Google Docs - Long-term combat test

Updated: February 4, 2019

When people talk about online office suites - cloud included - they often focus on relatively simple use cases, mostly the use of storage for photos and videos, some sharing, mail, and an odd document or two. But there isn't enough mention of what happens when you actually do use online suites in anger. And by anger I mean volume and quantity.

As oft happens, necessity is the father of all excuses, which is how I came about using Google Drive office suite functionality (let's call it Google Docs) and G Suite for more than just casual stuff. I got meself writing a new technical book on system administration ethics, and this meant collaboration across oceans and continents, frequent online word exchange and such. A splendid opportunity to trial, test, evaluate and judge. To wit, this review.

Teaser

What about Office?

It starts and ends with the perennial question - is this like Microsoft Office or what? No matter what angle you take, this question will always crop up, either inside your own head or from out of other people's mouths. Because nowadays, Microsoft Office is synonymous with office work, and functionality is benchmarked against this suite.

Indeed, this ain't a brand new topic. We talked about this at length in the past! In my adventurously named article A day in the office without Office, I gave you an honest, down-to-earth from-the-trenches overview of my experience using non-Microsoft tools to create documents. I talked not just about Google Docs, but also LibreOffice. Here, I want to focus some more on the functionality and not just the challenges and problems.

Google Docs

Naturally, I spent the bulk of my time using Docs, and I'm quite happy with the results. There were some niggles, the few milliseconds of Internet delays will always be there, no matter what, but overall, this is a powerful, mature program (app if you will), with tons of nice features. The basics are there of course, and then some. You can use a document outline, equation editor, and there are three modes - editing, suggesting and viewing, which let you do as their names imply. You also get auto-translation and auto-correct, albeit the second is a bit limited.

Docs, working

Tracking changes & version control

It is important not to confuse these two. One is what happens when you actually make comments and give suggestions in a document. The other is the automatic save of every change you add to your online files, resulting in a very long, comprehensive log that lets you see all that's been done, change by change, person by person. This is truly useful in that you always have access to your older work, so you don't need to worry about deleting or editing paragraphs or anything alike, and it's supremely effective when collaborating with people.

Version history

Now, changes (cue in David Bowie's fantastic music). The tracking part could be better. While working on my system administration ethics book, I would often create online documents and then save them locally as DOCX or ODT. I would also upload Word files and open them in Google Docs. I noticed that changes aren't always correctly ported. Comments yes, inline edits, not really.

Track changes

What's not working well? Styles - awfully far and few in between. This is the weakest link of the whole thing. If you want more than the existing set, you will actually have to re-use one of the existing styles, or import your own DOCX files, but that's missing the point.

Styles

I also didn't like that files always open with 100% zoom and at the start position. Word as well Writer actually remember your zoom settings and the current pointer inside the docs. This is really annoying if you work on multiple devices, with different resolutions, so you constantly have to zoom in/out to get it right.

Google Sheets

Not bad, but I did feel a bit confused now and then, especially when it comes to editing existing cells. Feels somewhat clunky, and I have an impression that the tool isn't meant to be a complete Excel replacement but more of a lightweight alternative. Responsiveness is a bit tricky, more so than when you're working with Docs or Slides (below), probably because there are far more elements to render and compute, plus you do expect instant answers to calculations.

Filters and pivot work reasonably well. You also get full scripting as well as macros, but I haven't tested the latter much, so I cannot comment on that. The other usual suspects are there too, including the ability to protect sheets, add checkboxes, and whatnot. If you use Enter to advance through cell, the first click will actually edit the cell (like F2), and the second click will advance down. Not sure if this is clever or wasteful.

Filters

Macros & scripts

Charts control is okay, but not fabulous. You do have various types, but not too many sub-types. I also couldn't find a way to change the color of an individual element in some of the charts. I could either edit the entire series or none. Maybe I'm missing something, but Excel does seem to offer more control here.

Sheets, chart edit

That's not color change - that's selection, mind.

Google Slides

Somewhat rudimentary, but all right. I did bother myself to actually create a 30-odd page presentation, just to see what gives. Overall, the functionality is similar to Powerpoint. The interface does not feel cluttered, and it's relatively easy to navigate - easier than LibreOffice Impress. You can also change slide themes quickly. Most of the shortcuts match Powerpoint, like the new slide Ctrl + M for example.

