This is the first in a series of three reviews covering the major online productivity apps: Microsoft Office Online, Apple iWork for iCloud, and Google Drive (aka Google Docs or Google Apps). We'll wrap up the series with a detailed comparison, but, in the meantime, I won't leave you hanging: There's no standout "best" online suite. Each has something compelling to offer, but none emerges as the clear winner.
Office Online leads in Office document compatibility — no surprise there — but, even in that department, it still has a long way to go. Office Online and Google Drive lead in raw word-processing and spreadsheet features, but iWork's elegant and cohesive design runs rings around the other two. As for presentations, iWork takes the prize. PowerPoint Online looks like something the cat dragged in.
Before February 2014, "Office Online" was the name of the website Microsoft used as a repository for templates, clip art, and other helpful adjuncts to Microsoft Office. Now "Office Online" refers to a collection of apps that run in a browser. These include Word Online, Excel Online, PowerPoint Online, and a few others — Outlook.com, Calendar, OneNote Online, and a social-networking hub called People — that I won't be examining here. In this review, I'll focus exclusively on the three main productivity apps — Word Online, Excel Online, and PowerPoint Online — and how well they play with their counterparts on the Windows desktop.
Office Online works with any recent version of Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, or Safari. It's free for personal use. Individuals and organizations with Office 365 subscriptions (from $60 to $240 per person per year) automatically get licenses that allow them to use the Office Online apps for business or commercial purposes or in organizations.
It should come as no surprise that if you absolutely require 100 percent compatibility with traditional Office documents, Office Online is a far better choice than either Google Drive or Apple iWork for iCloud. However, it may surprise you that even Office Online occasionally mangles even simple Office docs.
As you might expect, Office Online takes its visual cues from Microsoft Office 2013, with the Ribbon flying in full force (see Figure 1). Opinions about the Ribbon run the gamut, but it works reasonably well in Office Online, even if it steals a fair amount of screen space. (Those of you with Office for iPad might want to take a look at how that version accomplishes basically the same thing in considerably less space.)
To edit an existing document in Office Online, you must first upload it to Microsoft's OneDrive, the online storage glue that binds together the Office Online apps. OneDrive works much as Google Drive does, integrating itself into Windows Explorer/File Explorer. (OneDrive integration is built into Windows 8.1. For previous versions of Windows, and for the Mac, you download and install a free app that syncs between your computer and OneDrive.) As with Google Drive, OneDrive lets you set up folders and manage them easily and do all the things you would expect a cloud-based file manager to do: upload, download, rename, copy, delete, and share files.
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