Google Docs Reviewed (Long Version)

closeThis post was published 14 years 2 months 11 days ago. A number of changes have been made to the site since then, so please contact me if anything is broken or seems wrong.

As a kind of follow-up to my last short review of Google Docs, I’ve decided to write a lengthier review that compares the pros and cons of using Docs versus desktop Word or Writer.

Overall, the capabilities of Google Docs are pretty impressive, and it’s sure a far cry from the text-only editors included in MediaWiki, Instiki, TiddlyWiki, etc. Considering that it’s just some lines of JavaScript (OK, a lot of lines…), it can do quite a bit. Supported by the server back-end, Docs can import photos, generate charts, edit tables, and track revisions, not to mention a bunch of other stuff. While these are impressive capabilities, there is an equally lengthy list of what it can’t do.

Even existing features have deficiencies. For example, when you compare revisions, even a document with three or four authors will often have only one change color, even if changes were made by multiple authors; they all get rolled into one color, despite the list of author colors at the top of the comparison screen. Also, chart generation is limited in Docs to creating dataset spreadsheets, creating charts, and importing a saved PNG file, requiring that you a) have temporary local disk access and b) don’t put sensitive data in charts you temporarily save to public computers. (Admittedly, putting sensitive data in Google Docs may not be the best idea, but that’s just Google; public computers are used by who knows how many different people, not all of them trustworthy and honest.)

Another point worth noting is the absence of border controls in the table editor dialogs. While you can change the background colors of the cells individually, by row, and by column, it does not appear to support selecting arbitrary groups of cells and editing them at the same time; selecting the “Change cell…” option modifies only the current cell, even if multiple cells are outlined in blue from Ctrl + click selection. These advanced controls are available from the “Edit HTML” pseudo-tab (it displays as a tab only while active, and as a plain link when inactive), but who wants to dig through complicated table HTML in what’s supposed to be a WYSIWYG editor? If the desktop application is available, it’s easier to create the table in there, format the borders, merge necessary cells, and set formatting in the application, and then paste it into Docs (though some extremely advanced techniques are simply impossible, regardless of what you do).

Now, for the highlights. I may have downplayed Docs’ usefulness by criticizing it so much already, but I really want to praise Google for what they’ve built (bought?). Despite the limitations, Docs is immensely useful for the frequent traveler, especially if the only formatting needed is non-existent or very basic. While Docs doesn’t support margins (in the interface; some will paste to inline CSS from apps like Word), many people just want to type, including me, mostly. I used to use a lot of margins in my homework, but Docs has helped remove the distraction of formatting and made me focus on the actual work. Instead of making every blank paragraph 12-point Times New Roman with no indent and setting my answer paragraphs (spaced with one blank line on top and bottom) to 0.5 inch indent with an additional half-inch first-line indent, I just type. In Arial, or Courier, or Times, or whatever font I’m given; I just let Docs set the basic formatting and I do the writing.

As for traveling, I was on the road for two or three weeks at the end of the summer, one of which overlapped with the start of the school year, and I didn’t have my computer. Simple solution: I used Docs. Now that I have my computer back, I don’t want to go back to Word; Docs is more fun to work with, and it saves a window space on my taskbar (since my browser’s always open anyway). And I can work on assignments with friends, collaborate on unrelated stuff, or even ask my parents for help over the Internet, and they don’t have to stare over my shoulder/steal my spot; they can just load the assignment in another browser.

I can see more improvements coming, now that Google has launched their presentation app, and I truly believe that Google will continue developing their suite of services, and that they will keep making my life, and those of millions of other people, better. Until they add more formatting support, I’ll just keep Word for posterity.


I am an avid technology and software user, in addition to being reasonably well-versed in CSS, JavaScript, HTML, PHP, Python, and (though it still scares me) Perl. Aside from my technological tendencies, I am also a theatre technician, sound designer, violinist, singer, and actor.

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