Connected computers are astoundingly good at two things: helping you have fun, and helping you get things done. When game time is over, getting to work wasn’t always cheap.
Buying office software was once a major expense for many, because free alternatives were laughably underpowered. Today, free office software is extremely capable and comprehensive, and even offers document-sharing advantages far more convenient than conventional, pricey software. Some of the best are cloud apps which run in your Web browser of choice, meaning there’s no new software to download and you can access all of your documents, spreadsheets, and presentations from any networked computer, tablet, or smartphone.
The top contenders for browser-based productivity apps are Google Drive and Microsoft Office Online, previously known as Office Web Apps. Although they have different quirks under their respective hoods, the crucial features and drawbacks of both are essentially identical.
Cloud Office Advantages
1. Access your files anywhere
Because cloud office services store your documents remotely, you never have to worry about emailing files to yourself, carrying around a thumb drive, or doing any of the other gyrations that usually go with trying to edit a document on multiple computers. You get full viewing and editing rights, as long as you’re signing in with the ID you used to create the document.
For best results, you typically need to use a helper app when you want to edit cloud documents on a tablet or smartphone. Google Drive and Office Online apps are both easy to find on the official app stores for modern mobile devices.
2. Easy collaboration
You can invite others to share your documents, and can choose to restrict to view-only or give full editing privileges. Two or more people can actually edit the same document at the same time, and the changes will appear instantly on all screens.
That may sound confusing, but it can be extremely useful when collaborating on things as straightforward as a party invitation or as complicated as an annual budget. It also makes for a simple way to do a virtual whiteboard if you’re having a frustrating phone call or text message exchange and you quite literally need to spell something out in large letters to the person on the other end of the line.
3. Automatic updates, no software patches to apply
Cloud applications are automatically patched and kept up to date. Every time you open the site in your browser, you’re getting the latest and greatest version of the office software.
Chances are you already have an account for at least one of these services. Anyone with a Gmail account can start using Google Docs, and the same goes for Outlook.com (formerly Hotmail) accounts, or even old MSN Messenger IDs. If you don’t have an account on either service, it’s easy to associate an existing email address with a Google or Microsoft ID, or simply establish a new account. Signup for both is free and easy.
5. Automatic backup, undelete, and revision protection
These services automatically keep your files backed up in the cloud, meaning that if your computer crashes or your phone goes for a swim, you won’t lose any data. All of your changes are stored as you type and save revisions, so you can backtrack if you accidentally wipe a paragraph or lose a column of data. And it’s actually very difficult to permanently delete a file from these services even when you’re trying!
Cloud Office Disadvantages
1. Some detailed features lacking
Both services are good enough for most people to do what they need to do most of the time. But, in fairness, they aren’t 100% replacements for the full-bore Microsoft Office suite. Office.com feels more obviously limited, and it’s not hard to figure out why—Microsoft still wants to sell you higher-end products, whether it’s the cloud-integrated Office 365 or the full Microsoft Office suite. Google charges businesses for access to Google Drive applications, but the actual experience of reading, editing, and sharing documents isn’t any different for paying customers.
That doesn’t mean Google’s off the hook entirely. Google Drive can struggle with some layout quirks that Office Online has no problem with. It’s not that Google wants you to pay for better functionality—they simply don’t have all of the bases covered. Office Online can be the best choice for a pesky Microsoft Office document that simply doesn’t look right in non-Microsoft alternatives.
2. Can be slower than normal software
The situation is improving as browsers get better, but the fact is that running an application inside a browser window is usually not as efficient as having a stand-alone program. Big, complex documents and spreadsheets can really expose that weakness. You probably won’t notice it on a newer computer, but if you’re still limping along on a Windows XP or Vista-era machine, or if your last Mac purchase came before the first iPhone was released, you’ll be feeling some pain.
3. Limited options for working offline
Working online is wonderfully liberating, and storing documents in the cloud is convenient and reliable. But what happens when you have no Internet connection? It’s possible to use some Google Drive capabilities offline, but Google keeps changing the rules and procedures.
These days, you have to be a Chrome user and download the Google Drive Chrome app. Getting the whole thing working is a little tricky and you may find that you lack some important features that are still only available online. For more information about the process, read a tutorial here.
Staying On the Ground
Not convinced that the cloud is the best choice for your productivity software needs, but you’re still on a tight budget and want a free download? There are a number of free options for documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. The most comprehensive is LibreOffice.
LibreOffice isn’t perfect and lacks a few of the conveniences of the pricey Microsoft Office suite, but it is extremely capable and frequently updated. The interface lacks the polish of newer versions of Microsoft Office, but is extremely competitive on a feature-for-feature basis.
And did we mention that it’s completely free?