Productivity software

Google Docs Reconsidered: Hands-on With the Suite

Spreadsheet

Google's Spreadsheet is on a par with basic spreadsheet programs such as the one in OpenOffice.org or earlier versions of Excel. It includes hundreds of functions listed under engineering, financial, logical, math, statistics and other categories.

Throughout 2010, the Google Docs developers added several tweaks, including new features like data filtering and a significant tool: pivot tables. The latter helps you quickly pull out ranges and labels of data and instantly generates a recalculated table (essentially, a smaller spreadsheet spun off from the main spreadsheet). I've found pivot tables handy for experimenting with different ways of presenting and recalculating data without having to change the original spreadsheet itself.

Spreadsheet can generate charts based on your data. There are a decent number of presets to create line, column, bar, scatter-point, pie and other types of charts, but not as many varieties as you'd find in OpenOffice.org or recent versions of Excel. One helpful aspect about the chart editor that I like is how each chart sample has a description briefly explaining how your data needs to be formatted to create the graphic.

Spreadsheet imports a variety of formats, including XLS and XLSX (Excel), ODS (OpenOffice.org), CSV, TXT, TSV (tab-separated values) and TAB. I found that a few OpenOffice.org spreadsheet files wouldn't import correctly -- for example, background colors of cells were dropped. Some formulas set to calculate data taken from multiple sheets in a spreadsheet would no longer work. I had to manually tweak these formulas so the application would recognize them correctly. Spreadsheet handled converting Excel files better, which seems odd considering that OpenOffice.org uses open file formats.

Google's spreadsheet tool isn't as robust as Excel.
Google's spreadsheet tool isn't as robust as Excel.
Each sheet of a spreadsheet is denoted as a tab along the bottom of the application. Because it's an online application, flipping through multiple sheets in a spreadsheet -- especially if you've got a lot of data -- isn't a snappy experience, and it may take each page a second or two to load.

If you don't have enough rows on the spreadsheet, you can scroll down to an "Add" button and a fill-in box set to the lower-left below the sheet: Enter a number, click the button, and your spreadsheet will grow down by that many rows. Unfortunately, there is no similarly convenient button to quickly add more columns in multiple amounts. Otherwise, to insert multiple numbers of rows or columns, you highlight several rows or columns and then right-click to add that number of rows or columns.

Unlike the Drawing and Presentation applications, Spreadsheet doesn't offer the ability to zoom in or out of a spreadsheet (Document also lacks this feature). This can be an issue if you're working on a large spreadsheet -- whether designing it or filling it out -- because you can't zoom out to see the whole picture unless your browser offers this capability.

You can download your spreadsheet in a variety of formats, including XLS (Excel), ODS (OpenOffice.org), PDF, CSV, HTML or TXT.

Presentation

Presentation is essentially a simplified slide-show builder. It's meant mainly for assembling a linear sequence of slides to use in business or academic presentations, but it's possible to use it to build frame-by-frame animations if you have the skill (and determination).

You make an individual slide by inserting graphical elements such as text and tables -- or importing images from your local computer, a Picasa album or a Google Image search -- onto a blank page. You can then drag and drop and resize these elements to fit the way you want them to appear on the slide.

Click the toolbar buttons in the upper left of the application or right-click in the work area to add, remove and rearrange the playing order of the slides. You can also drag and drop the thumbnails that run along the left side of the work area to do this.

The thing to be aware of is that, for the most part, you can't use Presentation to build media-rich slide shows. You can embed a video from YouTube in a slide, but that's about it. You can't import MP3s or a large variety of video clips for use in a slide show -- even videos you've uploaded to your Google Docs account.

Slideshow presentations can be downloaded as PowerPoint or PDF files. You can also pull up a mini version of Drawing within Presentation to create line drawings or put predrawn shapes into a slide. But I think it's easier to simply launch the separate version of Drawing on its own, draw and finish your images and then insert them into Presentation.

Drawing

Drawing, which allows users to create flow charts and other line-based graphics, has also improved. It gives you the tools to draw straight lines, curves and arcs, or you can draw lines freehand.

Besides presets for inserting circles, rectangles, triangles and other polygons, there's a large selection of other shapes -- variations on stars, arrows and speech bubbles, for example. Their fill-in color can be whatever you want.

Lines and shape elements can be dragged and dropped throughout the work area, and their sizes or rotations can be adjusted. Clicking on a line or shape marks it with anchor points that you can click on and drag to alter the line's or shape's size. The layer order of these elements (i.e. whether one shape lies over or under another) can be changed.

A relatively new feature, introduced in December, is the ability to add connectors to your shapes that will move with those shapes, making it much easier to create and edit flow charts.

You can add editable text to your drawing -- you can change the style (bold, italic, underline), color and size, but not the typeface. You can also add word art -- text as a graphical element that you can rotate, change its color or style (to bold and/or italic), and choose from among 10 fonts for it.

Your drawings can be downloaded as a JPG or PNG image, a PDF document, or as a scalable vector line graphic file (SVG format).

Drawing can be launched either as its own separate application or as a tool from within Document, Presentation or Spreadsheet. By clicking "Insert" and choosing "Drawing" from the toolbar of these applications, a mini version of Drawing appears within a smaller window. When you're finished with your drawing, you click "Save & Close" and your artwork is inserted into the document, presentation or spreadsheet.

Form

Form is a very basic application that makes it easy to quickly create a simple online survey.

You just type in the title of your survey, any explanatory text you need and your questions. You can choose the kind of response you want for each question, including multiple-choice, checklist and ratings-scale formats. A number of themes are available to pep up the finished look of your survey as it will appear online.

Once you're finished, Google Docs lets you email or embed a link to your online survey. You can view the responses you've received either as a summary within Forms or as a separate spreadsheet document.

Conclusions

Office 365 v. Google Apps
Office 365 v. Google Apps
With Microsoft's announcement on June 28 that Office 365 had left its beta status behind and was officially launched, the market for Web-based suites of office applications became even more crowded. (Other similar suites include ThinkFree Online and Zoho.) To declare that the Web is killing the traditional desktop office suite may be premature, but the concept of online office suites appears to be gaining momentum as a norm rather than cloud hype.

Having passed the two-year mark, Google Docs has grown into a strong alternative to, in particular, desktop word processing and spreadsheet applications, and it offers the basic features that most people would expect.

It doesn't feel quite like Google Docs has entered its 2.0 phase, though -- perhaps that will happen with the return of offline functionality and if Google figures innovative ways to incorporate its new social networking service, Google+, with Google Docs. (For example, imagine playing your slide shows from Presentation directly to a group videoconference in Google+.)

What's good about Google Docs right now are the individual components. Over time all the changes and tweaks to it, and those sure to come, look to be adding up to a better whole.

Next page: How to use Google Docs from a smartphone or tablet...

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