Google is porting one of the Chrome operating system's most features to its implementations of Chrome for Windows and Mac: the capability to view Office documents from the Web right in your browser. Similar to the way you can view PDFs in Chrome, Google is offering a beta version of an extension called Chrome Office Viewer to read Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files without downloading them to your computer.
The new Chrome feature adds security. Chrome Office Viewer sandboxes documents from the rest of your PC, Google says, preventing execution of any malicious code embedded in a document. Chrome Office Viewer is now in beta test and requires Chrome beta v.27 or later, as well as Chrome Office Viewer beta from the Chrome Web Store.
What it is and what it isn’t
Even before Chrome Office Viewer appeared, you could check out Office documents inside Chrome under certain circumstances. If you received a document in Gmail, for example, you could click the “View” link in your Gmail message to open the document in the Google Drive document viewer. From there, you could read your Office document, download it to your PC, or import it into Google Drive. Microsoft offers a similar feature with Outlook.com and SkyDrive.
With Chrome Office Viewer installed, any document you open from Gmail will appear in the Google Drive document viewer, as always. What’s different now is that when you find Office documents online—either through a Web search or a link on a Web page—you can view them in Chrome. You will only be able to view documents, however, as Chrome Office Viewer does not include any editing capabilities.
For anyone who doesn’t run Office or a free alternative such as Libre Office on a PC, the benefit of being able to view documents inside your browser are obvious. Chrome Office Viewer's sandboxing feature also reduces the chances of infection if you find an Office document loaded with malware.
Since Office 2010, Microsoft has included a similar feature called "Protected View" that opens downloaded documents on the desktop in read-only mode. This feature, like Google’s sandboxing, is meant to reduce the chance of a malicious attack. Google's browser extension, however, displays the document much faster than Microsoft's Office apps. With Chrome already running, you don’t have to wait for the program to start up as you would with Office.
How Chrome Office Viewer works
Overall, Google’s Chrome Office Viewer beta works pretty well with basic documents in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint formats including DOC, DOCX, XLS, XLSX, PPT, and PPTX. The viewing area looks very much like Chrome's PDF viewer including the pop-up menu with zoom, save, and print controls when you mouse over the bottom right corner of the screen. The view changes slightly depending on the type of document you're viewing: PowerPoint decks have a left-hand navigation column for opening specific slides, while Excel documents include cell and row numbers. The Word viewer simply displays the document on a page centered in the middle of the screen.
As this is a beta, Chrome's Office extension falls short at times. Viewing images in Word documents was hit or miss. Sometimes the images wouldn't show up at all in Chrome even though Word 2013 had no problems displaying them. When I tried to view an XLSX Excel document that contained numbers in superscript, Chrome Office Viewer displayed them as regular numbers. That turned Microsoft's Q2 earnings from 1993 into Q2 earnings from the year 931.
When you view a PowerPoint slide presentation, a play button pops up next to the save and print controls to view the presentation. But in my tests, this simply opened the presentation in full screen; you still had to manually advance the slideshow.
One other issue to note is that if an Office document is set to automatically download from a Website, Chrome Office Viewer can't stop the download to let you view the document in your browser. For those occasions, you must either open a desktop program to view the file or upload it to Google Drive to view. Chrome Office Viewer would also be improved with the capability to import documents directly into Google Drive. Now, the only way to do that is to save the document in Chrome Office Viewer to your Google Drive folder on the desktop.
Google is well aware that problems will occur with Chrome Office Viewer beta, and every document view includes a "Report a problem" link. If you come across a formatting issue, you can easily alert Google so it can work to fix the issue.
Shortcomings aside, the added security benefits and the capability to quickly view a document you find online make Chrome Office Viewer a worthwhile tool to have on hand. Even if it doesn't work perfectly at this point.