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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.

Li­breOf­fice 6.01

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

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