Google’s embrace of minimalism is on full display in its Docs, Sheets, and Slides apps. This free office suite integrates all the power and capabilities most people will ever need into intuitive web and mobile experiences. The apps also have best-in-class collaboration and revision-tracking features. Unlike rival suites, Google doesn’t offer traditional desktop versions and, unless you plan ahead, you can’t use them without an internet connection. If you’re willing to live with these limitations, Google’s office suite may be all you ever need. For a more complete and stable experience, we recommend Editors’ Choice winner Microsoft 365.
Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides vs. Google Workspace
Google’s free apps have almost all the features you get in the same-named apps in the subscription-based Google workspace,which is now open to everyone with a Google account, at prices starting at $6 per user per month. One major difference between the free and paid versions is that the free version won’t let you create document templates easily, while the paid version lets you build and upload templates with a couple of mouse clicks.
The real disadvantage of Google’s apps, in both the free and paid versions, is the lack of desktop apps that work offline. Competitors, such as libre office and apple iwork are both free, for example, but also offer desktop apps, LibreOffice on all desktop platforms, Apple on Mac hardware only. Microsoft 365, the suite that has the best of both online and desktop worlds, starts at $69.99 per year for one person and 1TB of online storage. I think it’s worth the money.
Designed for Online Work
Google Docs is ideal for brief reports, student essays, personal diaries, and other uncomplicated tasks, though it keeps adding new advanced features every few months. Compared to other office suites, Google Docs ranks last in power, but first in ease of use for straightforward editing tasks. The online-only nature of the suite plays into that simplicity; Google wants you to just trust that your data is reliably accessible in the cloud. In fact, by making it difficult to work offline, Google is not-so-subtly encouraging you to not even bother with that functionality.
To edit a document offline, you need to first install the Google Docs Offline extension in Chrome and make sure that Chrome is your default web browser. Then, in Chrome, go to drive.google.com/settings and enable the Offline setting. Next, go to your Google Drive directory, right-click on every document that you want to edit offline, and then enable the Available Offline option. Unless some glitch gets in the way—and glitches sometimes happen—when you’re offline, you can click on any of those documents in your Google Drive folder on your desktop (you must install the Google Backup and Sync app) and edit it in Chrome.
This all gets even more complicated if the organization you work for has disabled offline access for its users, as one of the companies I work with has done. In this case, I got offline access to files in my corporate accounts by sharing them with my personal account. All this is ridiculously complex and remind me why Microsoft 365 is such a good value.
A Streamlined But Inflexible Interface
Google Docs uses a clean, minimal interface with modern-looking typography and a sparsely-populated top-line menu, which you can hide entirely. The toolbar has clear, black-and-white icons. The design is exceptionally straightforward and well thought-out, with only Apple’s Pages rivaling its simplicity and clarity. The mobile versions of Google’s apps offer a dark mode, but you’ll need to install a third-party add-on to get the same feature for the web apps.
If you can’t find something on the menu, you can search for it in the Help box and open it directly from there. Unfortunately, the Help system doesn’t show you how to navigate to the same options on the menu if you want to find them again without using Help, an annoying oversight it shares with Microsoft 365.
A recently-added feature, not found in any other office suite, lets you type the @-sign into a document in order to bring up a menu that lets you insert almost anything, ranging from one of your Google contacts to the current date to formatting features like headlines. With the current version of Google Docs, when you create a new document, a gray-text prompt at the top of the file tells you, “Type @ to insert”. Fortunately, this menu doesn’t appear when you type the @-sign while entering an email address. It only appears when you type @-sign separately from other text.
In the past year or so, Google has done a lot to remove shortcomings in the suite. For example, Google Docs has an option to display a word count as you type. A year ago, the word count didn’t update in real time but made you click on it to update it. Now it updates whenever you pause briefly while typing. Google’s docs are constantly getting more deeply embedded in the Google universe. For example, you can now present directly to a Google Meet video meeting from a word-processing document, worksheet, or presentation, and you can join a meeting simply by clicking on a videocamera icon on the toolbar.
