Google Docs for Android review: first look
I still haven’t seen a “killer app” for tablets; but I’m coming round to the idea that if a tablet does enough things in nice enough ways, perhaps that’s enough.
So I was interested to read today of the launch of Google Docs for Android. Though it runs on both smartphones and tablets, it sounded like a newly ticked box for tablets in particular, since their screens and keyboards are better suited to casual document editing.
In fairness, Android devices already have support for creating, viewing and editing documents, through applications such as Documents To Go and Zoho Office. But Google Docs has the advantage of being a household name, not to mention that – unlike some rivals – it comes with full editing capabilities for free.
Google Docs for Android even has one feature that isn’t in the regular web service: an OCR module that you can use to photograph a document and convert it to editable text. It’s questionable how often you’ll really use this, but it’s a fun idea, and after installing the app on the Acer Iconia Tab A500 it was the first thing I tried. Shooting a full A4 page of printed text proved optimistic – the OCR skipped over almost all the text – but moving in to capture just the top half of the page yielded pretty good results, with only minor corrections required.
Sadly, I looked in vain for any straightforward way to scan in and append the text from the lower half of the page. Pressing the “Help” button did no good: there’s no online documentation for the OCR feature, nor indeed much for the mobile application as a whole.
More disappointment was in store when I set out to correct what text I had. The mobile interface feels empty and rudimentary, and you have to switch to the distinctly finger-hostile “Desktop” view to access most of the editing functions. Though it looks all but identical to the in-browser experience, the icons and menus are too small to use comfortably and accurately without a mouse.
Honeycomb also lacks cursor keys, so if you want to move around a document you must do it by swiping and prodding, or dragging the cursor into place with the text selection pointer – a niggly process. Arguably the weakness here lies with the platform, rather than the app, but again it makes Google Docs on Android a considerably less fluid experience than on a PC.
A further platform issue bites as soon as you carry your tablet out of range of your wireless router. Since Google Docs is completely cloud-based, you can only access your documents when you have an internet connection. If you’re not running it on a 3G tablet or a smartphone, you’ll need to be tethered or connected to a wireless hotspot to access your files.
Again, it’s a limitation that really lies with the platform (or at least with Wi-Fi-only hardware); but it makes Google Docs feel distinctly limited, and raises the question of whether it even makes sense as a standalone application – there is, after all, a rich web-based interface already available for mobile devices.
This is the first release of Google Docs for Android, so I’m optimistic that these issues could all be addressed in future updates. In principle, I’m still excited by the prospect of being able to seamlessly switch between desktop and tablet while working on a document. What we have here, though, feels half-baked.
I’ll carry on working with Google Docs for Android over the weekend, and hopefully I’ll find some more positive aspects to share with you. Look out for a full review next week.
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