. In addition, Microsoft 365 Apps for Business also includes OneDrive, Access and Publisher. I realize that relatively few people use Access and Publisher, but if you do use these applications then Microsoft gives you no choice but to purchase a Microsoft 365 subscription.

Another difference between the standalone Office license and a Microsoft 365 subscription is in the availability of technical support. Microsoft includes 60 days' worth of free technical support for Office Home and Business 2021. In contrast, most of the Microsoft 365 subscriptions come with anytime phone and Web support.

Yet another difference between the two options is the way that updates are handled. It is unlikely that Microsoft will provide any feature updates for Office Home and Business 2021. Those who want the latest features will need to either subscribe to Microsoft 365 or wait for the next standalone Office release (assuming that there is one).

Having said that, it is worth noting that Office Home and Business 2021 might be a good choice for those who want to ensure that they have a consistent experience. Microsoft updates Microsoft 365 on a regular basis. This means that you might occasionally open an Office application only to find that the taskbar looks different than it did the day before, or that a particular menu option has been moved to a different location. You probably won't have to worry about Microsoft making unwanted changes to the standalone version of Office (with the exception of security updates).

One last thing that may be worth considering is the way that both products are licensed. When you purchase a standalone Office license, that license is valid for a single PC or Mac. In contrast, Microsoft 365 licenses will usually allow you to run Office on multiple devices. As such, you may find that using Microsoft 365 is less expensive if you need to run the Office applications on several devices.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 22-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.


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