As Google Docs demonstrates, the days are over when you could only write and do basic editing in a featureless text field (with tools for working with text that were primitive at best). Google Docs both handles the basics and offers powerful collaboration features that make it easy to work on documents with other people.

Google Docs, previously known as Google Docs and Spreadsheets, now adds presentation functionality. Click here for PC Advisor's full review.

See PC Advisor's Google Spreadsheets review. Click here for PC Advisor's Google Docs & Spreadsheets review

Using Google Docs

If you use Microsoft Word, Google Docs will feel familiar. Google Docs supports several fonts; multiple text sizes and colours; bulleted and numbered lists; adjustable alignment and indentation; graphics; tables; links; and more.

You can edit text in Google Docs by copying and pasting or by dragging and dropping, check spelling (in more than 30 languages), undo and redo multiple edits, and do most of the other things that you'd expect to do in a word processor.

Important features that you won't find in Google Docs include headers and footers, footnotes, text frames, tables of contents, cross-references, and a powerful find-and-replace feature.

Importing and exporting

Depending on what you need to do, Docs' lack of advanced text features might not be a problem. Its ability to work with Word, however, will probably be important. That's where the program's importing and exporting features come into play.

Google Docs lets you import Word documents (.doc), Rich Text files (.rtf), HTML files, plain-text files, and OpenDocument text files (.odt); each file can have a maximum size of 500K. To upload a file, go to the Google
Docs and Spreadsheets homepage
and click on the Upload link. Then click on Browse, locate the file on your hard drive, and click on Open. (If the file is already accessible on a web server, enter its URL instead). Click on the Upload File button. (Complex formatting may be lost when you do this.)

You can also email a file to your account. To do this, go to the Google
Docs and Spreadsheets homepage
, click on the Upload link, and copy the special email address shown there. Attach a supported file to a new message, and send the message to that address - the file will become a new Docs document. Alternatively, simply send an email with text in its body to that address; the text will become the new document, and the message's subject will become the file's name. (The email import feature tends to be flaky; your success may depend on which email application and ISP you use, among other factors.)

Files you edit in Google Docs are stored online in your Google Apps storage space. The system saves your work periodically, as well as whenever you click on the Save button. You can also save files to your PC in formats including Word, Rich Text, PDF and HTML. This makes it easy to create a local backup copy or share a file with someone who needs to edit it in Word. You can also print your documents directly from Google Docs. However, Docs offers no control over document attributes such as margins, paper size or page orientation.

Tracking revisions

When you're repeatedly revising a document - especially if you're working on a file with other people - it can be helpful to see what has changed from one version to the next, and who made the changes. Google Docs isn't compatible with Word's Track Changes feature. (If you import a Word document with tracked changes, all the text in the document - even text that was marked as deleted - shows up in Docs as regular text. Comments entered in Word don't appear at all.)

Instead, Google Docs takes a different approach. Every time your document is saved, manually or automatically, Docs stores a copy of that version. You can go back to any previous version and even compare two versions to see what the differences are. (This is similar to Word's Compare Documents feature.)

To work with revisions, click on the Revisions tab. Select a previous version of the file by choosing it from the pop-up Revision menu. The selected version will appear in the window. To continue using this version, click on Revert To This One, and click on okay when the confirmation alert appears. (You can go back to any of the other revisions later.)

To find out what changed between one version and another, click on the Compare Two Revisions link and select the versions to compare from the two pop-up menus. Text added to or deleted from the newer version appears in a colour that indicates who made the change.

Collaborating Docs really shines when several people need to work on the same document. Without Google Docs, you might end up emailing files back and forth numerous times - risking garbled attachments and version conflicts. With Docs, you can all edit the same document together online, thus avoiding those problems.

To grant other people permission to view or edit any document, click on the Collaborate tab, select As Collaborators (to give editing access) or As Viewers (to give read-only access), and enter one or more email addresses. Then click on Invite Collaborators, type a message (optional), and click on Send. Each collaborator will receive a message with that document's URL.

Although you can send these messages to any address, collaborators must have a Google account to log in and view or edit the document, and they must sign in using the address you sent the invitation to. The names of people viewing or editing the document appear at the bottom of the screen.

You can also publish your document so that even people without Google accounts can see it. Click on the Publish tab, click on Publish Document, and copy the URL. You can link to this URL from a website or email it to anyone who needs to see the document.

Google Docs tips

For anyone familiar with Word, Google Docs will be mostly self-explanatory. Just click on the New Document link (or click on an existing document to open it) and start typing. But to get even more out of Docs, try these tips:

Save frequently: Even though Google Docs saves your work periodically, it doesn't do so as often as Google Spreadsheets does. If your browser crashes or you inadvertently close the window at the wrong time, you could lose your work without warning.

Discover hidden options: If you're at a loss for how to perform an action, try right-clicking (or control-clicking) on the document's text or on an element, such as a table or an image. A contextual menu will provide helpful commands (see "Uncover Hidden Commands").

Publish to your blog: Want to publish a document directly to your blog? Don't miss the Post To Blog link on the Publish tab. Once you've entered your blog site settings, you can quickly get your thoughts online.

Search your files: Use the Google search box at the top of your Google Docs page to search all your documents or the web. Because it's a Google search, you can use many standard Google features - such as quotation marks to enclose a phrase, or the minus sign (-) to exclude a word from results.

Use keyboard shortcuts: Even though you're working in a web browser, Google provides some keyboard shortcuts for common tasks within both Docs and Spreadsheets. They use the control key instead of the 1 key. For instance, press control-S to save, control-Z to undo, and control-B to make text boldface. (Check the complete list of shortcuts.)

For your eyes only

One big difference between storing your documents on your computer and storing them on Google's servers is that you no longer have complete control over who might see them. What if Google were required to hand over your highly confidential data to the government? What if a Google employee performing routine maintenance stumbled across a spreadsheet outlining your top-secret business plan?

Google's detailed privacy policy spells out the company's guarantee that it will keep your information safe (see particulars for Docs and Spreadsheets, and for Gmail). Respecting its customers' privacy is certainly in Google's best interest - a well-publicised breach of privacy could result in a significant loss of business. However, it's also true that Google saves many copies of your data in various locations around the world, and that deleting something from your account doesn't immediately delete it from all those backups. Theft, corporate espionage or actions by a disgruntled employee could put your information into the wrong hands.

You might already trust Google (or another provider) to store your email messages. The risk with data contained in documents and spreadsheets is no greater. However, if you're working with state secrets, confidential medical records, or other sensitive information, storing it online - anywhere - in an unencrypted form is asking for trouble.

Google Docs and Spreadsheets v1: Specs

  • Internet connection
  • Google login
  • IE 6.0+ for Windows (except IE 6.0.26)
  • Firefox 1.07, (Mac & Windows - except for 1.0.8 on Windows and Mac, and 1.5b1 on Mac)
  • Mozilla 1.7.12+
  • Netscape 7.2+
  • Internet connection
  • Google login
  • IE 6.0+ for Windows (except IE 6.0.26)
  • Firefox 1.07, (Mac & Windows - except for 1.0.8 on Windows and Mac, and 1.5b1 on Mac)
  • Mozilla 1.7.12+
  • Netscape 7.2+


Google Docs is great for collaborating with others on a simple document or accessing documents while you're away from your usual computer - say, when you're working in a computer lab. But to use Docs as your only word processor, you must always have a reliable high-speed internet connection. If you need to work on Google Docs documents offline, you have to use Word, TextEdit or another common word processor, which means exporting and then reimporting files.

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