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Microsoft 365 is available in a dizzyingly wide array of packages, and they don't make it easy to pick what's best for you. Here's how to pick the right Office package for your needs and budget.
Formerly known as Microsoft Office 365 before a massive rebranding effort that's ongoing, Microsoft 365 is the software giant's way to provide its highly-used suite of productivity tools to users.
Used throughout business, education, and at home, the suite has been a very popular software collection that many users end up buying simply because they're used to it all.
However, like the Office 365 packages that preceded it, Microsoft 365 is available in a large number of different price points. Each tier also varied what exactly you got to use, which could make things bewildering to newcomers.
With a little bit of understanding how Microsoft organizes its suite, most people will be able to work out what package they need, without overspending on items that they don't require.
The free option, and the not-so-free Microsoft 365 Basic
In a guide aiming to demystify the cost of different software packages in a bid to save users money, it makes sense to point out that you don't necessarily need to spend money at all.
Aside from the alternative options, such as Apple's own productivity tools on Mac and iPhone or Google's own version, you can actually take advantage of elements of Microsoft 365 without paying a penny.
All you need is a Microsoft account, and you're off to the races with the bare essentials. Or more specifically, cloud-based versions of the apps that work in the browser, rather than downloadable apps.
This includes being able to use Word, Excel, and PowerPoint within a web browser, without needing to pay for access. There's also OneNote, Outlook, and 5GB of free OneDrive storage.
The free option is handy for those with limited budgets, and for people who need to access Microsoft 365 documents natively but don't want to buy a subscription.
Mobile app versions are available to use for free, if you're not using an iPad with a large display.
The downside here is entirely that you're basically using a browser-based version and not an app running on your Mac. You don't need to download and install anything, but some people just want the full app-based experience.
You do have the option to use the mobile apps on an iPhone or iPad, though you are limited to screens measuring 10.1 inches or smaller under the free account. If you want to use larger iPad displays, you'll have to pay for a subscription tier.
Microsoft 365 Basic
Launching from January 30, Microsoft 365 Basic will add some more premium features to the free experience. While paid, you're not getting downloadable apps, just the same web-based versions as the free edition.
For a start, users will get 100 gigabytes of OneDrive storage, as well as ad-free and secure Outlook email. Security features will also be added, such as ransomware recovery and password-protected sharing links, and there will also be access to support for Microsoft 365 and Windows 11.
This will cost users $1.99 per month or $19.99 per year, when it launches in the end of January 2023.
If the intended user is a student or works for an educational institution in some way, they may still be able to get the Microsoft experience for no cost.
To clarify, there are Office 365 plans for education as well as Microsoft 365 plans, with the latter also incorporating Office 365 features. While you have to contact Microsoft's sales teams for the Microsoft 365 for Education package pricing, this article covers Office 365 plans for education, since pricing is openly published for them.
There's the Free Office 365 A1 package, which provides the same web apps as the completely free public option, including Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.
Then there are services including Exchange, OneDrive, SharePoint, Teams, Sway, Forms, Stream, Power Automate, Power Apps, School Data Sync, Visio, and Yammer. There's also an included 50GB Outlook inbox and unlimited personal cloud storage.
At $2.50 per month per student or $3.25 per month for staff on the A3 tier, the online web apps can be turned into desktop versions, installable on up to five computers per user, and up to five tablets and phones too. Added to the list are Publisher and Access, though both are PC only.
On the services side, there's the addition of Bookings, with staff also able to host meetings for up to 10,000 people under Microsoft Teams, and have access to Office 365 Cloud App Security, among other elements.
The A5 tier is $6 per month per student, $8.50 for staff, and has the same apps and services list as the A3 package, but with the addition of analytics from Power BI Pro.
Administrators also gain a 100GB mailbox, audio conferencing, and select other extras.
For home users, Microsoft details three different plans for Microsoft 365 packages: Office Home & Student 2021, Microsoft 365 Personal, and Microsoft 365 Family.
Office Home & Student 2021
Unlike the other plans, Office Home & Student 2021 is a one-time purchase, which is $149.99.
For that charge, for one account and one installation on a PC or Mac, you can have 2021 versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint apps installed locally.
If you are looking for an apps-only package, this may be the best option for you. However, it doesn't include any of the usual online niceties, such as cloud storage on OneDrive.
It's a basic existence, but one that could be all some people really want.
Microsoft 365 Personal
You get the main Word, Excel, and PowerPoint web and downloadable apps, which can be used on up to five devices at the same time, including computers and mobile devices, however it's all under one account.
It also includes Outlook, OneNote, Microsoft Editor, Forms, Skype, Access and Publisher for PC only, Microsoft Teams, ClipChamp video editing, and 1TB of cloud storage.
