- Editor's Rating
- Easy to use
- Robust document editing and creation on the go
- Cloud emphasis slows down tasks like opening and printing docs
Straight from a retool of Microsoft’s cloud-based services comes Office Online, a simplified and streamlined version of the company’s earlier Web Apps. Designed to be easier to use and less confusing to customers, Office Online provides a basic Office experience delivered directly into your web browser, free of charge. So how well does it really work, and is it worth your time? We take an in-depth look in this review.
If you already have a Microsoft account, you’ll be able to access Office Online already; if not, all you need to do is sign up for one in order to get started. With the older Web Apps, you had to go through Microsoft’s cloud storage system (now OneDrive, formerly SkyDrive) in order to create a new file and then edit it. With Office Online, though, you can start directly from a choice of office suite components. Just sign in, make your choice, and away you go.
Among the included options are the basic online versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote, as well as access to your Outlook.com email and contact lists. The suite is 100% browser-based, making it easily portable to any computer that happens to be available.
It is still tightly integrated with Microsoft’s OneDrive cloud storage system, however, loading existing files from there and automatically saving new ones.
If you’re worried that Office Online will be useless without the latest edition of Internet Explorer, you can relax. Despite the complexity of being a browser-based office suite, it works perfectly on Firefox, Chrome, and all versions of Internet Explorer back to 8.0.
Office Online even ran (albeit with some glitches) on my increasingly ancient desktop copy of Opera 12. I was also able to get it to run in Chrome and Opera Mobile on my Android tablet and smartphone, although both browsers required me to switch to desktop mode, and the screen space was a bit cramped even on a tablet. Let’s not even talk about the smartphone.
But overall, you can rest assured that browser compatibility isn’t going to be an issue, even with the suite’s fairly advanced features.
Office Online is not part of Microsoft’s subscription-based Office 365 service, now available in a “Personal” edition for $6.99 per month.
Instead, Office Online is 100% free, requiring no subscription and no downloads. (For expanded views of the screenshots at right, please click on the images.)
Upon loading your app of choice, you’re given the options of a new document, a template, or opening an existing file from your OneDrive account.
Arguably the biggest inconvenience of working with Office Online is that it still can’t open files directly from your computer; you can only open documents that have been uploaded to OneDrive. If you don’t have a doc already in OneDrive, you’ll have to go through a multiple stage process to upload and then open up Office. This is a little clunky, but then web apps often are.
When opening a file, you’re presented with a kind of a “quick view” mode, which just lets you look at the document without opening the full editor. You can also choose to launch the file in the full version of Office on your computer, if it’s installed.
Actually creating or editing a file turns out to be simple as pie. Office Online manages to strike a really nice balance in terms of the number of features it makes available versus keeping the interface simple and elegant.
To be sure, you’re not going to find nearly as many features, especially the most obscure ones, as you will on the desktop app. There’s no grammar checker. You won’t be custom kerning your fonts, or executing mail database merges.
But Office Online does include just about all the features that people are likely to use day to day, and if you’re mostly accustomed to using tablet or smartphone office suites like Documents To Go or Quickoffice for your mobile needs, you’ll definitely be pleasantly surprised.
Things like headers and footers, document comments, line spacing, custom indents, two page view, and a lot more are all available. You get tables, custom page breaks, hyperlinks, and even right to left fonts.
Of course, it’s not all perfect simplicity. Office Online does suffer in some ways from being cloud-based. Opening a file from your desktop can be slow. The other common practice which takes more time than usual is printing. Since the web apps can’t access your printer directly, you have to go through the process of exporting your document to a PDF file, downloading that, and then printing it.
Aside from a few small annoyances related to residing completely in the cloud, the real world performance of Office Online is almost entirely to the good. It does have limitations relative to the full version of Microsoft Office or other competing desktop suites like OpenOffice.
However, Office Online does a remarkably fine job of filling the gap between a full, feature-heavy desktop suite and the far fewer capabilities of a mobile app. It includes all of the functionality that most people are likely to need for their documents, especially if away from their usual computers.
All in all, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Office Online to anyone looking for an on-the-go solution that is more robust than the types of office apps typically available for mobile devices.
For that matter, it makes a remarkably good solution even for someone who doesn’t want a desktop suite at all. A lot of students will find that Office Online is all they really need, as well as plenty of other basic users who just need to format a page and don’t care about the thousand-and-one gadget features that have grown into each new version of Office on the desktop.
Because it’s an online suite, it gives you cloud storage, automatic document saving, and access from anywhere.
Office Online is fast, user-friendly, and robust. All too often in the computing world, those three qualities should be followed by the punchline, “Pick two.” Office Online isn’t one of those cases.