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Hands on: Google Spreadsheets is more powerful than you think

It's no Excel killer, but Google's online spreadsheet will surprise you with what it can do

By Richard Ericson
June 9, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Google Spreadsheets is a free, Web-based spreadsheet tool from Google that does a surprisingly good job as a basic number cruncher, and the price is right. Google began accepting sign-ups to participate in a limited public beta test earlier this week, so you can sign up and try it yourself.

I didn't expect to see high-end spreadsheet features. There are no PivotTables, there's no charting, and apart from sorting, you can't do much with text. But there's a lot more functionality than you might expect. Google Spreadsheets' user interface, functions support, collaboration features and performance are all strengths.

Where the files are

Files you create or import with Google Spreadsheets are automatically saved by default to Google's server, though it's easy to delete them there. Data files are not encrypted, though, which should give at least some users pause. Google offers encryption with some of its other user-data services, so perhaps this capability will be added later. But even if Google does eventually offer worksheet encryption, any notion of saving sensitive data to some other company's server via the Internet is rarely a smart move. (This problem might potentially be offset if Google were to offer an enterprise product that ran on corporate intranets.)
Handson with Google Spreadsheet

You can use Google Spreadsheets to work with your pre-existing worksheets (either native Microsoft Office Excel .xls or comma-separated-value .csv files) by uploading them to Google Spreadsheets. You can also save a Google Spreadsheets worksheet to your hard drive and convert it to an .xls or .csv file. Be prepared to lose some formatting, such as row height and column width, when saving to .xls format. You can also create an HTML file of your worksheet as a read-only file.



Google Spreadsheets at work from the Formats tab.  -(Click image to see larger view)

Every time you make a change, the Google server automatically updates the worksheet. While I experienced no serious lag, and you do have access to undo and redo buttons throughout the interface, this constant saving means you can't make a series of changes and then save the file in a particular state. Every time you make a change, your spreadsheet is saved, so "Wait, wait, wait, I want to go back to the last good version!" is not an option.

Regular use of Google Spreadsheets might tend to make spreadsheets smaller. By default, new worksheets are sized at 100 rows by 20 columns, and inserting large numbers of rows or columns is cumbersome. Although Google Spreadsheets can import existing worksheets with more rows, there are limits. You can work with up to 100 spreadsheets in all, each with up to 20 worksheet tabs, 50,000 cells, 256 columns or 10,000 rows, according to Google. If any worksheet exceeds any of these conditions, you're prevented from adding data to the spreadsheet. Your .xls and .csv files cannot exceed 400KB each.

The Format tab

Google Spreadsheets' interface is clean and simple. Standard drop-down menus, icons and buttons handle many common chores. Buttons control formatting choices, such as toggling between two or no decimal points, applying dollar or percent signs, aligning text and inserting rows and columns.

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