Office Online review: Great for Word and Excel, not PowerPoint

Word Online and Excel Online are surprisingly capable, but PowerPoint Online and Office document compatibility are still half-baked.

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The four-page newsletter presented quite a challenge, however. Initially opening the document -- into view mode -- took more than 10 minutes. Once it was open, trying to edit the document (Edit Document/Edit in Word Online) left me with the error message, "Sorry, Word Online can't open this document because it's too big."

To give Word Online another try, I went into the newsletter and deleted the last two pages -- which consisted entirely of photos and text boxes -- slimming the 65MB .docx down to 37MB. When it was opened in Word Online -- this was only in preview -- I came up with the mess you see in Figure 3.

I didn't try to edit or save the garbled newsletter to see if it would stand up to a round trip. Surprisingly, the document appeared identically in Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer.

The long-but-simple .xls opened fine for viewing in Excel Online, but trying to edit the workbook brought another error message: "We couldn't open this workbook because it contains macros, which we can't show in the browser."

The more complex .xlsx wouldn't open either: "We're sorry. We can't open the workbook in the browser because it uses these unsupported features: Workbook encryption. Do you want to open the file in Excel instead?" This is the same workbook that opened easily in Apple's Numbers for iCloud.

Finally, the simple PowerPoint presentation would not open correctly in PowerPoint Online either. Opening for edit in PowerPoint Online dropped a graphic, replacing it with a big black box. Fortunately, the slide show progressed properly, with transitions and automations intact. When I changed a few words and opened the PowerPoint Online-modified file in desktop PowerPoint, the graphic disappeared, but everything else worked correctly.

Office productivity online?

If you think Microsoft's Office Online will let you view and edit Office docs with nary a hiccup, you're wrong. Although simple Office documents can go through a round trip to Office Online and escape without much trouble, even moderately complicated documents can end up in shreds. The technology just isn't there yet.

If your needs are modest and you don't rely on PowerPoint much, Office Online may be all the productivity software you need. Word Online has many of the features everyday users might want, and Excel Online's capabilities come even closer to those of the desktop version -- to a first approximation, anyway.

Creating simple documents in Word Online or Excel Online works very well indeed. Simple documents, so long as they remain simple, can be opened and edited in both the desktop and online versions of Office. No problems at all. You should expect problems, though, when you bring an even moderately complex document from Office on the desktop into Office Online. Presentations are a lost cause.

For most individuals, and for many organizations, Word Online and Excel Online offer a great deal of capability for an unbeatable price. Let's hope that, with time, PowerPoint Online will catch up -- and that Microsoft may see fit to loosen the ties to OneDrive.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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