Free, Cloud-Based Word Processor Zoho Writer Shows Promise
At a Glance
Zoho Writer is an online (with offline and syncing functionality) word processing application that offers a nice amount of functionality, especially given the limitations of the Web as a platform for productivity tools. After creating a free account with Zoho, you can access Zoho Writer. It looks a lot like most word processors, so if you've used any major program in this category, it will take no more than a few minutes of poking around to learn how to do things. This is good, because the "Help" is in the form of a FAQ, not a tutorial or index of functions.
The interface for Zoho Writer is well designed. Each button serves as both a tab which reveals a toolbar, and as a drop down menu. This is really, really, nice--you can have the Format toolbar showing, then click the "Insert" dropdown and choose a command, without the current toolbar being replace. There is no need to click back to your preferred "main" toolbar. On the other hand, if you prefer switching toolbars, just single-click the appropriate button, and there you go.
Overall, using Zoho Writer was simple and pleasant. I experienced a very slight mushiness or lag when typing, in terms of the time it took between hitting a key and seeing the screen update, as compared to using a non-Web application. The font selection is limited to the usual assortment of Web fonts. The most advanced and complex features of programs like Word, which border on layout/desktop publishing software, are not available, but a number of features that add real utility to document creation, such as the generation of a table of contents, are. Other features are available which would be useful if they worked.
Zoho Writer is listed as a beta, which means it can be forgiven some sins, but the last entry in the blog for Zoho Writer is almost a year old, as compared to other Zoho Apps with newer entries. This is unfortunate, as some useful features are currently broken. For example, footnotes are malformed (appearing with %20 instead of spaces). The ability to set multiple columns for your document is nice, but there are some oddities--you must save or print to see the columns, instead of working with them in the direct editing mode. This isn't too much of a problem, but during my initial tests, the columns did not appear in my saved document. Subsequent tests to confirm what I thought was a bug, though, did produce correctly saved documents. Zoho Writer exports in a variety of formats, including .doc, .docx, LaTeX, and HTML.
As compared to Google Docs, Zoho Writer is close. The Zoho Writer interface is less Spartan, and there are some features (such as columniation, or being able to highlight a word and add it to the table of contents, without styling it as a header) that Google Docs currently lacks. However, the beta state makes me a little hesitant to recommend it unconditionally for those happy with Google Docs. It's certainly worth checking out--it's free--and the offline save and accessibility means the risk of loss is small if you like it and decide to use it. I'd very much like to see Zoho move this product to their front burner and get it debugged and out of beta. I'd like to take a look at it when it's fully baked.