Google G Suite
Renamed from Google Apps, Google’s online office suite has become a credible alternative to Office, with well-integrated components and the kind of slick, consistent interface that Google has pursued across Chrome OS and Android. That’s partly because Google hasn’t tried to beat Microsoft on breadth and depth of features, but in areas such as collaboration and search where it already has the upper hand. And while its online nature used to be an issue, G Suite’s offline functionality has improved while high-speed access has grown more ubiquitous. Things appear to be moving Google’s way.
Office has just about caught up with G-Suite’s real-time collaboration features, but Google’s still feel faster and a more natural part of the editing workflow. It’s incredibly easy to share documents, edit and comment on them together, and it’s also clear who is doing what and where, with improved controls over document versions – including custom names for milestone versions and a proper version history.
Google Docs goes one step further with its Suggested Edits feature. Switch from Editing mode to Suggesting mode and an editor can suggest edits and deletions, which the document’s author can review, accept and reject. To make editing easier, you can switch between a view with the suggestions in and a clean, readable version without them. Anyone who has had to work through multiple revisions of a document from different layers of management will appreciate how welcome this is.
Docs has strong formatting tools – powerful enough for most users – although you may miss the more sophisticated handling of text styles and themes that you get with Word. It also has an answer to Word’s new Smart Lookup and Researcher features in its Explore tool. Highlight something, right-click and select Explore, and you’ll see search results, images and relevant content from your Google Drive appear in the new Explore pane to the right. If you want to use information from an article or an online image, you can add citations to your document automatically.
Explore also crops up in Sheets and Slides. In Sheets, you can highlight a range of cells then type in questions using natural language and, provided your spreadsheet has clear enough column and row labels, Explore will deliver the answers. Want to know what your best-selling product was in August across a range of stores? Just ask. And while you highlight a range, you’ll see other interesting data in charts or factoids. Sheets has Filter and Pivot Table tools to make sense of data, but this approach makes more sense for less expert users. Excel is still unbeatable as a power user’s tool for serious analysis, but in terms of charts, key formulae and formatting tools, Sheets is catching up.
In Slides, the Explore tool works more like PowerPoint’s Designer – put it to work on a Slide and it will come up with alternative layouts, helping you to get to a more polished working design in less time. There are times when Explore gets flummoxed, throwing up nothing but a link to information about the feature, while Slides’ layouts and options aren’t always as slick or sophisticated as PowerPoint’s. Yet, Slides has other strong suits, including decent animations and transitions, importing video direct from YouTube and the ability to use voice to enter speaker notes, which is handy when you’re drafting notes to go with your presentation.
You would expect Google’s apps to play well with Gmail, Google Drive and Google Calendar, and you can set up an event in the latter, then attach documents or presentations to share during the meeting. What’s slightly more surprising is just how nicely G Suite plays with Office documents. Macros and more complex Excel or PowerPoint features are always going to cause problems, but the vast majority go through with their formatting, tables and comments intact. What’s more, you can preview and comment on Office documents in Drive or Gmail using the Drive preview feature without opening them up in another application. However, you can’t preview embedded comments
until you open the file within Sheets, Slides or Docs. G Suite isn’t a fully-featured alternative to Office, but it has enough of the core features to cover the needs of non-power users, and you can add features such as advanced grammar checks, charts or translation tools through add-ons. Using G Suite is fundamentally a different way of working, and one that still works best in an alwaysonline environment where your collaborators are also in the Google tent. It’s not the answer for everyone, therefore, but Google is making it harder to ignore.
Ever since the split from the OpenOffice project, LibreOffice’s big draw has been the promise of a free alternative to Office, based on open standards and open-source code, but with equivalent power to Microsoft’s suite. In many ways, version 6 holds true to that promise, with component applications that are dense with tools and features, plus an emphasis on customisation and easy expansion through a growing range of add-ons.
The suite’s Achilles heel is a dated, clunky look and feel – it’s easier to see LibreOffice as a rival to Office 2003 than Office 2016. The range of buttons, pull-down menus, toolbars and sidebars in each application presents you with a huge selection of features and options, but you need to know what you’re doing and where to find what you’re looking for.
The Document Foundation is striving to modernise, with an experimental Ribbon-style interface – the Notebook Bar – that does a similar job of grouping tools and options by context. However, there’s a sense that this isn’t really finished, and it’s inconsistently applied across the suite. Collaboration is another weakness because real-time co-editing is only available through an experimental, cloud-based version, LibreOffice Online.
Writer, LibreOffice’s word processor, is arguably the most advanced of its core tools, and it’s a perfectly usable and comprehensive alternative to Word. Compatibility with Word documents is much improved on previous versions – tables, images, styles and lists don’t throw up any headaches, while comments and revisions seem to come through intact. But where LibreOffice now excels in some areas, such as handling text as it flows around a shape or image, it still can’t match Word for the usability of styles and themes. Features you take for granted, such as real-time previews of fonts and styles as you hover over, either aren’t there or don’t work consistently. On the plus side, it has all the features you need for longer works, including citation and table of contents tools, plus built-in export to PDF and ePub tools.
Calc remains a very powerful alternative to Excel, and one that’s easy to get to grips with if you used pre-2007 versions of Office. It has strong data analysis features, including pivot tables, plus effective auditing tools. What you miss are the extras you get in Excel: the sparklines, the automated styling tools, the wider range of charts and visualisations.
Impress, meanwhile, highlights LibreOffice’s biggest issue. It can do most things that PowerPoint offers, but not so easily or quickly or with such polished results. Its templates are dated, there’s no real help to set up slides or presentations, and there are limited tools for adjusting images once in-situ. Useful content-specific sidebars help surface the most commonly used formatting tools, but even these feel clunky. And while you have a decent selection of animations and transitions, plus clear and accessible scripting tools, you don’t get the flashier effects or options that you find in PowerPoint. Impress also refused to import our MP4 or MOV video files, although it was happy to open WMVs.
There’s definitely an audience for LibreOffice, covering more expert users who honed their skills on Office in the nineties and noughties, and who have established ways of doing things and know what they want. For them, it’s a functional, elegant suite with a powerful set of features – and its hard to argue with the price tag. Office file compatibility has reached a level where you could comfortably work with Office-user colleagues and, macros and advanced features aside, not have any issues. But where Microsoft is pushing ahead with automated features and Google with collaboration, LibreOffice is struggling to keep pace.
LEFT The Explore feature handles different tasks in different G Suite apps. In Sheets, it extracts potential charts and insights from the spreadsheet data
BELOW In Slides, the Explore feature gives you new layout ideas for slides or images
LEFT LibreOffice now has its own ribbon-style interface, but it’s an experimental feature and isn’t rolled out consistently across the suite
ABOVE Impress offers a range of templates and solid design tools, but it can’t help you put your presentation together in the way PowerPoint and Slides can