Is it time to ditch Office and move online?

Don Reisinger takes a look at three online Office apps that might be worth checking out if you're looking to get rid of Microsoft Office.

Microsoft has enjoyed a stranglehold on the Office suite market for well over a decade. But now that the Web is slowly becoming a quasi-replacement for the desktop, Microsoft Office has some stiff competition in the form of online Web Office apps. And although they may not appeal to the spreadsheet maven that relies on Excel's power, each offers functionality that diminishes the need for Microsoft's products.

So, in the time between now and when the software giant delivers the much-anticipated online version of Office , our options are far from few. Here are three that might fit your needs:

Google Documents

Although it's best known for its search and advertising businesses, Google's Office suite is one of the best on the Web.

Creating documents, spreadsheets, or presentations is as simple as signing up for an account and using Google's menu page to decide what to create. The word processor in Google Docs is the standout app. It sports the familiar spelling and grammar check available in Microsoft's Office suite. Even when online, I found operation seamless. Returning to saved files from Google's server meant I could work from any computer at any time -- a luxury that's not so easily attained with Office. The capability to view and save documents in HTML along with Office-compatible file types is also a welcome addition.

But for as appealing as Google Docs is, the company's Spreadsheet and Presentation apps don't offer anywhere near the kind of customization and power already available in Excel or Powerpoint. Spreadsheets can expand to only 600 rows -- a useless amount for many companies -- and although simple formulas like "sum" are available, the product is lacking more sophisticated functionality to make it useful to business professionals.

Google's Presentation app is fine for users that need to create a quick, simple presentation in a short amount of time, but it lacks the power and sophistication of Powerpoint due to its limited number of transitions and templates.

Google Docs is simple and extremely reliable in a pinch. Its collaboration features, including real-time collaborative editing, cannot be beat. But with a laughable spreadsheet app and a barely useful presentation app, it doesn't take long to find out Google Docs is no replacement for Office.

ThinkFree Online

ThinkFree Office Online is not only one of the most respected online Office apps on the market, it's the best. ThinkFree Online offers all the "must-have" features available in Microsoft Office like a rich toolbar, a ruler bar, and an interface that offers simplicity and delivers the same feel as Word, Excel, or Powerpoint. Creating a document is simple and working with spreadsheets is a treat thanks to the tens of thousands of rows it provides, along with just about any formula that comes to mind. That said, ThinkFree Online doesn't support Pivot Tables, which could prove troublesome to those who rely on them. For everyone else, switching from Excel to ThinkFree's spreadsheet app won't require a learning curve nor a concession.

The main issue plaguing ThinkFree Online is that it suffers from performance issues. Although the company claims its app will pop up as quickly as a desktop application, I found it slightly slower than Office 2008 on my Mac. It also took longer to save documents in ThinkFree Online than any other app evaluated in this round-up. Worse, and perhaps the deal-breaker for some, the company's Presentation app is hardly usable and doesn't compare on any level to Powerpoint. In fact, it's even worse than Google's Presentation app.

Though it suffers from some quirks like slow load times and its presentation app is practically useless, ThinkFree Office Online's word processing and spreadsheet apps make up for it and make the company's online suite the best on the Web.

Zoho Office Suite

If online Office suites were measured solely on the number of apps they provide, Zoho would win without any argument. Aside from the basics -- word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations -- Zoho delivers a full-featured Wiki, note taker, organizer, Web conferencing, and more.

While it's nice to have the option of using Zoho for almost any need, its word processor is outstanding and boasts many of the features offered in ThinkFree's app, as well as Microsoft Office. Even better, the apps load quickly and saving happens in a flash. Simply put, Zoho's Writer word processing app is a fine alternative to Word.

For as useful and appealing as Zoho Writer is, the company's spreadsheets and presentation apps fall flat. Zoho's spreadsheet application offers just 50 rows and fails to provide support for complex formulas, though it does support simple operations like "sum" and "average." In essence, Zoho's spreadsheet application is really only useful when an elementary operation needs to be performed and a calculator isn't readily available. And although Zoho's presentation app allows for sharing with friends and groups throughout the world, it offers just a handful of design options, creating a service that offers little customization and even less appeal.

Zoho is simple. And although that may not be a bad thing for those who don't need all the power Office or even ThinkFree Online offer, it's not suited for anyone who needs to go above and beyond simple operations like writing letters or performing simple mathematical operations.

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About the author

Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.

 

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