Other shortcomings remain, however. For example, the app supports footnotes but not endnotes. It lets you insert and resize images, but it doesn’t make it easy to change their position on the page. If you use page numbering, you can prevent the number from appearing on the first page, but you can’t otherwise change a page header and footer for one section of a document. You can modify the limited set of built-in paragraph styles, but you can’t create styles with custom names or that apply to any block of text that’s smaller than a paragraph.
Google Docs does some things well. I like, for instance, the option to display a document in print layout, but without the blank spaces at the top and bottom of the page. You don’t have to shift your vision down two inches when a sentence extends across a page break with this view. Among the other office suites, only Microsoft Word and corel wordperfect have the same feature. A newly added “pageless” option that lets you create documents designed for online viewing only, somewhat like an ordinary web page. This option lets you add graphics that are wider than a printed page, and changes the margins when you resize the window. This option isn’t on the View menu where you find other viewing options, but on the File->Page Setup menu, where you can select it for either the current document or as the default for all documents that you create.
Google’s templates are elegantly designed and easy to use, but there’s no simple way to create a document template with the free version of the apps. You can find complicated workarounds online, but if you want to create your own templates, you’re better off with Google Workspace or any of the other suites.
Audited Spreadsheets and Proficient Presentations
Google Sheets can’t match Excel’s high-end features and automated conveniences, but it performs feats that make it preferable for corporate users and others who need a full audit of changes in a worksheet. As with the rest of the apps in Google’s office suite, you can view all changes to a document in chronological sequence. Sheets goes one step further with a feature that lets you view the editing history of individual cells. Google has added a recorded-macro feature to Sheets too, but not to Docs. That said if you know how to program your own macros, a script editor available in Docs, Sheets, and Slides lets you create automated scripts that optionally link to Google’s APIs. You can, for example, write a script to manage YouTube uploads from a Sheets worksheet.
Google offers only a few slide transitions, so you’ll need to provide interesting content to make up for the lack of irrelevant visual distractions that other suites provide.
Google’s Slides presentation app is surprisingly speedy and elegant. It performs almost all the dazzling effects built into Microsoft’s PowerPoint and Apple’s Keynote. You don’t get advanced editing features like sliders that can trim a video, but you’ll find sharp-looking templates and conveniences like a question-and-answer history that you can consult when you need to remember an answer you gave weeks ago.
Inconsistent Performance and Syncing
Google Docs and Google Sheets both get painfully slow when you work with large documents or worksheets, but they’re satisfyingly snappy with smaller ones. You can import documents in Microsoft Office, OpenOffice, and other standard formats. Note that if your file is too large and your upload speed is too slow, you won’t be able to upload it.
I tried to upload a 2,000-page Word document over my home internet connection (35Mbps upload) and got only a terse message from Google Docs that the server rejected the upload. I tried to work around the problem by installing the Backup and Sync app from Google and copying the same document to the Google Drive folder on my desktop. I waited for the document to upload to the cloud and then tried opening it in Google Docs. Again, the file would not open. In contrast, when I opened the same file in browser-based versions of Microsoft Word and Apple’s Pages, the file uploaded instantly and opened without any problems.
Sleek, Limited Mobile Apps
The mobile versions of Google’s office apps look terrific but offer only a small subset of the browser versions’ features. Basically, you can expect to use the mobile versions to change the text and formatting of a document or worksheet, but not much else. You can’t, for example, auto-sum cells on your iPhone’s Sheets app.
Microsoft’s mobile apps pack a lot more features; the mobile version of Excel has far greater capabilities, including the aforementioned auto-sum feature. Apple’s mobile Numbers app is more sophisticated, too—it offers automated suggestions when you start typing a formula.
No-Cost, No-Frills Document Editing
Google’s office apps are free, effective, available anywhere through a browser or mobile device, and refreshingly easy to use. They stumble over large files, however, and anyone who wants power in reserve will prefer either Microsoft 365 Apple iwork depending on their OS. We recommend that you try out Google’s apps so that you’ll be ready to use them if a coworker shares a Google document, presentation, or worksheet with you—or if you decide that their compact feature set and convenience suit your everyday needs.