Could you use free Office Web Apps instead of the regular Office?

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Could you use free Office Web Apps instead of the regular Office?

Are the free Office Web Apps a viable alternative to the regular, installed-to-your-computer versions?

For the last few days, we've been using both Office Web Apps and the desktop versions of Office for Mac and Windows.

So, are the Office Web Apps a viable alternative to the regular, installed-to-your-computer versions?

First, a bit of background. Microsoft's Office Web Apps deliver the core of Microsoft Office - Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote - to your desk via a web browser. They work in Safari on a Mac, Firefox, Chrome and, of course, Internet Explorer.

As they are part of Microsoft's Live online platform they are free for consumers and they work with Microsoft's online storage area for your files, called SkyDrive.

Be aware that Office Web Apps can only open documents stored in SkyDrive. So that we could get the full experience, we moved all of our work files from DropBox to SkyDrive before beginning our test.

Using the Office Web Apps

Our two main work applications are Word and Excel. With Word, we were able to create, open and edit documents stored in our SkyDrive.

We opened a variety of documents including reports with images, tables and complex formatting. All the formatting was intact after editing and then re-opening the document in the full version of Word.

It's important to note that the Office Web Apps don't replicate the full Microsoft Office suite. For example, the web version doesn't track changes and the number of Page Layout and other options are limited.

When you save a document that you're editing using an Office Web App the file is saved to your SkyDrive. All the apps have an option to open the document in the full desktop application, assuming you have it installed, so that you can avail yourself of any functions you need.

With Excel, we had a similar experience. Most of the everyday actions we needed to carry out were there. There are a few functions that don't work (there's a list on Microsoft's support site of the differences between the web and full versions of Excel link: http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/web-apps-help/differences-between-using-a-workbook-in-the-browser-and-in-excel-HA010369179.aspx).

With PowerPoint, we were able to work with presentations in a similar way. All of the functions we use in PowerPoint most often were there. If we needed something extra, we could easily jump to the desktop version with a click of a button.

OneNote is the fourth leg of the Office Web App table. We have to admit that as long-time fans of Evernote, convincing us to rely on OneNote instead would be the toughest task of all.

The good news is that Microsoft has developed versions of OneNote for Android, iPhone and iPad, Windows and Windows Phone. Coupled with SkyDrive, we were able to take notes on an iPad and then view and edit them using the OneNote Web App.

On the iPad

If you were hoping that the Office Web Apps would provide you with a free way of editing files on an iPad, you'll be happy enough.

We used an iPad 3 running the most current version of iOS to open and edit files. Even though there's a SkyDrive app for the iPad, you'll need to access your SkyDrive using Safari, the iPad web browser, to get to your files as the editing capability isn't easily accessed from the SkyDrive app.

Our experience was that the performance was sluggish with noticeable delays when typing, selecting text and applying formatting.

As an alternative, you could also use Office2 HD, an office suite for the iPad, to open and work with files on SkyDrive as well as DropBox and other filestores.

Limitations of the Office Web Apps

The Office Web Apps aren't a free replacement for Microsoft Office. Although they're useful for editing and reading if you're a real power user you'll find features missing.

Just to be completely clear, in order to use the Office Web Apps you'll need an Internet connection. If that connection is slow, the web apps can take a while to load, and to open and save documents.

For the last week of our test, we have used the Office Web Apps at least as often as the desktop applications. For most day to day tasks, the web apps were up to the task, particularly when it came to simply getting words or numbers down.

There were times when we flipped back to the desktop applications but they were surprisingly few.

We were also annoyed that there was no easy way to email a document out of the Web Apps. There is a share menu but it's all about providing online access to files. For that to work the other parties need a Windows Live account.

If you just want to email a file as an attachment you'll need to do that either from the synchronised copy of your SkyDrive on your computer.

Conclusion

Microsoft's Office Web Apps and SkyDrive aren't a replacement for the desktop versions. But they are a useful adjunct, particularly if you need to quickly edit a document you're working on and don't have your own computer handy. Although there are some missing functions, they won't bother you most of the time.

For the last couple of years we've relied on DropBox and our installed productivity software for work. But after our experience of the last week, we're impressed enough to not feel in a hurry to rush back to our familiar tools.

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