Google Workspace, once known as G Suite, offers a powerful, elegant set of office and collaboration apps suitable for business, education, and other institutions. It’s a subscription-based upgrade from the free Google apps available to anyone with a Google account and by far the best cloud-based office suite available. If you’re willing to take all of your business online and give up desktop-based apps, Google Workspace is the obvious choice. Many will still prefer Microsoft’s Microsoft 365 comparable power, though, combined with the added peace of mind that comes with desktop-based file storage.
How Much Does Workspace Cost?
Google Workspace isn’t cheap. The Business Starter edition costs $6 per user per month, offers 100-participant video meetings (with no recordings), and 30GB storage space per user. The Business Standard version doubles the price to $12 per user per month, provides up to 150-participant video meetings (with optional recordings), and expands storage to 2TB per user. More expensive Business Plus and Enterprise plans offer enhanced security features. Google offers free versions for nonprofits and educational institutions, though larger institutions should spring for the Enterprise version.
The comparable Microsoft 365 Business Basic plan costs $5 per user per month, while the Business Standard tier is $12.50 per user per month. Pricier Business Premium and Enterprise options are also available. Microsoft’s Business Basic plan, like Google Workspace, is available only online either in a web browser (Chrome is most compatible) or in feature-reduced mobile Android apps and iOS apps. Microsoft’s Business Premium plans and any above that include desktop apps like Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and more, with the core apps available on Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS platforms.
Apple also offers a suite of free office apps for online and desktop use, but they’re less capable than Google’s and Microsoft’s. Apple also restricts its desktop and mobile apps to Apple hardware, though Windows and Android users can access browser-based versions. Furthermore, Apple doesn’t package its apps as a suite. Rather, what used to be available as the iWork suite is now a collection of standalone apps: Keynote, for presentations; Numbers, the presentation tool, and Pages, for word processing.
Why Pick Google Workspace?
There are three chief reasons to use Google Workspace (or almost any other cloud-based office suite). First, you can access your documents from any web browser. Second, you can collaborate in real time on your documents with anyone to whom you grant access via integrated chat capabilities. Third, you get a complete record of all your revisions, and you can retrieve or restore anything you want.
These reasons may not be enough to tempt you away from Microsoft’s or Apple’s desktop apps, however, partly because Microsoft and Apple offer both cloud-based and desktop-based access to documents, with many of the same revision-tracking and real-time collaboration features. For advanced users, Microsoft’s apps are far more powerful than Google’s, and you may prefer Outlook’s integrated mail, calendar, and contacts features to Gmail and Google Calendar. For Apple-only organizations, Apple’s apps offer more graphical elegance and deeper integration into Apple’s ecosystem.
Getting Started With Workspace
I set up a Google Workspace account through a simple wizard that required me to choose a domain name, either one I already owned or a new domain I could create by paying a $12 annual registration fee. I created a new domain (PCMagazineReviewers.com) and then added email accounts for myself and some colleagues; the setup screen helped me send out messages to my colleagues’ existing addresses notifying them of the new addresses I created for them. After that, I signed in at google.com using my new email address, and a menu at the upper right of the window let me access all the Google Workspace apps.
I’ve also been using an enterprise version of Google Workspace for years through a large organization I work for. But for this review, I tested the basic service to get an idea of what it’s like to administer the suite. I started with the Google Sites app, which guided me through a simple site-creating wizard for my new domain. I could choose to limit access to users with addresses at or make it accessible to anyone who opens it in a browser.
The Google Sites app that creates these sites has all the elegant simplicity of Google’s other apps and makes it effortless to build a multi-page website in less than an hour. Google Sites is free for anyone to use, but free users can only create sites with a sites.google.com address, while Google Workspace subscribers use their own domain name as their site address, as with any other paid web hosting package
Google Workspace’s versions of Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides offer the same elegant, minimalist-looking templates you get in the free versions, but Google Workspace lets you upload your own documents, spreadsheets, or presentations to use as templates for creating new ones. For collaboration and sharing, Google Workspace offers more options than you get with the free Google apps. So, for example, you can specify that a document can be shared only with members of your organization, or only members of your organization to whom you’ve sent a sharing link.
