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G Suite: Everything you need to know before signing up for Google's office suite

CNET@Work: The pricing on G Suite is affordable by just about any small business and the benefits are pretty substantial.

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With technology increasingly intertwined with all aspects of business, CNET@Work can help you -- prosumers to small businesses with fewer than five employees -- get started.


While every small business is different, there are a certain set of applications that nearly every small business needs.

These applications are typically bundled into office "suites" and consist of email, calendar, word processing, and spreadsheet. They sometimes come with other tools, like a presentation manager, a database or forms manager, and more. One such office suite is Microsoft Office, now sold primarily as Office 365. Another is Google's G Suite.

For years, the office suite market was dominated by Microsoft in the form of its Microsoft Office suite of products. Before we became a mobile and web-centric world, folks had to install the apps on their individual computers, either by inserting a CD-ROM (way back in the day), a DVD (back in the day), or by downloading and launching an installer.

There was no doubt that Microsoft's Office desktop applications were powerful and capable, but they were overkill for many users, dauntingly complex, and an ongoing maintenance and license management challenge.

Microsoft Office is still around. In fact, it's one of the most successful products in history. It launched as a bundle in 1990, but its core applications, like Word and Excel, launched 35 years ago in 1983.

Why am I talking about Office when this is a G Suite article? Office is the 800-pound gorilla in this space. To understand where G Suite might fit for your business, it's helpful to have some perspective about Office.

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Docs: G Suite's word processor

Most small businesses will generally choose Office 365 or G Suite. I use both because they're both cheap enough at small business rates. I have different client projects that need different tools, and I have favorite features I use from both products.

I regularly give huge presentations, often with 60-70 slides or more, and I do those in the desktop version of PowerPoint. The webcast software we use only ingests PowerPoint slides and I have 20 years of muscle memory doing them.

But I also use G Suite.

ZDNet: We found 24 cloud services for your business you definitely want to try

G Suite has the standard office apps

I use Gmail as my primary communications tool and live in it constantly. In 2014, I switched from desktop Outlook to Gmail and haven't regretted the move for a moment.

For me, the core of G Suite is Gmail. The three biggest benefits are that it's available everywhere, I don't have to worry about where my mail file is (which was an issue back in the days of Outlook), and the searchability is excellent.

I have 18GB of email, going back to 1997. When I moved to Gmail, I moved all my Outlook messages into my Gmail mail store. So even though I've only been on Gmail since 2014, I can search all of my mail history, going back 21 years, in about a second.

Since I know some of you are going to ask, I used a service called YippieMove (seriously, that's their name). It took about a week, but all my messages transferred perfectly from my Office 365 account to Gmail.

Beyond Gmail, these are the standard apps that come with G Suite:

  • Calendar: because Calendar manages multiple calendars so well, it's my go-to tool for blocking out time for projects
  • Docs: G Suite's word processor
  • Sheets: a spreadsheet
  • Slides: a basic presentation package
  • Keep: a great, little note-taking tool
  • Sites: a website builder
  • Forms: a tool for building quick, but surprisingly powerful forms
  • Hangouts: a chat tool sort of like Slack
  • Hangouts Meet: hangouts video conferencing
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Sheets: a spreadsheet

To be honest, these core G Suite business apps are what I'd call "good enough." For most users, for most applications, Docs, Sheets, and the rest are great.

That said, if you're a power spreadsheet user doing high-level mathematical modeling, you probably want desktop Excel. If you're writing a book that needs to work with a production system, you might want Microsoft Word or a traditional desktop publishing package. As I mentioned, I produce giant presentations, so the desktop version of Microsoft PowerPoint is the only way for me to go.

However, the vast majority of users aren't power users with very specific, deep, edge-case needs. 

G Suite's simplicity has a strong appeal. Nick Leffler, owner of California-based Exprance, a digital marketing firm, told me, "I've been using G Suite for many years and it has been great every step of the way. Rather than packing in useless features that complicate things (like Office 365) it's clean and simple."

Nick chose G Suite because, "It's familiar ground for most people so there's no learning to do, it just stays out of the way and gets the job done."

Why would you pay for G Suite when Google's apps are free?

Most folks know that Gmail and the various Google apps like Docs and Sheets are available for free. Why then would anyone pay for them in the form of G Suite?

G Suite is designed to provide a variety of business-oriented functions and capabilities. I'll dive deeper into most of these features later, but here's a quick summary of why you might want to buy a G Suite subscription rather than using Google's consumer versions of its apps:

  • G Suite provides user management and admin features across multiple users.
  • G Suite adds some very interesting secure and private collaboration features.
  • G Suite lets you increase your storage considerably.
  • G Suite provides various levels of auditing and business eDiscovery.
  • G Suite gives you the ability to use your own email domain.
  • G Suite lets you dial a number and get an actual, useful, human support person.
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Slides: a basic presentation package

Some of these are incredibly useful. Personally, I value the added storage, the personalized email domain, and support. Which features benefit your company will depend on what you need.