As a subscription product, it also receives regular updates, unlike the Home & Student edition.
Microsoft 365 Family
For all intents and purposes, Microsoft 365 Family is the same as Microsoft 365 Personal, except it's for multiple users. For $9.99 per month or $99.99 per year, you can have between one and six accounts associated with the subscription.
Each account has the same benefits as the Personal version, including 1TB of cloud storage per user, however there's also the addition of Microsoft Family Safety. This element adds in features like location alerts, drive safety reports, and drive history, all facilitated by the dedicated app.
If you have multiple potential users of the Office suite in your family, the Family option will be the most cost-effective route to take by far.
Much like the For Home versions of Microsoft 365, the For Business tiers are geared towards enterprise users. While there are the fairly similar core elements as the For Home versions, here Microsoft adds in parts that are specifically intended for business users to take advantage of.
For example, in many of the plans, you have access to SharePoint as well as Exchange, two tools that can be crucial to businesses. There is also a greater emphasis on reporting tools, customer management, security, and other managerial elements.
There are also two ways of signing up, with Domain Account Sign Up relying on the use of a domain and for Microsoft to process data, or Simplified Sign Up for domain-less access and with Microsoft controlling the data itself.
You're also able to manage a considerably higher number of users under a subscription. While Home tiers max out at 6 accounts, the Business plans are designed to work with up to 300 users.
Microsoft 365 Business Basic
Priced at $6 per user per month, Microsoft 365 Business Basic is similar to the free account in that you have web and mobile versions of the Office apps, rather than downloadable versions.
You do get browser and app-based versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Teams, Outlook, Exchange, and SharePoint, with 1TB of OneDrive cloud storage per user, business-class email, "standard security," and phone and web support.
Microsoft 365 Apps for Business
The $8.25 per user per month Microsoft 365 Apps for Business package is both a step up and a step down from Basic.
On the plus points, you do get desktop, web, and mobile app access to Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, OneDrive, and Access and Publisher for PC users, along with phone and web support and 1TB of cloud storage per user.
On the negative side, you're not getting Microsoft Teams access nor Exchange as part of the package. This does make the Apps for Business option less useful from an inter-team communications standpoint, but it does scratch that desktop apps itch.
Microsoft 365 Business Standard
At $12.50 per user per month, Microsoft 365 Business Standard is seemingly the true step up from Business Basic.
On top of everything you get in Business Basic, Business Standard also includes the desktop apps, and Access and Publisher on PC, as well as the Teams and Exchange elements missing from the Apps for Business plan.
The tier also claims to enable users to "manage customer appointments," to host webinars, and to gain access to attendee registration and reporting tools.
Microsoft 365 Business Premium
Paying $22 per user per month grants Microsoft 365 Business Premium users all of the benefits of Business Standard, and a few more extras.
On the app side, there's access to Intune and Azure Information Protection, as well as advanced security, access and data control tools, and "cyberthreat protection."
Unless you have a real reason to use Intune, Azure Information Protection, or desperately require the heightened security, you may save money and be able to live with Business Standard rather than paying for the top dollar version.
What about Enterprise?
The Home and Business options of Microsoft 365 can handle the vast majority of potential customers, but there is one category further than that. For large organizations with more than 300 users, Microsoft 365 Enterprise provides even more options.
Enterprise tiers of Microsoft 365 are aimed at large organizations, with communication and security a big focus.
While we won't go into detail, it's safe to say that Enterprise tiers provide considerably more elements than the other segments. Core elements including main apps and communications tools may be the same, but there's a lot more beyond that.
For example, there are enhanced device and user management tools at the account manager's disposal, improved security features, work management tools, identity and access management, and elements to assess regulatory compliance.
You're not going to need to worry about the Enterprise options unless you work for a considerably large company or a government agency.
Many tiers, many options
Microsoft 365 is offered in so many variants that it can be bewildering. However, it's also obvious why Microsoft does so.
Not everyone needs every single tool that Microsoft creates to get their work done.
The average home user doesn't need enterprise-level security or management tools. Likewise, a student may not necessarily need things like Microsoft Teams if all they want to do is write a book report for school.
Microsoft does a reasonable job at pitching its productivity suite with just the right level of apps and services to each tier of user.
There's even an option for those who don't want to hand over cash to Microsoft, but still need a basic level of access to tools.
No matter what your personal feelings are about Apple's historic tech rival, you have to admit that Microsoft is sort-of bending over backwards to try and meet everyone's productivity needs.
But, it's doing it in the most obtuse way possible.
Deals on Microsoft 365 plans
While Microsoft direct is the best source for every plan available, there are Microsoft 365 deals available at select third-party retailers. At press time, Amazon is knocking up to 16% off Personal and Family plans.