This is the third in a series of three reviews covering the major online office productivity apps: Microsoft Office Online (Word Online, Excel Online, and PowerPoint Online), Apple iWork for iCloud (Pages, Numbers, and Keynote for iCloud), and in this article, Google Drive (with Docs, Sheets, and Slides) aka Google Docs and Google Apps.
It's hard to believe that Google suffers even worse branding confusion than Microsoft, but in this case it's true. Depending on where (and when) you look, Google Drive is a cloud file storage system or a set of apps -- word processor, spreadsheet, presentation manager -- along with the cloud storage. Google Docs used to be the generic name for all the productivity apps, but now it most commonly refers to the word processor only. And whereas Google Apps used to be the preferred name for the three apps, now it looks like Google Drive is taking on that role. In this review, I'll use Google apps (note the lowercase "a") to refer to Google Docs (the word processor), Sheets, and Slides.
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All of the Google apps run under Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and of course Google Chrome, and all are free for personal use. You'll need a Google account, which brings along 15GB of free Google storage (additional storage is $24 per year for 100GB). Be sure to install the free Google Drive software for Windows or the Mac. Corporate users should sign up for Google Apps for Business, which costs $50 per user per year (or $100 per user per year if you want the security and interconnection capabilities built into Vault). Google Apps for Education and Google Apps for Nonprofits are free.
If you use Chrome, you have multiple ways into Google Drive, but anybody with a browser can venture to drive.google.com and get to work. If you click the Create button in the upper-left corner, Google Drive asks if you want to create a Document, Presentation, Spreadsheet, Form, or Drawing. Your selection will lead you into the appropriate app. (See Figure 1.)
Digging into Drive
Google is the pioneer in free online office productivity. Google Docs traces its roots to Writely, one of the first online word processors, which appeared in 2005. Google started its own online spreadsheet program, Google Lab Spreadsheets, in 2006, and Google Slides joined in 2007. Google started renting out cloud storage in 2010, tying the apps into the storage. (By contrast, Microsoft's Office Web Apps arrived in 2010 and Apple's iWork for iCloud appeared in 2013.) By and large, the Google apps haven't been on the same hectic and high-profile feature upgrade schedule as Office Online and iWork for iCloud.
Whereas Apple has built a nearly impenetrable wall around its iWork for iCloud apps and makes you jump through several iCloud hoops to get data into and out of the applications, Microsoft OneDrive and Google Drive both play nicely with Windows. Like OneDrive, Google Drive integrates with Windows Explorer/File Explorer through a downloadable client. To make life easier, you should install the Google Drive client on your Windows PC (or Mac) and work through the native file system just as you would with any other files.
Test Center Scorecard
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While you're working on a Google Docs, Sheets, or Slides document, Google keeps a copy on its servers. That way, if your connection goes down, your revisions are still in the cloud. Google also keeps a version history, which you can use to retrieve the last major revision.
Google has the best file printing of any of the three suites. Print from any of the Google apps by clicking File->Print. The app kicks in Google's Cloud Print, which can print in many ways. If you have your printer set up for Google Cloud Print -- very easy in most cases -- the printing experience closely parallels the way you would print from any desktop app. If there aren't any Google Cloud Print printers around and you can't get to one remotely, you can opt to print from your local computer or to generate a PDF that gets stored in Google Drive.
One not-so-little trick up Google's sleeve: If you work with the Chrome browser, you can run the Google apps offline on your own machine. Every time you reconnect to the Internet, your docs get updated automatically. You'll find full details on the Google offline access help page. (If you're using Chrome OS, you don't need to do anything -- offline capability is already turned on.)
Common features of all Google apps
While the Office Online user interface stays true to the Office Ribbon and the iWork for iCloud apps sport elegant, minimalist command bars, the Google apps interface is anything but minimalist. As you can see in Figure 2, the apps (in this case, Google Sheets) have both menus and ribbonlike icons that, in Microsoft Office 2003-like fashion, cover a wide range of document construction and formatting bases.
If you're comfortable with Office 2003, you'll feel right at home in the Google apps. But if you prefer the more visual interfaces of current Office apps -- including enlarged icons that are easier to hit -- Google's apps will feel dated. They're certainly not as touch-friendly as the iWork for iCloud apps.
