Google Docs for Android: A Test Drive

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Since Google's native app for Docs on Android came out last Wednesday, I've been giving it a test drive. Google Docs works well enough in the mobile browser, and many apps have already come out trying to provide sync and edit functions. However, nothing integrates as nicely as a native app direct from the service provider.

My intention was to type this article in Google Docs using my 5-inch Dell Streak smartphone, running Android 2.2 and paired with an Apple Bluetooth keyboard. I managed to draft an opening paragraph before switching to Evernote due to the limited editing options, but more on that later.

When you first start the Google Docs app, you are greeted with a clean, uncluttered home screen with shortcuts to all your items, collections, starred documents, and other helpful things. Text documents, spreadsheets, and PDFs all open quickly and render nicely.

There is also a home screen widget or quick access to starred documents and quick creation of new documents or photos, which Google will run through optical character recognition (OCR) to turn a photo of a document into editable text. And the native app makes sharing a document with your contacts easy.

Now for the hard part: editing documents. The native Google app is great for viewing documents, but for editing, you'll be sent to the browser. The app opens the mobile version of Google Docs first, but you will have the option to switch to the desktop version--which just means you see the site as if you were on a regular PC. With the mobile version, there's no way to close the onscreen keyboard when using a Bluetooth keyboard, even though many other apps seem to be fine with that arrangement. If you close the onscreen keyboard, you lose the cursor, and no text is inserted. The arrow keys also won't move you around the text in the Document, but bounce between page elements instead. This would work for shorter text entry or quick edits, but I didn't last more than a paragraph trying to actually create a new document that way.

So, I moved over to try Google Docs in the mobile browser. The page renders nicely in the browser, but sadly does not function as well as it would on a desktop computer. As with most full versions of Google Apps on a smartphone browser, scrolling does not work quite right. The document renders beautifully, but you can't scroll through it. The arrow keys simply move you around page elements rather than moving the cursor through the text in the document. That means that once your document reaches beyond the bottom of the screen, you can't get to it. Text entry also lagged way behind my typing in the full desktop version.

I turned to Evernote to create a text document mainly because it played nicely with the keyboard, allowing me to close the onscreen keyboard and instead type and navigate my text with the Bluetooth keyboard. I also like the easy syncing of Evernote with my other computers, as well as easy sharing of notes via e-mail.

There are a few alternative Google Docs viewers. MyDocs--in a beta, testing version for now--offers another simple and clean interface for Google Docs, but will still send you to the browser for editing. GDocs has simple editing baked in, but still won't let me minimize the onscreen keyboard when I'm using the Bluetooth keyboard. This app will also allow download of documents for offline viewing or editing.

If you need a more full-featured office suite with stronger document-creation options, check out ThinkFree Office Mobile, Docs To Go, Office Suite Pro, or Quick Office Pro. If you have one of those fancy, bigger-screened, Android 3.0 Honeycomb tablets, you'll want the HD version of Quick Office. For those who prefer open source office software, Open Office Reader can view, but not edit, .odt and .ods files. When not even that is enough, and you simply need access to the whole shebang, LogMeIn Ignition will get you back to your desktop.

The Google Docs app is a clean and simple way to browse and do minor edits to your Google documents, but not quite compelling enough for me to run out and grab an Asus Transformer for writing. Perhaps the most intriguing feature of the Android app--and the one I will definitely be testing more--is the photo document creation with OCR. For quick reference and reading of Google Docs, this is a great addition to my Android smartphone.

Michelle Mastin has been a freelance musician and teacher since leaving conservatories five years ago, and a hobby nerd for all of her 30 years. Watch classical music and gadgets collide at her blog, or follow her on Twitter @violajack.

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At a Glance
  • A pleasing, well-balanced industrial design and a value price can't outweigh this tablet's bugs at launch, or its poor display.


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    • Comfortable-to-hold contours


    • Colors lack vibrancy
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    • Buggy, user-unfriendly Android 2.2 interface
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