I pinged social media and asked some folks how they use G Suite. Samantha Avneri is Marketing Director at Regpack, an online registration software company with fewer than 30 employees.

She told me, "We use G Suite tools extensively in our business to keep on task and keep collaboration docs in one place, easily editable, and easy to search and find." She went on to tell me, "Docs is invaluable for my content marketing projects and Sheets is the only way I upload, edit, and share reporting, budgets and more."

Anita Williams Weinberg is Principal and Creative Director at Seattle-based VerbStudios, a creative agency. Anita told me, "My team uses G Suite products extensively, as we work with a lot with startups. Many are bootstrapping blockchain, AI, or IoT companies, so the Google solution is really super cost-effective for them."

Speaking of cost-effective, let's talk pricing.

G Suite pricing is clear and understandable

Office 365 pricing can get confusing -- Microsoft-level confusing. There are so many different Office subscriptions -- dependent on whether you're an individual, or a small company, an enterprise, or have some existing corporate Windows licensing or Azure plan -- that it's almost impossible to describe all the options in a single article.

By contrast, G Suite has three plans: Basic, Business, and Enterprise. Here's a quick summary:

  • Basic is $5/month per user. You get all the apps 30GB storage per user.
  • Business is $10/month per user. You get 1TB storage per user. If you have five or more users, you actually get unlimited storage. I'll talk more about this below. It also adds an eDiscovery capability.
  • Enterprise is $25/month per user. Enterprise plans come with everything in the business plan, along with a whole lot of enterprise-level administration and management tools.

That's one of the things I really like about G Suite. It's clear and understandable.

G Suite is online and requires no installation

Office 365 is an interesting product, because it's a hybrid. When you buy an Office subscription, you get access to the downloadable full versions of the Office core apps (which apps you get depend on which subscription), along with more limited versions of the apps for mobile and Web.

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Forms: a tool for building quick, but surprisingly powerful forms

G Suite is what we geeks call a SaaS app, for Software as a Service. You subscribe to G Suite, rather than buy it. Unlike old-school installable software like the core Office apps, you don't install G Suite on your computer. Instead, you simply login to your G Suite account (much like you'd log into Gmail).

There are some mobile apps you can install on your phone, and there is an offline mode, so you can work on projects in G Suite without being connected to the internet. That's helpful if you travel. Although, personally, when I lose my internet connection, I just sit there and whimper pitifully until the bits start flowing again.

Candy Bellau is the owner of Kramerica Business Solutions LLC, an accounting and business services provider located in Metairie, Louisiana, just outside of New Orleans. She told me, "I love G Suite, everything is all tied together, email, calendar, photos, drive, sheets. It's all there. I can access whatever I need from my laptop, phone or any computer. All I have to do is login. For my business and my life, it makes things so much easier."

G Suite Gmail, Calendar and your own email domain

One of the benefits of G Suite is it allows you to set up your own, personal domain as your mail server. That means that you can have email addresses with addresses more unique than yourname123@gmail.com. Instead, you can get and send mail as yourname@yourcompany.com.

Now, consumer gmail allows you to receive and send mail from a personalized domain as well. The difference is that to do so (especially to send), you need another email server that hosts that domain. G Suite handles the hosting of the domain, which reduces complications tremendously.

I absolutely rely on Google Calendar to manage all my projects and deadlines. I'm writing this article, right now, in Google Docs (although I also use Word -- it mostly depends on what works best for my clients). I use Hangouts for communication with my work teams. And I've got terabytes of data backed up to Google Drive.

G Suite provides very easy collaboration

G Suite also includes Google+, which is Google's also-ran social network. What makes Google+ interesting in the context of G Suite is that you can create your own private, secure corporate social network. So while Google+ as a competitor to Facebook might not have gained substantial traction, using the capabilities of Google+ inside your own organization, privately, might prove very helpful.

I don't use Google+ much, but I do use G Suite app-based collaboration. Put simply, you can have a spreadsheet or a word processing document open on your screen and share it with as many members of your team as you want. Each can edit it and changes show up as they type.

My teams frequently use this in phone meetings, sometimes keeping two or three documents open and on-screen at once. Team members can add in their own notes, edit spreadsheet cells, or modify text. I'll often write headlines right on the call, and then point to it and clients can make changes live. It's an enormous time-saver.

Shawn Breyer runs Atlanta-based Breyer Home Buyers, a home buying service. Check out their web page, because they have an interesting business model in the home sales market. Shawn told me, "We are able to accelerate our production with the collaborative functions of G Suite. I can have five people working on the same Google Sheets file at the same time."

Now, to be fair, the online versions of Microsoft's core applications also allows excellent collaboration, but that doesn't diminish the collaboration power of G Suite. I find G Suite much easier to setup, access and get into.