All of the Google apps support a "Web clipboard" that behaves much like the Windows clipboard. It even interacts with the Windows clipboard. Copy an item in Windows in the usual way, and you can paste it into a Google app. Copy it in the Google app, and it's available in Windows. I encountered a few oddities, where the contents of the Windows clipboard didn't quite make it over to Google Docs when pasted, but by and large the Web clipboard is an enormous help in transferring stuff from Windows itself into Google Docs. In this respect, the Google apps are light-years ahead of the competition.
To aid in page layout, Google Docs has a ruler, and all the apps have gridlines. Zoom is accomplished through the browser. If you rely on password-protected Microsoft Office documents, note that none of the Google apps can open them (nor can Office Online, incidentally).
Testing various documents in the Google apps using the various browsers, I didn't find any significant differences among Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox, and Safari. Note that I'm referring to desktop browsers here. On mobile browsers, the Google apps do very little of what they do on a desktop browser. In fact, you can do less in Google Drive on a mobile device than in Office Online or iWork for iCloud, even when using Google's native mobile apps.
Google Docs -- the word processor (see Figure 3) -- has the largest selection of features of any online productivity app I've used. It offers an astounding number of open source fonts -- well into the thousands -- although using any but the most common fonts is a two-step process. As in Word Online and iWork for iCloud, the very limited set of paragraph styles can't be changed, but paragraphs can be formatted manually with bullets and spacing. There's full support for find and replace, numbering, footnotes, and headers and footers. You can even insert a table of contents, based on headings, which is far superior to anything in Word Online or Pages for iCloud.
Sharing and collaboration features include color-coded, real-time updates and support for a "comments" column. As with competing online suites, there's no change tracking. But Google Docs (and Sheets) has a rather advanced scripting language, which has given rise to many third-party packages. Neither Word Online nor Pages for iCloud has macro or scripting capabilities.
In the very near future, you will be able to directly crop and manipulate images inside Google Docs. The feature is rolling out even as I type this.
On the downside, tables are rudimentary, fixed in size, and difficult to format. The implementations of text boxes, pictures, and shapes have few options. Pictures can't be overlapped, and there are no watermarks (also true in the competing suites).
Google Sheets now has the abilities to "flow" text into a following blank cell and to merge cells -- both of which have long been sore spots for Sheets users. There's easy Ctrl-drag for autofill. And you'll find a full suite of functions, good editing tools, and some conditional formatting capabilities.
Multiple filter views can be applied individually by each person viewing a spreadsheet. There's paste transpose, hyperlinks, and cell formatting supported by copious examples. There are no pivot tables or pivot charts, which you'll find in Excel Online, but you can painstakingly duplicate many pivot features, manually, as in Numbers for iCloud.
Unlike the other spreadsheet programs, Google Sheets has full add-on support and a sophisticated script editor, both particularly useful in a spreadsheet environment.
Google apps users have been clamoring for a built-in way to repeat headers across pages. They also want hot links for Google Sheets tables and graphics that are embedded in Google Docs and Slides documents, so changes in the spreadsheet show up in the document or presentation. No, Excel Online and Numbers for iCloud can't do any of that, either.
Google Slides clearly isn't as powerful as Keynote for iCloud, but it's miles ahead of PowerPoint Online.
You'll find good support for text formatting, pictures, and their manipulation (including cropping with cutouts). You can make use of free-form drawing and fills on canvases, plus lots of transitions and animations, and you can embed hyperlinks in everything, including shapes. You can embed audio or video on slides.
Slides even lets collaborators put comments on text or slides. The "view only" setting lets collaborators look at your slides but not change them. You can't hide slides on the fly.
Microsoft Office compatibility
If you want the most Office compatibility of any of the big three online suites, of course, you'll end up with Office Online. Realize, though, that even Office Online has problems -- working with moderately complex docs can bring up big headaches, even in Microsoft's own product. Google Drive circumvents some of those problems by simply refusing to open docs it doesn't understand.
I tested each suite's capabilities with six real-world documents. For the word processors, there was a simple DOC with a weird font and a table with a simple formula; a DOCX with tracked changes; and a four-page, 65MB DOCX newsletter created by an everyday Word user, packed with text boxes and graphics. For the spreadsheets, there was a big but simple XLS and a relatively complex one-page XLSX with a chart. Finally, I turned the presentation programs on a simple PPT file. All of the documents were collected "in the wild."
