Raise your hand if you remember Writely. A four-person company called Upstartle launched the online-only word processor in August 2005, taking advantage of a then-new browser technology called AJAX. It allowed users to instantly save and retrieve content generated in the browser but stored on the server. And it worked so well that Google bought Upstartle less than a year later. At the time, a product like Writely was unique (the software didn’t come on a CD), and considered a gamble.
Fast forward to today. Google’s online office suite of tools has done nothing but grow and improve. Now under the umbrella of Google Drive, you’ll find a file management and storage service as well as the various web-based and mobile apps. These include: a word processor (Docs, or Writely, all grown up), spreadsheet (Sheets), presentations (Slides), drawing, and forms
It’s a full suite of tools that now takes on Microsoft’s far more mature Office; in fact, Google Drive arguable drove Microsoft to create online versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint to work with its OneDrive storage/sync service.
Businesses can use G Suite, a version of Google Drive with all the storage and tools, plus integration of Gmail, Calendar, Sites, and more under their own domain name. Pricing starts at $6 per user per month for 30GB of online storage per user; nonprofits and schools can get it free.
Drive—our Editors’ Choice for office productivity—is a serious set of tools for serious (or fun) work, all entirely free. Consumers only pay for extra storage. But it pays to know more than just the basics. Here’s how to get the most out of Google Drive.
File Storage Is Free, Sort Of
Every personal Google Drive account—which you get if you have any Google service, like Gmail or Google Photos—comes with 15 gigabytes of free storage. You can always upgrade that via Google One, but keep in mind: only non-native files—like Microsoft files, PDFs, or images—eat into that 15GB. Google Doc/Sheets/Slides files you create do not count against your Google Drive storage allotment.
Sync All Your Files
Google Drive syncs across devices, so you can start a project on the PC and pick it up on the phone, tablet, or your home laptop. And it works with any kind of document, not just native Docs, Sheets, and Slides. Install Google’s Backup and Sync program on the desktop to automatically back up files from your computer, camera, or SD cards to Google Drive.
This is the aspect of Google Drive likely to use up your 15GB of free storage, however, since it caters to other types of files. If you run out, you may need to pay for extra storage through Google One. But options start at $1.99 a month (or $19.99 per year) for 100GB. Even 2TB is only $10 a month or $99.99 per year.
Collaborate Well With Others
The name of the game with Google Docs is “collaboration.” It doesn’t matter if you’re all on laptops, tablets, or smartphones, more than one person at a time can work on a document—up to 50 simultaneously.
To keep tabs on what your friends, family, and/or colleagues have done, view a revision history via File > Version History > See Version History. (Or click All Changes Saved in Drive at the top, if it’s showing.) A list on the right side will show you who updated the doc and when; click a name to see what they did. Give different names to different versions to make them easier to track—click the button at the upper right to view just the named versions.
Revise Like in Microsoft Word
What if you want the revisions to look like they do when you track changes in a Microsoft Word document? Docs supports a feature called Suggest Edits. Click the Editing button (with the pencil icon) up by the Comments and Share buttons. You’ll get a menu that lets you edit, make suggestions (with visible tracked changes you or others can accept later), or view the final doc.
Seek Out a Collaborator
If you can’t remember the name of the document you want, but you can remember who shared it with you, click Shared with Me in the left menu of Google Drive. You’ll get a list of all the documents people have shared with you. If the list is too long to parse, type the collaborator’s name in the search field at the top.
Make a Document Public
To be part of the collaboration, the document has to be shared. The limit is 200 people, but if more than 50 collaborators try to edit a document, the late-comers can only view the changes. The owner(s) of the document can set who has edit privileges. But to avoid a hassle, make a document public. Click the “Share” button on the top right, go to Advanced, then click “Change” under “Who has access.” Choose public on the web or anyone with the link; some G Suite customers might only be able to make their documents available to everyone in their organization. Public documents are made available to search engines… and Google happens to own one of those, too.
Set an Access Level
When you do all this document sharing, you might think everyone is equal. Not so. There are four levels of document access. Owners can do anything to the file—even delete it—and invite more collaborators. Editors can of course edit, but only invite more collaborators if the Owner allows it. Viewers get to see what’s going on. Commenters can see it, plus leave comments on it. Viewers and Commenters can make copies of documents, so don’t think of the docs as “secure.”
Communicate While Collaborating
Google Drive shows your fellow document collaborators in the upper-right corner. You can leave in-line comments or questions for specific people as you work, but you can also send them an instant message. Click the chat bubble next to the collaborator chatheads and type your message. This is not a private message, however. Everyone else in the doc can see your discussion, too.