MS Office to Google Docs – Worth it?

Can I escape the software I’ve used since 1997?

I’ve used Microsoft Office since 1997. What did I need it for in 1997? Jack shit, really, because in 1997 I was in Grade 4, and I think the most entertaining thing I did was write a short story. But I learned how to use it even at that early age, perhaps knowing that it’d become the defacto-standard for office software. Fast forward to the present day and I use it heavily. Apart from writing countless assignments, I use PowerPoint for all of my clinical training packages, and I use Word for pretty much any document I have to write (from clinical guidelines to DisCONNECT).

Most of the documents I type up aren’t special – they have fairly basic formatting, occasionally relying heavily on tables, but nothing particularly fancy. I don’t collaborate with people that often – and when I do, usually I end up collecting all of the work together into one document. Things like ‘tracking changes’ and multiuser collaborative document editing don’t mean much to people who are still grappling with the whole ‘cloud’ concept. Assignments for university, and clinical presentations, are much more specific in the formatting, and getting them to conform to expected standards is half the battle. PowerPoint is an exceptionally good program for doing presentations, but Word can be a pain in the arse with unusual formatting demands… and sometimes formatting breaks for reasons I’ll never understand. Finally, I use OneNote for practically all of my university notes, because OneNote is quite simply awesome.

While I’m a fan of MS Office, I’ve always wondered if it would be possible to escape from its grasp. Lately there have been some challengers to the throne – Google Docs springs to my mind. I’m sorry LibreOffice fans, but I can’t stand that package. It’s clunky, looks outdated, and I just don’t like it – so you’re not even in the running. More than that though, I’ve started looking into more platform-agnostic packages. Office may run on Mac and Windows, along with a capable web browser with their (reasonably powerful) Office Web Apps, but the best experience by far is still on Windows. Lately I’ve been using a Mac more and more frequently, and the iPad still ranks as the best tablet I’ve ever used (though Android is getting better). As a result, I’ve been looking for a better way to do things. To start 2014, here’s what happened with my experiment to stop using Office.


Swapping to Google Docs

Google Docs isn’t as full featured as Office – anybody who tells you different is selling you a fabrication. However for the majority of the work that I do, it’s fine. As I said, most of my documents use no special formatting and aren’t particularly exciting, so a basic package like Google Docs works fine. Notably, any Google Docs files in your Google Drive (powered by Google so you can Google your Google while you Google… Google) don’t take up any storage space, and since you get 15GB for free, that’s pretty damn attractive. I uploaded my entire collection of doc, docx, and txt files to Google Drive, and had them all converted to Google Doc files. I expected everything to break – Office files are only really read well by Office itself, with everybody else doing comparatively poor jobs. But things worked out fairly well for the vast majority of those files! Most of the common elements, like tables and most images, worked fine, although sometimes the text size wasn’t correctly imported and things went over additional pages. Sometimes there were extra line breaks. Tables with merged cells didn’t work – the merged cells were split again. Some special elements with headers and footers didn’t import properly. Documents with more unusual formatting or layouts, like those using ‘cover page’ layouts, or many images, were significantly degraded in the import process. It took a bit of effort for them to be patched up. But on the whole conversion was pretty easy, and didn’t require much in the way of intervention. Granted, most of the documents I imported aren’t ones I desperately needed (most of them are effectively archived) but for the most part Google Docs did a good job at importing them.