Opening the simple Word document in Google Docs brought something of a surprise. The Monotype Corsiva font was rendered perfectly onscreen in Google Docs, but Docs' font changing drop-down menu -- which normally shows the font name -- was blank for the Monotype Corsiva characters. Wingdings didn't make it through the transition; they disappeared completely. A spurious page number appeared in the header. Items inside tables could be edited, but the formula didn't work.
After changing a few words in the document and downloading, the retrieved DOCX file had one major problem: The Monotype Corsiva font, which rendered so well onscreen in Docs, was changed to Corsiva, and Word displayed a completely different font from the original. The formula in the table was gone as well. It seems that Google's font handling isn't as robust as it should be.
The DOCX with tracked changes fared better, with no problems in rendering. All of the tracked changes had been accepted, and the Calibri font stayed the Calibri font. I made changes to a couple of words, and the downloaded DOCX file worked just fine in Word. That was quite remarkable.
The four-page DOCX newsletter, which was composed almost entirely of simple text boxes and pasted photos, was a nonstarter. Every attempt to open it in Google Docs resulted in the message, "Sorry, an error occurred when opening this file. Please try again." Considering how badly Word Online mangled the same file, I figure that's a blessing.
The large but relatively simple XLS opened in Google Sheets with no problems. The formulas worked, and there were no spurious errors (unlike Numbers for iWork, which refused to subtract dates). Changes in cells updated very quickly -- as quickly as in desktop Excel. Downloading the resulting XLSX proved a very pleasant surprise -- the changes took, and everything else was pristine.
The more complex spreadsheet with chart didn't fare as well. Repeated attempts to open it resulted in the now familiar message: "Sorry, an error occurred when opening this file. Please try again." Apparently that's the message Google apps show whenever they can't render a file. The "Please try again" part seems like mockery.
The PowerPoint presentation opened in Google Slides, but it didn't display well -- fonts changed, items slid all over the slides, graphics appeared as big white spaces. Animations and transitions didn't work. When I changed a few words, downloaded the presentation, and opened it in PowerPoint, the problems persisted: mismatched fonts, misaligned slides, no transitions, and big white fields for graphics.
All in all, simple Word documents came through Google Docs pretty well, but unusual fonts can cause problems. A more complex document didn't even open. Simple spreadsheets come through fine. But even a simple presentation cratered.
Google maintains a continuously updated calendar that lists major changes in the suite. It's a big help if you're wondering if your specific feature is coming down the pike.
Is Google Drive for you?
If you're looking for the most capabilities for your buck -- even if you aren't spending any bucks at all -- the Google apps deliver the goods. While you may be able to find specific features in other suites that trump the Google offerings, Google Docs and Sheets in general provide many more features, and many more useful features. Google Slides isn't a clear winner in the features race. Keynote for iCloud will work better for many users, especially those who want to put spreadsheets or spreadsheet-derived graphs on their slides.
Google has been at this a long time, and it shows -- in terms of both capability and old growth. The apps feel like they've been hobbled together, with entire groups of features bolted onto the side, much like Office 2003. The apps cover a whole lot of ground, but in a meandering way. Expect a blissfully abbreviated learning curve for Office 2003 veterans, but more of a struggle for folks who have dealt exclusively with ribbons.
The big question about Google apps is whether Google will continue to plow money into improving them. Right now, it seems that Google is hell-bent on making the apps run on different machines -- Chromebooks, of course, but also iPads and Android tablets -- as well as locally (using the Chrome browser's HTML5 capabilities) on Windows and OS X systems. It remains to be seen whether this diversification will slow the progress of the apps themselves.
This story, "Review: Google Drive leads in features, lags in ease-of-use," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in applications and cloud computing at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.
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Woody Leonhard writes computer books, primarily about Windows and Office; his latest is "Windows 8 All-in-One for Dummies." He's senior editor at Windows Secrets Newsletter and a frequent contributor to InfoWorld's Tech Watch blog. A self-described "Windows victim," Woody specializes in telling the truth about Windows in a way that won't put you to sleep.