Google Docs & Spreadsheets (Beta) review

Despite what some may believe, Google isn’t going to take over the planet with its first foray into office applications. But we will say from the outset that Google Docs & Spreadsheets has its uses. The follow up to the pioneering Writely, it provides simple document and spreadsheet editing from any browser connected to the internet. The user interface is quite spartan, but all you need if you just want to bash out some text or numbers.

Google Docs & Spreadsheets (Beta) review

There’s no software to install; just sign up for a Google account and you’re off. According to the Help text, you’ll need to use IE6+, Firefox 1.07, Mozilla 1.7.12+ or Netscape 7.2 or 8. Google specifically says there’s no support for IE5 Mac, IE4 Windows, Safari, Netscape 4, Opera or any Linux platform.

The terms of service don’t claim any rights for Google over your data, but they do make you agree that you won’t use the service for nefarious purposes, and you have to agree with your data being exported to the US. This might be a problem for some, as they may have to declare the export to the Data Protection Registrar. Google reserves the right to put adverts, targeted to the content of the documents you create, alongside your documents, but makes no guarantees that you’ll always be able to retrieve data you store in the system. If you don’t save your documents elsewhere, you could lose them entirely.

You can import and export documents and spreadsheets in a variety of formats, and you can save both as a PDF file. The user interface for import and export isn’t very consistent, though. You do File | Export | .pdf if you’re working with a spreadsheet, but File | Save As PDF from a document. Google rather rashly promises in the tour of features that you can import documents and spreadsheets, and keep all formatting intact. While it will handle the basics, it’s clear Google Docs & Spreadsheets doesn’t support even half the formatting options offered by Microsoft Office, StarOffice or OpenOffice.

The user interface is a mish-mash of buttons, toolbars, tabs and hyperlinks. There’s even a nod to the Ribbon in Microsoft Office 2007 – the main toolbar on the editing screen is baby blue, has tabs to show different sets of tools and a drop-down File menu. When you’re editing a document, you can do simple things like bold, italic or underline, bullets and numbering. You can even pick from a limited range of fonts and sizes, although you can’t create your own styles, use newspaper columns, tab stops or fully justify text. The spellchecker, accessed from a hyperlink at the bottom right, works intermittently. Sometimes, it flagged “Google” as a spelling mistake; other times, it accepted “spreadhseets” as correct.

You can insert images into your documents, but no matter where the insertion point they always appear at the top, so you have to move them after you’ve inserted them. Wrapping text around an image isn’t straightforward either: you have to use the Change Image dialog to alter the alignment to Left or Right and set some padding so the image doesn’t run into the text.

When it comes to printing, Google merely removes all the buttons and toolbars and invokes your browser’s Print function. This means you have little control over margins, headers or footers – you simply get whatever is served up by your browser. You can upload documents to the service either by browsing for the file on your PC or by sending it to a convoluted email address, but it will only accept documents up to 500KB in size. We often received a “Server Error” message when trying to upload even lightly formatted documents. When they did upload, we found page breaks were missing, images were mangled or fonts were wrong.

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