Where GDocs falls down is in the features department. Although it can do the most common tasks, it’s still fairly Spartan compared to MS Word. If you need more advanced formatting options, you’re going to have to use something else. I wouldn’t type up my assignments in it, put it that way. Also GDocs has one other big issue – offline support. Frankly, it’s crap, and it shows no signs of getting better. Offline support relies on using Chrome and must be specifically enabled for it to work. Even then, if you’ve got the Google Drive app installed on your PC or Mac, it doesn’t actually appear to sync Google Docs – that seems to be done by the browser. Even then, it doesn’t appear to sync the directory structure – so all of your offline files are lumped into one, big mess. And if it didn’t sync the file you needed, you’re screwed. It’s next to useless and feels like a tacked-on stop-gap rather than proper offline support. It’s junk, and it’s a deal-breaker. Maybe you live in a world where the internet never drops out, but I sure don’t, and not being able to have proper offline access isn’t acceptable for me. It seems to sync files at random – although it clearly syncs whatever files you last used, the rest just seem to be selected without rhyme or reason. It synced a large number of my files, but about a quarter of them didn’t sync. Why? I don’t know.

Oh, right, before I forget, Drive can do spreadsheets and presentations. Both are terrible. For what it’s worth, the presentations app did manage to import my PPTX files with most formatting intact, but a lot of elements – like the very few transitions that I use and some drawing objects – didn’t import well at all. Plus the entire program seems limited. If you really need to deliver presentations, find something else.

The iOS client is fairly good. You can view most anything but you can only edit documents – and editing is limited. You can do most things but tables won’t even display in edit mode. Seriously, Google? Why is this such a big issue to get working? I really want to know, because this feature has been missing for ages, and I use a lot of tables in my documents as an easy way to organise information. Why is this such a big issue? Of course not being able to edit the other files is a bit of a downer too, but to be fair I don’t really do much document editing on my iPad. I view documents a lot, and it’d be handy to do a bit of editing, but there’s no way I’d be typing up a document on it. I’d use a laptop (or my Surface Pro) for that.

Back to Office

Office 365 is about $120 AUD for 12 months, or $12 a month. That nets you 5 licenses for whatever the current version of Office is, 20GB of SkyDrive storage space (for 5 users), and 60 minutes of Skype time every month. Office 2013 can be ‘streamed’ to Windows PCs too – you can use the full version of whatever Office app you pick on any Windows 7 or 8 PC without installing it – provided you’re only working on SkyDrive files. And then there are the Office Web Apps, which do sort of work within Safari on the faster iOS 7 devices. It works okay on my iPad Mini Retina, although it isn’t ideal. And of course those 5 licenses are valid for the Mac as well, and SkyDrive works on a Mac (though not as well as on a Windows 8.1 device). That $120 is a lot to pay, but when you consider that a single-user license for Office 2013 Home edition (which only gives you Word, PowerPoint, Excel and Outlook) retails for over $160, and when you consider that you’re getting SkyDrive storage space and Skype minutes (if that matters to you), that might tip the scales in your favour. By comparison, Google Drive will give you an extra 100GB of space for $4.95 a month – roughly $60 a year. It’s up to you whether you ultimately need the power of Office versus raw storage.

What ultimately stops me from using Google Drive is its offline support. The word processor, spreadsheet and (to a lesser degree) presentation apps are all competent and do the job, and their support for Office files is remarkably good (probably one of the best). This did demonstrate that, if nothing else, compatibility shouldn’t be a major issue. What doesn’t sit well with me is the terrible offline support. It’s too unreliable, and Chrome isn’t the best application to manage cloud storage. SkyDrive, whether you’re on a Mac or Windows, has proven to be quite reliable, and if you’re using Windows 8.1 it’s very deeply integrated with it. There are SkyDrive apps for iOS and Android (despite Google treating Microsoft devices with absolute disdain). If Microsoft ever turned their iOS version of Office into an app that actually doesn’t suck, they’d crush Google Docs and iWork without even trying.

It’s the reliability of SkyDrive, combined with what still remains one of the best office suites out there, that keeps me with MS Office. Google Drive has lots of storage, and Google Docs is surprisingly competent and works very well. But Google still lives in a world where the cloud is always accessible, and that simply isn’t the case in the real world. Microsoft know that good offline support is still integral to most people’s workflow. If Google fixed offline support (just integrate it with Google Drive’s client, guys, it can’t be that hard!) it’d go a long way to making it a lot better. Until then though? Office still wins in my book.


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