If you insert a chart, you need to click > open source to make changes to the data ranges, and then update the chart. This is not embedded like in Powerpoint. So the action above invokes Sheets, and there you can make the necessary changes. A bit less productive than I'd like.

Open data source

Slides, edit chart

Slides

But one big thing is missing - and that's F4 - the ability to repeat the last action you just did. In Powerpoint, this is a huge timesaver, as people often apply various styling changes to text boxes and such, much more so than when working with a spreadsheet of numbers or a text file, where such actions are far less common. There's also no way to bulk edit font on all slides (not via a theme change), and I think this would be rather useful, especially since the implementation should be easy. After all, this is a Web app, and it's all about styles.

You have the ability to change layout on the fly, edit the master slide and such. If you use a two-column layout, adding images into any one of the text boxes does not constrain them as in Powerpoint, so you will need to do some extra manual resizing. You also get notes and animations.

Other stuff & some oddities

There's more of course. A full scripting engine, mostly Javascript with some extras (and gs file extensions). The good part about this thing is that you run the scripts in the cloud, so free cycles and fast computation overall, which means you can probably attempt calculations that your local host might not cope with.

Strap on your G Suite

Now that's probably my best pun yet. So, Google's stuff comes in two flavors - free and not free. The not free thing is called G Suite, and it's what you get with your regular Google Account plus some. Not all of the benefits are related to writing or collaboration; on that front, you do get a bit more, but the differences aren't noticeable unless you really push the boundaries of what you require. The most useful features are increased storage capacity, Exchange connectivity, and the ability to create surveys.

Addons

If you're not happy with the available functionality, you can try addons (or add-ons if you will). The concept is similar to any extensions framework, be it LibreOffice, Firefox, Chrome, you name it. The selection is quite colorful, but I did find the gallery-like presentation layout somewhat limiting. I was hoping for a more detailed, store-like layout.

Addons

Play media

Google Drive struggled playing OGG files. Normally, it just handles any which content, but not this. Probably this format isn't that popular, or this is a subtle hint to get you hooked into the apps, cloud, whatever services that exist behind the scenes.

OGG files, no automatic playback

Page numbers and word count

These aren't immediately visible. You need to scroll to see the page number, and you need to access the file menu to get the word count. A waste of two perfect mouse clicks. I know that Google is aiming for a simple and uncluttered interface, because on the Web, every pixel counts, visually and time delay wise, but sometimes more is more.

Page number, scroll bar

Software upgrade ...

Just a quick inline update, if you will. I've written this article over a long period of time, and just a few days ago, I noticed a significant visual and functional change in the suite. While most of the findings above still hold, it is worth adding that the suite features a revamped UI (looks a bit more pro), and there are some handy changes, too.

For instance, Sheets let you copy, eh, sheets from other documents, you have better copy & paste control, and a whole bunch of other small yet useful improvements. Not bad, but the road ahead to perfect functionality is still long.What I'm trying to say is - my findings still stand, but if you notice differences in how Google Docs looks and behaves, please take into account the recent updates. We will definitely talk about this at some point in the future. Now, curtain, back to the article. Let's summarize this review, shall we?

Revampled UI

Conclusion

After several months of rigorous testing, I am pleased with the results. Overall, I still think a full, offline suite is a better choice for most things, but that one ain't free. Now, I've also been using Microsoft Office Online, and that is probably a more valid comparison. But then, we aren't comparing here. Google Drive and its three musketeers - Docs, Sheets and Slides - gave me what I needed.

There were bugs and problems - over-simplified styles management, some delay due to Internet connectivity, less-than-perfect auto-correct, and not quite as much control with spreadsheets as I'd like. But the programs behaved all right, they didn't crash, the conversion to Office formats is quite good, and online collaboration tools are a blast. Not bad for something that costs zero money - you pay with emotion or your data being profiled or something. If you do need an online suite that works fairly consistently, and comes with a lot of reasonable options, Google Docs is a fair choice. Continue testing I shall, and if you don't have a philosophical problem with Alphabet, then you may want to consider this in your software repertoire. Scene.

Cheers.

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