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Microsoft Office Web Apps versus Google Docs: Clashing cloud-dwellers reviewed

Google Docs has long reigned supreme as the champion of cloud computing. Microsoft is looking to claw the title away from the search behemoth, with its online version of Office

Google and Microsoft -- two Goliaths of the tech world, and now vying to be the dominant player in the steadily growing cloud-based document arena. Google Docs is already super-massive, but Microsoft's own Office Web apps has now launched in the UK, and looks to challenge Google's reign. How do they compare?

Layout

You may well be familiar with the layout of Google Docs -- it's very much like Gmail, with all your items sorted into folders along the left-hand side of the screen, just like the various parts of your inbox. It's a good system if you're hyper-organised, but if you're not a digital neat-freak you'll soon find your documents spilling out of control, and finding the specific one you wanted relies on search.

Microsoft wins some early points for its layout. It looks rather more fancy, for a start, mimicking the cool blues of the Hotmail page. You'll need a Live account to access documents (if you have a Hotmail address, that'll work) but once you're in, the interface is pretty simple, and you can arrange your documents just as you would in an Explorer window. Currently, however, you can't drag and drop files to move them to different folders -- something which would have made organising your documents much easier.

Google Docs: 6/10
Office Web apps: 8/10

Storage

Office Web apps gives you a stonking 25GB of online storage with SkyDrive, which is considerably more than Google's offering of 1GB. Google will perform some compression-based magic on files you upload, or files created in Google Docs, which will allow you to stretch that 1GB limit quite far indeed.

Office Web apps also allows you to upload non-documents to your SkyDrive, which means it serves as a very handy cloud-backup solution, quite apart from the document creation/editing side of things.

Google Docs: 5/10
Office Web apps: 7
/10

Text editing

The real meat of these cloud services is the text editor. That's 'Documents' in Google Docs, and of course, Word in Office Web apps. Text editing is probably the service you're most likely to use regularly, and it's the most crucial feature to get right. A decent online text editor must be simple, sturdy and above all safe -- there's no point in using online apps if a browser crash destroys all your hard work.

We set Google Docs and Office Web apps a truly gruelling task -- editing the massive script from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. How will these two cloud-based brawlers handle it?

Once we had the script itself copied to our clipboard, we whacked it into our respective Web apps. Office suffered an early defeat -- pasting a large amount of text into the edit window caused the whole browser to crash. Not ideal.

Google Docs, on the other hand, was perfectly happy chewing through the bulk of text. We gave Office a second chance, but tragically it only crashed again. If you're dealing with documents of a sizeable nature, we'd absolutely recommend Google Docs over Office Web apps -- a browser crash is the fastest way to lose your data.

On the other hand, if you're just doing some quick and dirty text editing, Office Web apps is more than capable. It features a layout very similar to that of Word's desktop software, so you're more likely to be familiar with the interface, and there are a few more formatting options for you to play with. If things start to turn a little sluggish, best save your work sharpish and get out of there...

Google Docs: 8/10
Office Web apps:
5/10

Presentations



Time for the Big Important Meeting -- break out the word art and screen beans, it's time for a presentation!

Google Docs handles presentations very impressively indeed. There's no animation, so you won't be able to wow your audience with swooping text and a liberal splattering of starwipes, but setting up a presentation takes just seconds, and more importantly the interface is extremely snappy, with no lag. The (admittedly few) options there are clearly laid out.

Again, things were less impressive when we tried our luck with Office Web apps. This time the browser managed not to crash, but even simple things such as highlighting text and changing font are laggy. Animation is not available here either, and the interface is very much more basic than you'd find in the full desktop version of Powerpoint. Sluggish and disappointing, but one smart touch is a button that will open the presentation in Powerpoint, if you have it.

Google Docs: 9/10
Office Web apps: 5/10

Spreadsheets

So, you're on your way to the Dungeon Master's house when suddenly you realise you've forgotten the USB stick with the Excel file that details all of your orc's strengths and armour specifications! It's a nightmare situation, but one you could avoid by storing all your spreadsheets online. But how do our two online oligarchs handle it?

Once Office has uploaded your spreadsheet, or you've started a brand-new one, you'll be confronted with the editing interface. The menu is pretty comprehensive. There's not a great deal missing here, and those familiar with Excel -- far and away the most popular spreadsheet software -- will be right at home. Again, we found the Office Web apps to be considerably slower than the Google Docs counterpart, though this isn't as noticeable when editing spreadsheets, no doubt because they're closer to simple text, and don't need to throw any images around.

Google Docs offers much of the same functionality, but again at much snappier speeds. There's one feature, however, that absolutely puts Google Docs ahead on the spreadhseet front, and that's the ability to add gadgets to your data.

Gadgets are tools you can use to liven up your spreadsheet (and heaven knows, most spreadsheets need it) and the ones on offer are really quite cool. 'Heatmap', for instance, adds a Google map to your spreadsheet and colours the map based on the data in your document -- a neat way of visualising your information geographically. Other highlights include a Google search bar, and a 'Pile' chart that shows your figures as massive stacks of cash, which is sure to go down well at your quarterly review (assuming of course that the graph is going in the right direction).

Google Docs: 8/10
Office Web apps:
6/10

So which is better?

Office Web apps have a few smart features, and as part of SkyDrive offer more storage than Google's cloud-based services. The real selling point is that most people will be instantly familiar with the layout, thanks to these tools being almost identical to their Office desktop counterparts.

Nevertheless, Google Docs comes out a clear winner, because it's simply so much faster. You'll have to learn a slightly new layout, but once you do, it's an incredibly rewarding system because it makes editing, saving, organising and sending documents incredibly quick and easy -- much more so than the Office Web apps.

Overall scores

Google Docs: 8/10
Office Web apps:
6/10

Microsoft's offering is brand new, and we shouldn't expect it to bring down Google's high-flying cloud system with its first shot. What we've seen is promising, and with any luck it'll keep Google from becoming complacent. Watch this space.