Google Docs Reconsidered: Hands-on With the Suite
Since Google Docs officially went out of beta on July 7, 2009, the Web-based office application suite has steadily gone through a series of changes and tweaks.
Google has a tendency to add new things to their online apps under the radar, not really hyping them -- unless you are in the habit of checking the Google Docs blog. And it seems as though things are quietly ramping up. That's not surprising, considering the limited launch of Google+, the company's new social networking site, which looks like it's on the way to be heavily associated with Google's other online apps.
I have used Google Docs regularly in my everyday work for nearly two years. In fact, I now use it to write all of my assignments (including the words you are reading now) and maintain a few spreadsheets. I don't remember when I last touched an application from desktop office suite such as Microsoft Office or OpenOffice.org.
With that in mind, I've taken a look at Google Docs, with a view toward investigating some of the new features, considering how useful they are and looking at what could use improvement.
How Google Docs works
Google Docs is a suite of five Web-based office applications: Document (word processor), Drawing (line drawing editor), Presentation (slide-show maker), Spreadsheet (a spreadsheet program, of course), and Form (a very simple polling app).
Any document or drawing you create with these applications (or convert to the Docs format) is stored on Google's servers under your Google user account; according to the Google Docs Help page, there are no limits to how many documents you can work on within Google Docs itself (although there are some file size limits). You can also store up to 1GB of unconverted files free of charge. Interestingly, you can actually upload files that are sized up to 10GB -- there are several storage plans that let you buy more space.
Internet connection required
There's one fact to keep in mind: Everything related to Google Docs runs online. Throughout my use of Google's Web office suite, I've found that the reliability of my Internet connection is the most important factor -- for example, Document may freeze if your connection suddenly drops. Fortunately, Google Docs continually and automatically saves your files, so it's unlikely that you'll lose any work if something does go wrong.
Google used to provide offline functionality through Google Gears, but it removed that feature in May 2010, saying it did so because it was going to work toward an improved version of this functionality using HTML5, although it hasn't been announced when that will happen. The essential code for the applications would be stored locally in your Web browser and updated the next time your computer goes online.
Starting from Home
The Home screen is the starting point for Google Docs. The documents and drawings you create with its various applications, and the files you upload for storage, are listed here.
This central command for your documents and media is laid out in three columns. The middle column lists your documents and media files. Click on a document name, and Google Docs launches a new browser tab and opens the file. You can also view unconverted image files that you've stored in your Google Docs account: Just click its file name and a viewer window pops open. You can also watch video clips that you've uploaded.
The left column lets you filter your files by whether you have starred them (which marks them as higher priority over others) or by ownership (which is determined based on who originally created a file -- you or someone else). You can also access those you have placed in the trash. This column also lists your "collections."
A collection is Google Doc's term for a folder into which you put files you have selected to be grouped together. For instance, you can put all your invoice-related documents and spreadsheets into a collection you have named "Invoice." You can also create collections within collections -- so that within the Invoice collection you can have another named, say, "Paid."
To create a new collection, simply click on the "Create new" button and name it. You can then check off the files you want to put into this collection, and click on the Organize link in the right column. (When you click "Organize," it would be convenient if you could also create a new collection within this window and not have to go back to the left column to do this.) You can also simply drag and drop file names from the middle column onto the collection name in the left.
The right column shows a thumbnail of a document, image or video clip you've selected in the middle column. Details about the file are listed below the thumbnail, including a description (that you can add to and/or edit), which collection it belongs to, its revision history and its sharing settings.
Every document can be shared with other users. You can share with a list of people by entering their email addresses or by selecting them from your Google user account's list of contacts; you can also make the document public or accessible by anyone who has its URL. People with whom you share a document privately can collaborate with you on it (or you can just give them viewing rights).
You can also email a document as a file attachment from within an opened document or from the Google Docs Home page. This is handy, but it would be better if you could attach multiple documents at the same time to a single email message.
The revision history tool is one of the coolest features available within Google Docs. It pulls up a list of the previous versions of a document. Click on a date in this list, and the main work area will show that document marked with what was changed (for example, in a text document, newly added text is colored green, while deleted text is marked with strike-throughs).
This is great for tracking the progress of a document when two or more people are contributing to it (the author of each revision is noted) or even if you are working solo and need to put something back in you removed.
Printing from Google Docs can be a rather complicated process. If you're using Google Docs in Internet Explorer or Firefox, when you click "Print," your document is actually converted to a PDF for you to download and print separately.
The experience is more practical if you use Google Docs with Google's own Web browser, Chrome. Starting in Version 13 of the browser, when you click "Print," a print preview page opens in a Chrome browser tab and shows you what your document will look like before you commit it to hard copy. (The previous version of Chrome only brings up your print driver.) A column along the left lets you choose from a list of printers connected to your computer, the number of copies and specific pages to print, the layout (portrait or landscape), and whether to use color. Obviously, this is a huge improvement, but this better printing system needs to be available to users of all the major browsers.
The Google Docs applications
All of the applications have undergone considerable upgrades over the past year, with new features added and old ones improved.
Word processor Document started as an online text editor called Writely (before it was bought by Google) with very basic features. It has since grown to become a nearly full-fledged application that rivals stand-alone desktop word processors.
The application offers many formatting features -- fonts, type size, line spacing, paragraph style and list style -- included in word processors such as Microsoft Word. You can now insert a variety of elements into your document such as headers, footers, tables and mathematical equations. You can also add images by uploading them from your computer.
Google Docs has improved on its ability to import and convert documents to its own format -- it can accept Microsoft Word, OpenOffice, rich text (RTF), HTML or plain text (.txt) documents. For example, an imported Word document that included a number of stylistic elements, including highlighting, retained all its elements. The only exception were tracked changes, which did not translate to the Google Docs document; that wasn't unexpected, since Google's revision history feature tracks changes differently than most word processors do.
On the other side of the equation, you can export your document as a plain text, RTF, ODT, Word or HTML file.
You can upload PDFs or images (JPG, GIF or PNG format) of scanned text, and Google Docs will use an OCR engine to convert it to an editable Documents file. This works impressively well, as long as the text in the PDF or source image file is clear and legible.
Another neat tool converts your document to another language (you can choose from over 50 languages) and stores the translated version as a Google Document file in your personal storage space on Google Docs. Your original document remains unchanged.
Document uses a real-time spell-checker; misspelled words are underlined with a red dotted line. Right-clicking on the word in question brings up a menu where you can select the correct spelling.
One recent, and welcome, addition is pagination, which lets you view a document as separate pages rather than as a single block of text. However, there's still no way to insert (or format) page numbers in a document as you are editing it. Instead, when you are about to print your document, you can set Google Docs to print page numbers in the upper left, upper middle, upper right, lower left, lower middle, or lower right of every page.
Next page: Google Spreadsheets, Presentations, and more...