Office 365 vs Google Drive

Microsoft may be champion on the desktop, but online it’s been playing second fiddle for years. With no desktop legacy to worry about, Google has concentrated on incremental improvements to its online suite – a core part of its Google-everywhere strategy – and the result is a viable competitor to Office 365. For free.

Over time, Google has built a fully featured word processor, spreadsheet and presentation suite.

The apps demonstrate incredible flexibility and a clean, easy-to-understand interface that’s less fussy than Office and significantly more attractive than LibreOffice. It even has built-in printing tools, courtesy of Google Cloud Print, which let you send your documents to any remote printer over the web. Try doing that with Office.

Each account comes with 15GB of space for non-native files (Google Document, Spreadsheet and Presentation files have no impact on your overall storage capacity), which can be upgraded to between 100GB and 16TB for $5 to $800 per month.

You can’t use any third-party cloud storage services, but you can link external online apps to your Drive space. Third-party developers have taken advantage of this to bolster Google Drive with features that don’t figure in Microsoft’s calculations. Tools such as image editors (Pixlr), diagramming tools (Lucidchart) and schedulers (Gantter) make this one of the most flexible integrated suites on the web.

Ease of use

Each of Google Drive’s three key components is easy to get to grips with, particularly if you have any experience with similar offline tools from other developers. None of them feature a ribbon, but the most familiar formatting options are ranged across a regular toolbar, and they work with common keyboard shortcuts such as Ctrl+B for bold and Ctrl+I for italic.

Right-clicking brings up context menus relevant to the application in hand, rather than the regular browser menu, so you can pick spelling alternatives, look up definitions and so on.

The spreadsheet uses common Excel formulae, has a range of built-in chart types and takes conditional formatting in its stride. This last feature, sadly, doesn’t extend as far as the in-cell data bars and heat-map colour ranges, so they’ll be stripped out if you upload a spreadsheet that makes use of them. Impressively, though, it’s fully conversant in sparklines.

Google Docs

The presentation module includes 20 templates in three sizes – 4:3, 16:9 and 16:10 – that make a change from the default PowerPoint layouts. There are only six transition types, but you can build slides object by object to reveal their contents gradually.

It’s easy to create great-looking output – complete with images, runaround text and full control over fonts and formatting – and you’re not restricted to web-safe options, either, as the apps are tied in to Google Fonts.

Google Docs

This gives you access to 632 open-source typefaces in a variety of weights – far more than you’d find on the average PC – through a dialog not dissimilar to the Adobe Typekit plugin for Creative Cloud.

Let’s work together

Google Drive uses bespoke file formats, but conversion to and from their Microsoft equivalents is largely transparent, with an option to translate them when you upload them to the server.

At the other end of the process, you can download them in Microsoft, OpenDocument and app-agnostic formats such as RTF and CSV. Google’s own synchronisation tool is underwhelming in this area, storing links to your online files, rather than the files themselves on your PC; double-click one to open it in the browser.

If you want to keep real copies of your work on your machine, third-party Insync plugs the gap, copying your files to your local drive and converting them to Microsoft formats in the process. Any local edits you make are then copied back to the server and converted in the opposite direction to Google formats.

Collaboration is perhaps Google Drive’s biggest triumph. It allows you to share documents with read-only or editing rights; opt for the latter and multiple collaborators can open them simultaneously, with amendments highlighted in different colours for each editor.

Google Docs

It’s tooled up for collecting data from third parties, too, even if they’re not in your workgroup. The Form tool lets you quickly knock up a web form, the results of which are fed directly into a Google Spreadsheet, ready for analysis. Excel Survey does the same in the Microsoft’s Office Online.

There are no Windows or Mac applications that feed their data directly into your Drive files, but the Google Drive mobile app can open and edit these files. It’s free on Android, iPad and iPhone.

Making the leap

Google Drive is superb value, both in terms of money and time – it’s free to use and easy to get to grips with.

For and against

Advantages of Google Docs:
– Free of charge and easier to use
– Superb features for collaboration

Disadvantages:
– Requires internet connection
– Lacks power and a database tool

Microsoft Office old-timers should have no trouble making the switch, while the unthreatening interface is a great starting point for anyone new to the cloud.

If you don’t need a database and rarely use the more heavyweight features of Office, it’s a serious alternative for undemanding users – as long as you’re always connected to the internet.

Zoho

Google isn’t the only online suite. Another Office rival that’s found favour is Zoho, the simple, tabbed interface of which makes it easy to create attractive documents quickly. There’s a wide variety of built-in fonts, a format painter, and some smart presentation themes to get you started. Also, an offline feature syncs up to five documents to your browser cache so you can work on them when you don’t have an internet connection.

Zoho

It’s easy to share files with collaborators. Amendments are incorporated in real-time, and each user can add and reply to comments. You can create breakpoint versions as you edit your files, review your versions and recover previous editions.

Each free account comes with 5GB of bundled storage, to which you can upload individual files and folders or import your Google Drive files; they’re converted and scanned for viruses as part of the upload. Export options run to Microsoft Office, OpenDocument, PDF, HTML and generic formats such as RTF and CSV.

The Zoho app for Android lets you edit Writer files and view or download the others. You can view your files on the equivalent iOS app, but only if you’ve signed in using a Zoho account – it can’t handle OpenID logins using a Google address. If you are tempted away from Office, Zoho is well worth investigating.

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