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Google Drive leads in features, lags in ease-of-use

Woody Leonhard | May 30, 2014
If you're looking for the most capabilities for your buck -- even if you aren't spending any bucks at all -- the Google apps deliver the goods.

In the very near future, you will be able to directly crop and manipulate images inside Google Docs. The feature is rolling out even as I type this.

On the downside, tables are rudimentary, fixed in size, and difficult to format. The implementations of text boxes, pictures, and shapes have few options. Pictures can't be overlapped, and there are no watermarks (also true in the competing suites).

Google Sheets

Google Sheets now has the abilities to "flow" text into a following blank cell and to merge cells -- both of which have long been sore spots for Sheets users. There's easy Ctrl-drag for autofill. And you'll find a full suite of functions, good editing tools, and some conditional formatting capabilities.

Multiple filter views can be applied individually by each person viewing a spreadsheet. There's paste transpose, hyperlinks, and cell formatting supported by copious examples. There are no pivot tables or pivot charts, which you'll find in Excel Online, but you can painstakingly duplicate many pivot features, manually, as in Numbers for iCloud.

Unlike the other spreadsheet programs, Google Sheets has full add-on support and a sophisticated script editor, both particularly useful in a spreadsheet environment.

Google apps users have been clamoring for a built-in way to repeat headers across pages. They also want hot links for Google Sheets tables and graphics that are embedded in Google Docs and Slides documents, so changes in the spreadsheet show up in the document or presentation. No, Excel Online and Numbers for iCloud can't do any of that, either.

Google Slides

Google Slides clearly isn't as powerful as Keynote for iCloud, but it's miles ahead of PowerPoint Online.

You'll find good support for text formatting, pictures, and their manipulation (including cropping with cutouts). You can make use of free-form drawing and fills on canvases, plus lots of transitions and animations, and you can embed hyperlinks in everything, including shapes. You can embed audio or video on slides.

Slides even lets collaborators put comments on text or slides. The "view only" setting lets collaborators look at your slides but not change them. You can't hide slides on the fly.

Microsoft Office compatibility

If you want the most Office compatibility of any of the big three online suites, of course, you'll end up with Office Online. Realize, though, that even Office Online has problems -- working with moderately complex docs can bring up big headaches, even in Microsoft's own product. Google Drive circumvents some of those problems by simply refusing to open docs it doesn't understand.

I tested each suite's capabilities with six real-world documents. For the word processors, there was a simple DOC with a weird font and a table with a simple formula; a DOCX with tracked changes; and a four-page, 65MB DOCX newsletter created by an everyday Word user, packed with text boxes and graphics. For the spreadsheets, there was a big but simple XLS and a relatively complex one-page XLSX with a chart. Finally, I turned the presentation programs on a simple PPT file. All of the documents were collected "in the wild."


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