Image: Fabian Irsara/Unsplash/Google/Apple/Microsoft
You don't necessarily need to install a desktop application to get your hands on a decent office suite any more, and the biggest names in tech all have free, online productivity tools you can access from any browser — so which one should you be using? We take a look at the features, strengths, and weaknesses of each.
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For people who need to get online work done fast
Google has had a long time to refine its web app technologies — it picked up Writely, the foundation of Google Docs, in 2006. It shows with the slickness and speed of the Docs, Sheets, and Slides apps that are built into Google Drive. Don't forget the wider Google Drive app either, because as far as organising, searching for, and viewing files on the web goes, it's ahead of iCloud and OneDrive at this point. If all you need to do is bang out a book report or whip up a small spreadsheet quickly to share to your boss, then Google Docs is your best bet. It's the perfect blend of simplicity and functionality for the majority of people's productivity needs.
Google Docs. Image: Screenshot
That Writerly heritage shines through most clearly in online-focused features like document sharing, commenting, and collaboration. Working on files with multiple users — and keeping track of who's doing what — is a breeze, and sharing permissions are kept simple with three levels of access: View, comment, and edit. Files can be exported in a variety of formats, including Microsoft Office ones (but not Apple iWork).
And as we've already mentioned, Google's online apps are really fast and responsive in the browser, most of the time (we have noticed some minor slowdowns in particularly big spreadsheets). What's more — and this will be a big deal for some — Docs, Sheets, and Slides can work offline to a large extent, so you can keep on tapping and clicking away even if you lose your web connection. Changes get synced the next time access is restored.
Google Sheets. (Image: Screenshot)
Google Docs isn't overloaded with features, but what options it does have are neatly laid out in an interface built primarily for speed. You get all the basic formatting options, of course, plus a rudimentary stylesheet system, and standard features like a word counter and spell checker. The layout options aren't extensive, but you can add tables and columns, while support for images is impressive — various word wrap, border, colour cast and other options are available for each one.
As for Google Sheets, again the formatting options are kept to the fore, with formulas, charts, and data filtering options a bit harder to find. Chart editing options are slick and simple — you can quickly bounce between different chart types for example — but the function and formula builder could be more intuitive than it is, occasionally kicking you out to a help page rather than giving you the tools you actually need to make some calculations in your spreadsheet.
Google Sheets. Image: Screenshot
Google Slides is probably the weakest of the three online office apps that Google has, although everything you need is here, from slide transitions to speaker notes, and the built-in Chromecast support is a great touch. Getting elements arranged on a slide can be a little clunky, and the formatting options aren't the most extensive, but overall Slides will do its job. It does benefit from being a more modern app, so it doesn't have all the desktop baggage that PowerPoint and Keynote do.
- Best for: Web-only productivity, offline access, collaboration.
- On the web: drive.google.com/drive
For people who need pretty visuals
Google might have the lock on simple and quick productivity, but Apple has the prettiest office suite, and the one best suited for whipping up attractive charts, fliers, and even nice looking slide shows. Yet as good as iWorks is for making pretty documents you still get a sense of desktop applications crammed into a browser rather than online apps written from the ground up to live on the web — in a lot of cases the interfaces look like they have been simply copied and pasted over from desktop to web.
iCloud Pages. (Image: Screenshot)
That pretty much sums up iWork for iCloud at the moment: Decent online extensions to the macOS apps, but not that compelling as standalone tools. The recently introduced collaboration options work well though, with invited users able to view or view-and-edit documents (there's no third view-and-comment option as there is with Google) — user activity is highlighted with coloured labels, and threaded comments help to keep everything neat and easy to follow.
The interface isn't quite as polished as it is with Google's apps — as with the desktop apps, you can either hide the formatting pane, which gives you a very sparse layout, where a lack of text labels can make it tricky to work out how to do something; or you can show the formatting pane, which leaves you with a rather busy layout that doesn't feel all that well organised. It's not terrible, once you get used to it, but it's probably our least favourite behind the ones crafted by Google and Microsoft.
iCloud Numbers. (Image: Screenshot)
The word processor, Pages for iCloud, comes with all the text formatting options you're likely to need, including support for inserting charts, shapes, and tables. You can't chop your pages up into columns using the web app, which is disappointing, but you can use tables and drop in text boxes that give you more flexibility in terms of layouts (linked text boxes are supported too). Image imports are smartly handled and it's easy to get pictures flowing with your text.
