Microsoft Office is already a robust, feature-filled office suite. If you want to make it even easier to boost your productivity, here are seven awesome, free add-ins and apps for your downloading pleasure.
What Are Office Add-ins and Apps?
First, a brief overview of these utilities, if you’re not already familiar: Office add-ins are exactly what they sound like. They’re plugins that add extra features or custom commands to Office programs such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook. They’re easy to install and manage from the program’s main menu, and there are hundreds of free and paid options to help you accomplish whatever you need to in Office (not unlike the extensions in your browser).
Like browser extensions, they do have one downside: add-ins increase the startup time for Office programs, so you’ll need to be judicious in which ones you install.
With Office 2013, add-ins are now called Office “Apps”. Apps are more connected to the web while add-ins for 2010 and older versions tend to rely on VBA, macros and other legacy Office conventions. Older add-ins will still work with Office 2013, but the newer Apps only work with the latest Office suite.
Here are some of the most useful free ones available.
Add-ins for Microsoft Office 2013 and Earlier
Office Tabs (note: updated link) adds a tabbed view to Office 2010 and earlier Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents (as well as Publisher, Access, Project and Visio in the paid enterprise version). So, if you’re working on a dozen Word documents at the same time, you can more easily switch between them, save and close all the docs in one click, and also add documents to groups. If you’re using Office 2013, you’ll need to spring for the updated, paid version of Office Tabs from Extend Office. The latest version adds the ability to display the tabs in a left-hand or right-hand navigation bar, which is great if you’re short on vertical screen real estate.
Search Commands, from Microsoft’s Office Labs, helps you find commands you need in Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint (32-bit/64-bit versions, Office 2007 or 2010, should also work with 2013). If you’ve ever wondered “How do I do that in Microsoft Office?”, this is a handy add-in to have installed. Type in what you’re looking to do in the search field to find commands and be taken instantly to the related menus (Mac users should already be familiar with this feature, since it’s in every app on OS X). It’s a lot faster than trudging through help files.
Excel Utilities from Apps Pro offers 30 shortcuts and selection tools that spreadsheet pros probably use on a daily basis. These include one-click access buttons and keyboard shortcuts for things such as conditional formatting, data validation, and unhiding or rehiding worksheets. If you’re using Excel 2007 or higher, the new ribbon tab for Excel Utilities puts these shortcuts within easy reach.
Apps Pro, founded by Microsoft MVP Rob Bovey, also offers a free XY Chart Labeler add-in, which lets you add labels to XY chart data points.
Another suite of utilities for Excel, the popular ASAP Utilities, includes over 300 features and shortcuts. These include exporting worksheets as separate files, sorting sheet tabs by name or colour, auto-naming multiple worksheets, and selecting cells based on formatting and content. The add-in is free for home and student users, and it works in 32-bit versions of Excel 2010 and 2013 as well as earlier Excel versions going back to Excel 2000.
VisualBee turns bare or ugly PowerPoint presentations into something more stylish and presentable in just a couple of clicks. It works with PowerPoint 2007 and 2010, and it comes with a large collection of free templates and images. Animations and transitions are also built-in, but you can turn those off and modify any of the templates after they’re applied to your slides.
Apps for Office 2013
There aren’t quite as many of the newer apps for Office 2013 in the new Office Store, because it’s relatively new. However, these apps hold a lot of promise because they can pull in updates and data in real-time. I haven’t tested the two below, since I’m still using Office 2010, but they seem to be universally useful ones to try out if you’re using the latest Office suite.
Search the Web
Search the Web adds a Google (no, not Bing) search panel within Word, Excel, Project and PowerPoint 2013. Thanks to the add-in, you don’t have to leave your document and switch to your browser to Google the info you need — including images from Google’s image search.
Bing Dictionary (English)
Bing Dictionary for Word and Excel 2013 is a more intelligent or at least web-connected dictionary from Microsoft. The company describes it as such:
Special features include: fresh linguistic content, web-scale collocations, and powerful search capabilities that let users enter words as they sound. Additionally, users can explore English with functionality like wild cards that can suggest letters, words or phrases, optionally specified by part-of-speech. Behind these features are an ever-expanding and massive dataset derived through mining the web. By continuously discovering and distilling high quality language knowledge on the Internet, Bing Dictionary can present a continuous English lexicon.
More Specific Add-ins and Apps
The seven above just scratch the surface, as there are companies dedicated to solely to developing plugins for Microsoft Office. You can find add-ins for science and maths, random number generators, and just about every category of Outlook and Exchange plugins you can think of. You’ll also find a lot of paid plugins as well, including NetCentrics GTDOA for Outlook, which GTD creator David Allen helped design. In short, if there’s something you need to do in Microsoft Office that doesn’t seem easy or built-in, chances are there’s a third-party solution that can help.