What is the difference between Office 365 and Google Drive? Click for a comparison.
Microsoft may be champion on the desktop, but online it’s been playing second fiddle for years. With no desktop legacy to worry about, Google has concentrated on incremental improvements to its online suite – a core part of its Google-everywhere strategy – and the result is a viable competitor to Office 365. For free.
Over time, Google has built a fully featured word processor, spreadsheet and presentation suite. The apps demonstrate incredible flexibility and a clean, easy-to-understand interface that’s less fussy than Office and significantly more attractive than LibreOffice. It even has built-in printing tools, courtesy of Google Cloud Print, which let you send your documents to any remote printer over the web. Try doing that with Office.
Each account comes with 15GB of space for non-native files (Google Document, Spreadsheet and Presentation files have no impact on your overall storage capacity), which can be upgraded to between 100GB and 16TB for US$5 to US$800 per month.
You can’t use any third-party cloud storage services, but you can link external online apps to your Drive space. Third-party developers have taken advantage of this to bolster Google Drive with features that don’t figure in Microsoft’s calculations. Tools such as image editors (Pixlr), diagramming tools (Lucidchart) and schedulers (Gantter) make this one of the most flexible integrated suites on the web.
Ease of use
Each of Google Drive’s three key components is easy to get to grips with, particularly if you have experience with similar offline tools. None of them features a ribbon, but the most familiar formatting options are ranged across a regular toolbar, and they work with common keyboard shortcuts such as Ctrl+B for bold and Ctrl+I for italic. Right-clicking brings up context menus relevant to the application in hand, rather than the regular browser menu, so you can pick spelling alternatives, look up definitions and so on.
The spreadsheet uses common Excel formulae, has a range of built-in chart types and takes conditional formatting in its stride. This last feature, sadly, doesn’t extend as far as the in-cell data bars and heat-map colour ranges, so they’ll be stripped out if you upload a spreadsheet that makes use of them. Impressively, though, it’s fully conversant in sparklines.
The presentation module includes 20 templates in three sizes – 4:3, 16:9 and 16:10 – that make a change from the default PowerPoint layouts. There are only six transition types, but you can build slides object by object to reveal their contents gradually.
It’s easy to create great-looking output – complete with images, runaround text and full control over fonts and formatting – and you’re not restricted to web-safe options, either, as the apps are tied in to Google Fonts. This gives you access to 632 open-source typefaces in a variety of weights – far more options than you’d find on the average PC – through a dialog not dissimilar to the Adobe Typekit plugin for Creative Cloud.
Let’s work together
Google Drive uses bespoke file formats, but conversion to and from their Microsoft equivalents is largely transparent, with an option to translate them when you upload them to the server. At the other end of the process, you can download them in Microsoft, OpenDocument and app-agnostic formats such as RTF and CSV. Google’s own synchronisation tool is underwhelming in this area, storing links to your online files, rather than the files themselves on your PC; double-click one to open it in the browser.
If you want to keep real copies of your work on your machine, third-party Insync plugs the gap, copying your files to your local drive and converting them to Microsoft formats in the process. Any local edits you make are then copied back to the server and converted in the opposite direction to Google formats.
Collaboration is perhaps Google Drive’s biggest triumph. It allows you to share documents with read-only or editing rights; opt for the latter and multiple collaborators can open them simultaneously, with amendments highlighted in different colours for each editor.
It’s tooled up for collecting data from third parties, too, even if they’re not in your workgroup. The Form tool lets you quickly knock up a web form, the results of which are fed directly into a Google Spreadsheet, ready for analysis. Excel Survey does the same in the Microsoft Web Apps.
There are no Windows or Mac applications that feed their data directly into your Drive files, but the Google Drive mobile app can open and edit these files. It’s free on Android, iPad and iPhone.
Making the leap
Google Drive is superb value, both in terms of money and time – it’s free to use and easy to get to grips with. Microsoft Office old-timers should have no trouble making the switch, while the unthreatening interface is a great starting point for anyone new to the cloud.
If you don’t need a database and rarely use the more heavyweight features of Office, it’s a serious alternative for undemanding users – as long as you’re always connected to the internet.