Toy or Tool? Google Docs & Spreadsheets Reviewed

Google's new office suite is great for quick collaboration, but don't throw out Word and Excel just yet

Looking for a free word processor and spreadsheet? Google's newly released Docs & Spreadsheets suite that offers just that, but in this case you get what you pay for. While the number-crunching power of Spreadsheets is adequate for simple workbooks, the Docs program (formerly Writely, acquired by Google earlier this year) is so underpowered we wouldn't recommend it for even casual use.

We tested the program pair with Internet Explorer 6 and 7, Opera 9, and Firefox 1.5. While our testing of Google Spreadsheets left us generally pleased (see "Hands on: Google Spreadsheets is more powerful than you think" for an in-depth look), Google Docs didn't impress us. Furthermore, we encountered so many performance problems that we hesitate to use the programs in any but the most desperate circumstances.

For example, we were repeatedly stymied by a "Network error" message that prevented us from saving our work or even performing a spell check (since Docs must save the document first). Likewise, "Unable to connect to the network" left us frustrated and at a dead end. Worrying about whether your documents and spreadsheets will be available and hoping they won't disappear or be corrupted is no way to work.

Google Docs

Docs is an elementary word processor -- like WordPad with a few higher-end features thrown in. Editing commands include undo and redo, font control (your choice of 19 text fonts plus WingDings), seven text sizes, highlighting, lists (using numbers or one of three bullet styles), indents and outdents, and alignment (left, center, right). You can choose from among three heading styles; single, 1.5, double, and triple line spacing; and superscript, subscript, and strikeout properties.

Word processing with Google Docs

Word processing with Google Docs

(Click image to see larger view)

You can insert hyperlinks, comments, line and page breaks, and images. Tables are easy to add, and you'll see many options familiar to HTML coders (such as cell padding and spacing) -- likely because HTML is one of the five document formats you can export your files in (the others are Word, PDF, OpenOffice, and RTF) in addition to saving the file on Google's server in its native format.

Adding tables is easy in Google Docs

Adding tables is easy in Google Docs

The spell checker highlights errors in yellow; right-click for suggested spellings or to add a word to your dictionary. Among the higher-end features: the program keeps versions for you and lets you compare any two versions or easily revert to a previous version. The lack of some basic features -- such as a Find command (Docs supports only Search and Replace) -- is particularly annoying.

Though response time was fair and the delay in opening files was acceptable, we often wondered what (if anything) was happening. When we highlighted text and pressed the Del key, for instance, Docs took several seconds to delete the text. We frequently encountered delays or redraw problems when we cut and pasted text, even with a broadband connection.

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