When you choose Google Workspace over Microsoft 365 or Apple’s apps, you’re making a major decision to rely on data and apps that live almost entirely in the cloud, accessible only in a browser or a mobile device. Google doesn’t supply desktop apps like the desktop versions of Microsoft Word or Excel or Apple’s Pages and Numbers. If you want to edit your documents on a Wi-Fi challenged airplane, you’ll need to perform some preliminary steps.
First, using Chrome, navigate to https://drive.google.com/drive/settings, and check the Offline box so that recent Docs, Sheets, and Slides will get saved automatically to your Google Drive. You’ll then be prompted to install the optional Google Docs Offline extension in Chrome. This setting only works with recently created documents; if you expect to work with documents you created earlier, go to the list of the documents you’ve created in Docs, Sheets, or Slides, right-click on the ones you want to edit offline and move the slider next to the option Available Offline. After you’ve done this, Google will download your documents to your disk, and you can edit them in Chrome as if they were online. Microsoft, in contrast, offers the best of both worlds, because files in your Microsoft OneDrive folder are editable offline without advance preparation, and also editable through a browser.
Keep in mind that your organization may have disabled the option to edit offline—which is what the organization I work for has done. In this case, the only way I can edit a Google Doc offline is to remember to download it to Microsoft Office format or some other desktop format before I go offline, edit the document in a desktop app, and then upload it again to Google Workspace when I’m back online. It’s up to you to decide whether this is worth the hassle.
Meet the (Online) Apps
Google’s online apps are mature and almost entirely trouble-free. They work within your browser and do a terrific job of opening even the most complex Microsoft Office documents. You can upload an Office or other document from inside one of the Google apps, or copy it to your Google Drive and open it in a Google app by clicking on it in the file list. PCMag.com tests spreadsheet apps with a monster worksheet created by a former PCMag Technical Editor, Ben Gottesman. This worksheet opens instantly in Excel but brings all other desktop spreadsheets to their knees. Google Sheets opened the worksheet instantly, but one sheet of the original document was blank, and the chart captions were rotated and unreadable. Still, this gives an idea of how powerful Google has made its apps.
As you’d expect from a cloud-based spreadsheet like Sheets, you can link a cell to data from anywhere on the web. Excel has the same ability, but you won’t find it in the spreadsheet apps from Corel, LibreOffice, or SoftMaker. As in desktop spreadsheets, you can now insert a picture inside a cell, or you can position a picture over a worksheet from an Insert Image dialog box that lets you upload or search for images, or choose one from your Google Drive. Here and throughout the suite, Google gives you every imaginable way to insert data into a document or worksheet.
You’ll find some features other office suites can’t match. For example, if you want to insert a special symbol into a Google Docs file, you don’t have to search through a menu with thousands of Unicode characters. Instead, you simply draw the symbol with the mouse, and Docs displays a list of symbols that more or less match what you drew. On the other hand, a major gotcha in Docs’ handling of Word documents is its treatment of Word’s styles. Google Docs has its own styles feature, but it’s limited to a small set of built-in style names. Word lets you create an unlimited number of styles with any names you want. If you use Google Docs to edit a Word document that uses Word styles and then save the document back to Word format, all your original styles will be lost.
Unlike every other suite I’ve tested, Google Docs can only create footnotes, not endnotes, which means it’s not suitable for much scientific and scholarly writing. And you can’t count on Google Docs to perform well with large documents.
For example, I have a real-world 1,200-page Word file I use for testing office apps. The file uploaded to Google Docs instantly, but then Docs took so long to process it for editing that it finally asked me whether I wanted to stop waiting and cancel the operation. I experienced almost as dismally slow performance when working in large documents in Docs’ own format. Note that this same enormous document opens almost instantly in Word, Corel WordPerfect, and SoftMaker Office, and takes a few more seconds to load in LibreOffice and Apple’s Pages.