Numbers for iCloud is easily the weakest of the three productivity apps Apple has put online — it follows in the footsteps of the desktop app in focusing on tables and charts rather than entire spreadsheets, and getting everything together is trickier than it should be. When you do find the options you need, they're usually simple to operate and switch between, but it's hardly straightforward, and building up formulas isn't all that easy either. At least the app can pipe out some decent-looking charts, but again finding the options you need to tweak and customise them could be a lot more straightforward (see Google Sheets). To be fair, Apple has never tried to make Numbers a full Excel rival, but that does mean the online version of the app is lacking.
iCloud Keynote. Image: Screenshot
There's much better news in Keynote for iCloud, which could easily lay claim to being better than the rival offerings from Google and Microsoft. From adding new slides, to arranging elements on screen, to getting your presentation playing, everything is intuitive and responsive. In this app the formatting pane is actually useful and well laid out, and it's perfectly possible to use Keynote for iCloud as a standalone program without any help from the desktop equivalent.
- Best for: Extending Apple's desktop applications on the web.
- On the web: www.icloud.com
For people who really need Microsoft Office
Sometimes you don't have a choice, the file has to be edited in Word, or you need the sheer power of Excel. While Microsoft took a while to respond to the growing threat of Google Docs, it now makes lightweight versions of its Office apps available to anyone online for free. As with Apple, these are very much desktop apps ported to the web and not nearly as powerful as their offline counter parts. Though overall we'd say Microsoft has done a better job of tweaking the functionality to work in a browser.
Word Online. Image: Screenshot
Again, documents can be easily shared with others online, whether to edit collaboratively or just to view, though the whole sharing, collaborating, and commenting process is more finicky than it is with the online apps from either Google or Apple. Files can be quickly opened in the desktop equivalents, as you would expect, and an area where Microsoft does have the edge is with the inline help system that can quickly tell you how to do something if you get stuck.
In terms of the interface, the online versions of these Office programs are all taking their cues from the desktop programs — the ribbon menu is here, albeit with fewer options than you get on the applications for Windows and macOS. The bottom line is you get three apps that are more powerful than Google's offerings, but also more cluttered and sluggish too, so it's up to you which matters most: Features or simplicity.
Excel Online. Image: Screenshot
Load up Word Online and you get all of your formatting and page setup options neatly laid out on the ribbon menu, though we could do without the chunky top bar that doesn't seem to serve any purpose except for shoehorning Skype into the app. All the usual features are here, from word count to headers and footers to comments, but it's not quite as clean and polished as we would like — two separate icons for importing Pictures and Online Pictures? Perhaps the most positive compliment we can give it is that you'll feel right at home if you're a seasoned user of the Office applications for the desktop. Of course, as with all these Microsoft apps, you can create some very professional-looking documents, complete with tables and columns and images, but you'll also get the feeling that the interface could use some optimization.
When it comes to Excel Online, Microsoft's years of experience pay off much better — because the app is necessarily more complex, the more complex ribbon menu layout makes more sense here. All the key stuff you need to do with a serious spreadsheet, like manipulating rows and columns, or filtering data, or building up formulas, is made much easier in Excel Online than it is in Google Sheets or Numbers for iCloud.
PowerPoint Online. Image: Screenshot
Finally, PowerPoint Online feels disappointingly limited compared with the desktop version, but if you take it on its own merits it's competent enough — you still get some transitions, and animations, and organising elements on slides is simple enough. The desktop features that are missing, like background customisations and dropping in audio files, mean it's not quite as fully featured as we would like, but the capabilities that PowerPoint Online does have are all easy to operate and find your way around.
- Best for: Producing Office-standard files in your browser
- On the web: www.office.com
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