Google Docs

Google Docs

Available from: http://docs.google.com

Minimum requirements: Internet Explorer 7, Firefox 3.0 or Google Chrome browsers for Windows. Safari 3 and above for MacOSX 10.3 and above. Javascript must be enabled. Needs a live Internet connection.

Unlike OpenOffice.org and Symphony, Google Docs isn't even trying to be a full Office 2010 alternative. Instead, it focuses on giving you the basic features you need to create and edit business documents within a typically simply, snappy Google-style interface. Documents stands in for Word, Spreadsheet for Excel and Presentations for PowerPoint, and a simple drawing app is bundled in as well. Your documents are held online in the 1GB of storage provided, and while you can email them directly from within Docs, you need to export them to save them to your desktop.

The approach has its benefits and pitfalls. On the one hand, you'll have to do without features like animated presentations, advanced text layout tools and spreadsheet pivot tables, but on the other hand you get an online office suite that runs quickly in a browser and gives you access to your documents from any PC, laptop or netbook with an Internet connection.

In a way, the simplicity of Google Docs is a strength. With few formatting features to worry about – even the fonts you can use are very restricted – everything is geared to creating simple documents quickly and efficiently, with the minimum of fuss. You're not left completely on your own. The Presentations app has a selection of themes to get you going, and the Documents word processor offers some support for styles, but it's all stripped back to the bone. True, you'll never be able to create as sophisticated looking reports or presentations in Google Docs as you can in Word, but it's a great tool for quickly knocking something together, and it really doesn't take a long time to get to grips with it.

One key Google Docs plus is that it’s very easy for multiple users to collaborate on a single document at the same time. You sign into the service using your Google account, create the document, share it, and invite other users via email to edit. They then sign in, and you can all work on the document at once. Colour-coded cursors reveal who is doing what and where, and a new sidebar allows you to chat while you work. This makes Google Docs a brilliant tool for knocking out the basics of a document or presentation with a colleague or a friend, or a whole team can fill out cells in a spreadsheet at the same time. As a bonus, it also enables you to work with anyone, no matter what computer or software they use.

To make that work, compatibility with Office needs to be good and, up to a point, it is. You can upload Office files to Google docs, and from there the various Docs applications will open up documents created in their Office 2003, 2007 and 2010 equivalents. With basic, text-only documents you'll not see many defects beyond replaced fonts and the odd bit of misaligned text. Throw in graphics, animations or video, however, and things soon go awry. The most advanced PowerPoint slideshows won't even open in Google Docs, while few visually-intensive Word files will survive the transition unscathed. Surprisingly, Google Docs does a decent job of handling Office 2007 and 2010's SmartArt diagrams, and while titles appear to be converted into images and then imported, at least this ensures some visual fidelity.

If you want to create stunning-looking documents that will impress friends and colleagues with your sheer design flair, Google Docs is not for you. Nor will it suit those for whom sophisticated data analysis is a real necessity. Most of us, however, can find a use for Google Docs, even if we wouldn't want to make it our one and only office suite.

Verdict

Advanced it isn't, but Google Docs has all the basics you need and is easy to use. If your needs are quite basic it's an excellent option.

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