Google Slides, the suite’s presentation app, makes it easy to insert YouTube videos in presentations, but it lacks the spectacularly rich and fine-grained graphics features in Microsoft’s PowerPoint and Apple’s Keynote. You get a few basic transitions, but not much more. This shouldn’t discourage you from using Slides, because the graphic razzle-dazzle in the rival apps serves mostly to distract your audience from your actual content.
The suites from Microsoft, Corel, LibreOffice, and TextMaker all have long histories, and all make a point of being able to import the kind of legacy documents any long-standing business, laboratory, law or government office created a few decades ago. Google’s apps can import only documents created in currently standard formats. This won’t matter if you don’t need to access older documents, but it’s a serious limitation for any organization that’s been active for a long time.
Cloud-only apps like Google’s always have a reduced feature set compared to desktop equivalents, but the vast majority of documents and worksheets don’t need any more features than Google provides. I’ve already mentioned the typically elegant interface in the Google Workspace apps, and I’m especially impressed with the way Google takes keyboard accessibility seriously. The toolbars and menus display keyboard shortcuts for almost every feature, so you don’t need to strain your wrist mousing around the screen as you mostly need to do with Apple’s apps. Microsoft’s Office online also offers plenty of keyboard shortcuts.
The Google apps keep track of all editing changes you make on your document, going back to when it was first created. You can revert to an older version or simply use the document-history feature to look back at an old version to find and copy text you want to paste into the current version. Microsoft and Apple both offer a Track Changes option, but you need to remember to turn it on, and it’s much more convenient to have it running by default. The online versions of Apple’s apps don’t support revision tracking at all, which means you won’t be able to edit a document online that has any revisions you added offline.
Another well-designed feature in Google’s apps is the Explore pane, which you can open from the menu or a keyboard shortcut. Like Microsoft’s Smart Lookup feature, it searches the web for relevant information about your document. Google’s Explore feature displays a quotation-mark icon next to each of its search hits; click on this icon, and the reference material is inserted into your document as a footnote. You’ll probably need to format and revise the footnote text, but you avoid a lot of complicated steps required to add references in any other app. Microsoft offers a similar but less elegant feature that merely inserts a citation or a link into the current text. Google Docs has a menu item that offers to translate an entire document. Microsoft Word offers to translate either an entire document or selected text.
One oddity in Google’s apps shows up when you export a document in PDF format. Unlike all other PDF creators I’ve tried, Google’s apps fail to insert the CreateDate field in the PDF’s metadata, which means you have no way of knowing when the PDF was generated. Depending on how you received the file, the date of the file itself won’t tell you when it was created; only the PDF CreateDate metadata can tell you that, and Google’s apps don’t include metadata. The CreateDate information is normally what you see when you view a PDF’s Properties sheet in a PDF viewer, and, when you don’t have this information, you could easily choose the wrong version of a PDF that exists in multiple copies.
Other apps in Google Workspace include the whiteboard app Jamboard, a simple, intuitive canvas for sharing ideas and images, with a laser-pointer in the form of a red dot. You also get Google Chat and the videoconferencing tool Meet, both of them easily opened from a message in Gmail, making it almost effortless to get a conversation started. The Currents app is Google’s counterpart to Slack and Microsoft Teams.
Is Workspace a True Microsoft 365 Alternative?
Google Workspace has plenty to offer any organization that needs a collaboration-ready office suite, a website, shared calendars, and mail services. Compared with Microsoft 365, which exists on the desktop and in the cloud, Google Workspace is cloud-only. Whether this is an advantage or disadvantage depends on your needs. Cloud-only apps are better if you want to assure that everything produced by your organization is always available in the cloud. If you want the full power of desktop apps or if you need reliable offline access to your files, you are better off with an office suite meant to save to your local devices.
We’re impressed with the ease, elegance, speed, and depth of Google Workspace, and if some of us still prefer to get our work done in Microsoft 365 Personal—also an Editors’ Choice winner—that’s because we prefer the security of keeping documents on regularly backed-up machines. Some may also need the full capabilities of desktop apps like Microsoft Word for their work. If your organization can manage with the reduced list of features, sometimes slow performance of the cloud-only apps, and the prospect of keeping your documents in the cloud, Google Workspace is a powerful and elegant choice.