Online Office Suites: The Winner Is Clear

In our hands-on review, one free Web-based Office alternative stands head and shoulders above the rest

Microsoft Corp.'s radical overhaul of Office 2007, already available to businesses and due for consumer release at the end of January, has left many users wondering about the alternatives. If we have to learn a new interface, why not try a whole different product? While we're at it, why not investigate some of the new online-only office suites that everybody's talking about?

It's no wonder online suites are appealing: They offer the ability to have documents stored online and available anywhere you can access the Internet, no matter what operating system you're using. There's no software to download and install, no upgrading hassles when new features are added or bugs eliminated, and no upfront or ongoing expenses. The ability to share a document with several users without your own server is equally tempting, as is the price tag for many of these services: absolutely free.

We tested four popular online office suites -- Ajax13, Google Docs & Spreadsheets, ThinkFree Online and Zoho Office Suite -- focusing on the word processor and spreadsheet functionality of each suite. (A fifth candidate, gOffice, was disqualified. Though promoted as a free suite, it requires a 99-cent-per-month payment, which we didn't learn about until we opened the registration page.)

We were looking for a good mix of features, speedy response and compatibility with Microsoft Office. All the suites in our roundup except Ajax13 let you publish your document on a public server, and most let you invite others to collaborate on the same document.

Online applications can be a mixed blessing, however, as these four suites show. If any server is stressed, you can't necessarily access the application when you need it. This happened with both Ajax13 and Google Docs & Spreadsheets. Google was able to create a new document, but responded with, "The server encountered a temporary error and could not complete your request. Please try again in 30 seconds" when we tried to create a new spreadsheet. It was finally available 15 minutes later. That's 15 minutes too long for most of us.

None of the suites in our roundup offers all the applications and features of Microsoft Office. But if you're looking to use the core office applications in an access-anywhere format, at least two of the suites in our roundup are surprisingly sophisticated. From the pitiful to the powerful, here are the four suites we tested, presented in alphabetical order.

Ajax13

The Ajax13 suite includes ajaxWrite (a word processor), ajaxXLS (a spreadsheet viewer), ajaxSketch (a graphics editor), ajaxPresents (slideshow presentation software), and ajaxTunes (a media player). Thirteen is, unfortunately, an unlucky number.

True to its Web-site claim, ajaxWrite loaded in under 6 seconds (it was closer to 3 seconds the few times it worked, though sometimes it never would open), and it has a clean, if sparse, look. That and its price are about all it has going for it.

The company's Web site says that "ajaxWrite has been designed to look like Microsoft Word, making it easy for anyone to start using it without needing to learn a new program." What it should really say is that ajaxWrite is more like WordPad than Word -- a toolbar and some menus are the only similarities in design. You can align text, choose from a selection of serif and sans-serif fonts, pick text colors and sizes, and create numbered and bulleted lists. There's a built-in, always-on spell checker that offers correct spellings and the ability to add words to the dictionary.

See all your open windows as once with Flip 3D.
 

AjaxWrite's interface is the most basic of the four suites.

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