Google apps are also much more common for collaboration use. In the hundreds (if not thousands) of phone meetings I've been in where we've shared live documents, I think the only time we used the online Office 365 apps was when the client was Microsoft.

Google Drive stores all your documents in the cloud

Google Drive is a direct competitor to Dropbox, Microsoft's OneDrive, Box and other similar services.

As with the other G Suite apps, there's a consumer and individual version of Google Drive and one that's baked into G Suite. Unlike the other consumer Google apps, users have to pay for Google Drive either way -- and the individual version can get way more expensive than a G Suite subscription.

Let's look at the consumer version first. As of today (storage services pricing changes a lot, so this could change by the time you read it), consumers get 15GB of storage free. If you use consumer Gmail, all your messages eat into this storage, as do any files from your apps. Google does allow some free photo storage as well, since the consumer version of Google Drive is what backs up many Android phones.

After that 15 GB, storage (again, in the non-G Suite version of Google Drive) is priced like this:

  • Up to 100 GB: $1.99/month
  • Up to 1 TB: $9.99/month
  • Up to 10 TB: $99.99/month
  • Up to 20 TB: $199.99/month
  • Up to 30 TB: $299.99/month

As you can see, it adds up.

Comparing these prices to those in G Suite will take a little brain-twisting, but work with me for a minute. For G Suite, Google has two pricing models: A per user storage allocation and completely unlimited storage.

The G Suite cheap seats have per-user storage. The Basic plan provides 30 GB of cloud storage (along with all the other G Suite features discussed above) for $5/month. If all you wanted was storage, clearly the $1.99/month consumer version with 100 GB is a better deal.

It's the Business plan where things start to get interesting. If you have fewer than five users on your Business plan, you'll pay $10/month per user, and get 1 TB of storage per user. That is essentially the same deal as the consumer service.

But when you have five users or more (on either the Business or Enterprise plan), all of a sudden you have unlimited storage. This is big.

It used to be that many of the cloud storage companies offered unlimited storage, but one-by-one, they've been pulling back on those offers. Now, the only company I've found that offers unlimited storage at a price small businesses can absorb is Google.

I have something like 13 TB on my Google Drive in the cloud. I'd have more, but since I switched to Google Drive, Comcast's upload speed is so slow, I've only managed to get 13 TB up there. I've got a lot more to go. I use Google Drive as my cloud backup service, along with keeping live copies of all my documents. (More about that in a  bit.)

If I were to try to store that 13 TB  using the consumer pricing model for Google Drive, I'd be paying almost two hundred bucks a month, and all that storage would be tied just to my account. My small business includes my wife, and she wouldn't be able to share that storage space easily.

On the other hand, I've bought a subscription for five users in the Google G Suite Business plan. Each user costs $10/month. As such, I'm paying fifty bucks a month for unlimited storage, rather than two hundred dollars a month for storage with a 20 TB cap.

It's a little weird, because I only have two actual users, but by paying the $50/month amount, Google's vast storage resources open up completely. I also know I can easily add up to three additional workers to projects without increasing my monthly G Suite spend.

Obviously, if you don't need to store or backup terabytes, you might not need this service. But keep in mind that projects like 4K video productions eat up storage very, very quickly. For me, this is an essential part of my storage architecture.

My only fear (and it's a reasonable one considering Google's history of killing products) is that one day Google will change its unlimited storage policy like Amazon did. My only real source of hope here is that rather than $60 a year, which is what Amazon charged, Google is charging a minimum of $50/month. Since storage costs are always going down (especially for Google who buys storage in planet-sized chunks), that might be enough to keep the program going.

Full text searching (even in images)

I'll end my overview of G Suite with one of my favorite features. Now that I store most of my documents and files in the cloud on Google Drive, I get access to Google's legendary search for my documents.

This is big, because Google Drive doesn't just search text in text documents. It OCRs everything, so even if you took a photo of a sign and all you have in that file is pixels, Google Drive will find it.

Between Gmail for all my mail since 1997 and Google Drive (which houses all my non-government and non-FERPA restricted documents), I can search just about anything I've ever written, downloaded, scanned, or photographed -- across all my company's documents.

One thing to note about this: G Suite Google Drive search respects access rights. Since I'm the primary user in my small company, I have access to everything in my files. But other employees or partners can only see what's opened up to them through G Suite's considerable management and access controls.

Should you get G Suite?

As with almost any purchase, the should-you-buy decision always rests with your unique needs. That said, the pricing on G Suite is affordable by just about any small business and the benefits are pretty substantial.

Am I concerned that Google can see everything I do? Yeah. To a point. But since almost all the organizations I work with (including government agencies) are also using Google's products and services, I figure Google will see my stuff one way or another. As long as Google goes out of its way to protect itself from breach -- and they're in a better position to do so than I ever will be -- I'm not too concerned that my documents will go into the Great Index In The Sky.