By: Greg Ross
Google Docs is the search giant's Web-based answer to Microsoft Office, stripped down to bare essentials but with some intriguing sharing features built in. Is less really more, or are the free-to-anybody Google Docs worth what you pay for them? Read our full review to find out.
Google Docs is Google's on-line competitor to Microsoft Office 2007. Featuring a word processing suite, spreadsheet suite, presentation suite, and data collection/form suite, this product is clearly aiming its sights at Microsoft's solutions. After creating a free account with Google, users will also have access to tools for email communications, calendaring, photo sharing, and personal website hosting. Clearly, this suite can give Microsoft a run for its money.
When multiple users are signed up, it is also possible to collaborate with each user able to edit and change the same document via the Web. Because all the documents are hosted online, this also means that you can access your work from any computer anywhere else in the world -- but it also means that without the Internet you cannot access your work.
INTERFACE & EASE OF USE
Understanding the layout of Google Docs, and the meaning of all the little buttons in the interface, should be a fairly easy task if you have previously used any kind of word processor. Indeed, if you use the posting tools on our website forum you will already be familiar with a large number of icons and symbols used in Google Docs and many other tools.
The front page of Google Docs is also fairly simple to understand. Open up a new document and Google will ask if it is a word document, presentation, or spreadsheet. Forms are available that can be emailed out to anyone, with the responses submitted to Google and their results compiled for you. Documents of all types can be easily grouped together into different folders and moved around as needed, and the user's view can also be restricted to a specific folder or organized according to date or name.
Using each of the programs outlined in this review was fairly user-friendly, though we did discover that Google Docs does occasionally err by deciding what text format you really want to use or what indent you should use for this paragraph. The issue did not happen often, but just often enough to be memorable.
Each program also had the ability to export its files to the appropriate Office 2003 format, which did not always go smoothly but it did work for the most part. When appropriate, files can also be exported to PDF, text, OpenOffice extensions, or other file formats. Google Docs supports uploading files of various formats as well, but Microsoft Office compatibility is similarly dodgy.
After opening up a new document from the Google Docs homepage, a rather robust editor comes into view that features an armada of useful editing tools. The single menu bar allows user to change pretty much any aspect of the document using relatively small list of fonts, styles, and text sizes. The formatting options are noticeably reduced compared to Microsoft Office, but the necessary options are certainly there. (Who needs Office's 48 point blue text in Gigi or Webdings scripts anyway?) What is included in the suite is more than enough to create resumes, letters, thesis documents, or anything else needed in an academic or professional setting. Other must-have features like bullet lists, highlighting, superscripts, and subscripts are easily available in the tool bar or the menu bar at the top of the screen.
For those needing even more advanced editing features, Google Docs also allows the user to modify the HTML or CSS of the document in question. Yes, Google Docs is a borderline web page creator. So if you are unable to find a way to accomplish a particular effect or appearance using the standard menu tools (Google Docs does not have the feature to select multiple cells in a table for instance), some HTML and CSS knowledge might get you there easily. It is nice being able to edit the raw file, but some users may find that too intimidating. HTML editing might also be needed to change page margins, page orientation, or the number of columns in the document -- there is no easy way to accomplish these tasks from what we can tell.
Images and drawings can also be edited into documents much like competitors, but charts are not to be found in this program. It is not as easy as copying and pasting into the document since users need to manually upload the images, which can be tedious. Imagery and charts can also be aligned to the left, right, and center, but we never found a way to float text around the documents or do any advanced layouts without manually editing HTML code. It is even possible to import hand drawn images into the document using Google Docs "insert drawing" feature.
College students should take note that Google Docs is missing one feature you might have learned to love -- an equation editor. In Office, complex equations and derivations can be easily written out, but no similar feature can be found in Google Docs. If a complex equation needs to be placed on screen, you might have to resort to an unprofessional drawing of the equation or use another tool like LATEX to generate an image.
While Google Docs does have a word/spelling checker feature, it does not check the spelling of the document in real time like Office; the tool has to be manually invoked through the menu bar. Google Docs does not have the ability to check the actual grammar or language of the document, so there's no easy way out of trying to figure out if you have any incomplete sentences. But Google Docs does have one very interesting revision control feature; it lets users browse through the history of the document, view changes between revisions as the document is edited over time, and helps divulge which users have made what edits and when. That is really useful for when you want to put retrieve that paragraph you deleted a week ago -- it is as simple as browsing through the history of the document.
Spreadsheet definitely gives Microsoft Excel a run for its money. While the interface might not be as sleek as the ribbon layout of Excel, this tool basically does everything that Excel is capable of. It has a very limited set of supported fonts and sizes but it has the necessary basics. Formatting particular cells for financial spreadsheets, engineering or math homework, or other needs is noticeably more user friendly than Office 2007.
Google's solution also supports sorting through columns and inserting "gadgets" which can be used to create graphs, charts, maps, and other visual presentations of information. We were not particularly crazy that non-Google gadgets could be used without being able to view their source code, however it is possible to create your own "gadgets" should you we willing to learn the Google API.
More powerful features of spreadsheet programs such as advanced formulas, look-up functions, and data validation are found in Google Docs as well. It is difficult to check that Google Docs meets Office 2007's list of functions and equations feature for feature, but it certainly seems that all the important stuff is there. Google Spreadsheet also had equation solvers that help minimize or maximize particular equations and criteria; a useful feature for businesses trying to keep costs down and profits up. Just note that the importable file size is limited to one megabyte, so those monster data sets you're used to appending to your Excel spreadsheets won't fly here.
Google Presentation is perhaps the least refined of the products in this suite. Gone are the numerous styles and templates, the charts and graphs, or even the most basic of slide transitions. There are only five layouts and fifteen themes that can be applied to any slide; doing anything more complex requires the user to continually add text boxes and other objects and place them manually. Simple style changes that can really impact the professionalism of a presentation are just not there, and we are really not digging the fact that full-screen presentations still have a bottom bar advertising Google.
All of the menu-based text editing tools found in Google Documents can also be found in Presentation, but the advanced HTML and CSS editing tools (which could really improve this program) are nowhere to be found. All in all, this particular tool feels quite clunky and not user-friendly. The presentations made using this toll will appear, if not childish, certainly unrefined. But it is free, and it can work for basic presentations if need be.
We can never really complain (too much) when something is free, but in Google Docs' case we do have a winner. Some of the tools may not be as refined as Microsoft Office's solutions, but most of them can hold their own against their larger competitor. If a particular feature is not available, users might be able to code up their own solution or Google may implement the feature in a future revision of their continually improving suite of products.
While Google Docs does suffer the same vulnerabilities as cloud computing (if Internet access is not available, work cannot be accessed), but this suite certainly offers a host of collaboration and productivity tools that are definitely worth a try for home and office users alike.
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