Google Docs reconsidered

Two years out of beta, how does Google's online office suite hold up?

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Sharing documents

Every document can be shared with other users. You can share with a list of people by entering their email addresses or by selecting them from your Google user account's list of contacts; you can also make the document public or accessible by anyone who has its URL. People with whom you share a document privately can collaborate with you on it (or you can just give them viewing rights).

You can also email a document as a file attachment from within an opened document or from the Google Docs Home page. This is handy, but it would be better if you could attach multiple documents at the same time to a single email message.

Revision history

The revision history tool is one of the coolest features available within Google Docs. It pulls up a list of the previous versions of a document. Click on a date in this list, and the main work area will show that document marked with what was changed (for example, in a text document, newly added text is colored green, while deleted text is marked with strike-throughs).

This is great for tracking the progress of a document when two or more people are contributing to it (the author of each revision is noted) or even if you are working solo and need to put something back in you removed.

Printing

Printing from Google Docs can be a rather complicated process. If you're using Google Docs in Internet Explorer or Firefox, when you click "Print," your document is actually converted to a PDF for you to download and print separately.

The experience is more practical if you use Google Docs with Google's own Web browser, Chrome. Starting in Version 13 of the browser, when you click "Print," a print preview page opens in a Chrome browser tab and shows you what your document will look like before you commit it to hard copy. (The previous version of Chrome only brings up your print driver.) A column along the left lets you choose from a list of printers connected to your computer, the number of copies and specific pages to print, the layout (portrait or landscape), and whether to use color. Obviously, this is a huge improvement, but this better printing system needs to be available to users of all the major browsers.

The Google Docs applications

All of the applications have undergone considerable upgrades over the past year, with new features added and old ones improved.

Document

Word processor Document started as an online text editor called Writely (before it was bought by Google) with very basic features. It has since grown to become a nearly full-fledged application that rivals stand-alone desktop word processors.

The application offers many formatting features -- fonts, type size, line spacing, paragraph style and list style -- included in word processors such as Microsoft Word. You can now insert a variety of elements into your document such as headers, footers, tables and mathematical equations. You can also add images by uploading them from your computer.

Google Docs

The Document word processing application rivals stand-alone desktop word processors.

Click to view larger image.

Google Docs has improved on its ability to import and convert documents to its own format -- it can accept Microsoft Word, OpenOffice, rich text (RTF), HTML or plain text (.txt) documents. For example, an imported Word document that included a number of stylistic elements, including highlighting, retained all its elements. The only exception were tracked changes, which did not translate to the Google Docs document; that wasn't unexpected, since Google's revision history feature tracks changes differently than most word processors do.

On the other side of the equation, you can export your document as a plain text, RTF, ODT, Word or HTML file.

You can upload PDFs or images (JPG, GIF or PNG format) of scanned text, and Google Docs will use an OCR engine to convert it to an editable Documents file. This works impressively well, as long as the text in the PDF or source image file is clear and legible.

Another neat tool converts your document to another language (you can choose from over 50 languages) and stores the translated version as a Google Document file in your personal storage space on Google Docs. Your original document remains unchanged.

Document uses a real-time spell-checker; misspelled words are underlined with a red dotted line. Right-clicking on the word in question brings up a menu where you can select the correct spelling.

One recent, and welcome, addition is pagination, which lets you view a document as separate pages rather than as a single block of text. However, there's still no way to insert (or format) page numbers in a document as you are editing it. Instead, when you are about to print your document, you can set Google Docs to print page numbers in the upper left, upper middle, upper right, lower left, lower middle, or lower right of every page.

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