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Microsoft, who has been trailing in the recent mobile arms race for a while, has been taking major steps to make up the gap recently, garnering attention for the  introduction of Cortana (a Siri / Google Now competitor) and the launch of Office for iPad, which we covered in detail Microsoft Launches Office For iPad & Office Mobile On Phones Now Free Microsoft Launches Office For iPad & Office Mobile On Phones Now Free Office Mobile for Android sneaked into the headlines while the world was watching the arrival of Microsoft’s Office suite to iPad. So, let's give them each the space they deserve. Read More . One move that might have slipped under the radar, however, is Microsoft making Office for Android free late last month.

Prior to the change, Office for Android required an Office 365 Subscription (which, while free to students Students Can Get Microsoft Office 365 for Free Students Can Get Microsoft Office 365 for Free Starting on December 1st, Universities that license Office Education for their faculty and staff can offer students Office 365 ProPlus for free. Read More , is still a barrier for a lot of people), Microsoft’s cloud service for Office documents. Following the change, the app is totally free, and users get seven gigabytes of cloud storage for signing up. This is a big deal, because it represents an attack by Microsoft on the core value proposition of Google Docs, which has been slowly but surely sapping business away from Microsoft Office for several years. Until recently, if you wanted to edit your cloud-stored documents on mobile for free, Google Docs was the only game in town. Now, consumers have a choice, and it’s a surprisingly tricky one.

Google’s Incumbent

Google Docs concurrent editing

Google Drive for Android is a lot like the Google Drive web app: useful, but just a little frustrating.  We’ve covered Google Drive before Access Your Files From Anywhere With Google Drive [Android] Access Your Files From Anywhere With Google Drive [Android] If you’re using Google Drive on your computer and you own an Android smartphone or tablet, you should install Google Drive for Android. With the app, you can access the files in your Google Drive... Read More , and were generally happy with its functionality. That said, it is very clear that Drive isn’t one of Google’s favorite children: its UI design lags behind other Google products, and it lacks basic features like a working equation editor and full .docx integration.

googledocsmenus

The Drive app, to make a long story short, is useful but not pretty. Its edit mode is handled via a clunky scrollable ribbon at the top of the screen, and finding documents in the pane is harder than it should be. That said, the concurrent editing works nicely, and the app is actually useful for reviewing and editing documents on the fly. Plus, since every Android phone is associated with a Google account, setting it up is a breeze, and every user gets fifteen gigabytes of free storage. It’s worth noting that this review was written in Google docs, which is a strong implicit endorsement despite some of the app’s limitations.

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Microsoft’s Contender

When you first launch Office for Android, the first thing that strikes you is how pretty it is. The interface is clean, open, and easy to navigate. There’s a lot of white space, and the interface follows the Android design guidelines to a tee, while still evoking the attractively modern Metro style – it looks very similar the windows phone version of the app. The app is structured into three swipable tabs: a list of recent documents, your cloud storage, and a tab with various document templates.

office android menus

The app supports editing Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files, although only the first two can actually be created inside the app. Editing Excel cells works surprisingly well on a mobile form factor, although I suspect that trying to create large, complicated spreadsheets would show the limitations of the form factor. For word documents, typing into the body of the document works like you’d expect, and formatting is handled by highlighting text and tapping a paintbrush icon in the corner of the screen, which brings up a menu that allows you to pick color, highlights, text size, and emphasis characteristics – basically the same thing you get with Drive. It’s not fully featured Word formatting options, but it is good enough for most word processing you’re likely to want to do on the go. Editing PowerPoint is fairly basic – you can edit the text on slides, and that’s about it, but it might be useful for last-minute touch-ups on the go.

word editing and spreadsheet

On the whole, the app is a really solid entry into the arena — but not without its problems. The app has no option to save locally, which is a little annoying, and didn’t support tablet-sized screens, which was considerably more frustrating. Worse, though, was an app-breaking input bug related to backspace. Trying to backspace through text resulted in the app trying to autocomplete the word being deleted, or randomly jumping to other words in the same sentence, or (in one case) dumping garbage characters onto the line. Normally, this would be enough to ensure a bad review, but after hunting through reviews of the app, I wasn’t able to find anyone else complaining about this issue.  After some further experimentation, it appears that this bug is unique to the combination between this app and the stock LG keyboard on the LG G2.  If you have problems with it, try using an alternate keyboard.

The Showdown:

Glossing over the mysterious backspace bug, the ban on tablet use, and Google Drive’s substantially greater storage allocation, the feeling that best sums up the experience of using Office for Android is one of relief. This is the way that document editing on mobile should be. It’s clean, it’s easy to use, the interface is intuitive, and it’s generally the model of a modern mobile word processor (there’s a Gilbert and Sullivan song in there somewhere) , including key features like concurrent document editing. As far as the storage issue goes, while Google does offer substantially more, these are text documents we’re talking about. If seven gigabytes isn’t enough for your text storage needs, the way you use computers frightens me, and is beyond the scope of this guide.

viewingandtyping

The real advantage, though, is back on the desktop. Office for Android does a wonderful job of preserving formatting between the mobile and desktop Office suites, something that Google Docs has long done poorly at. Furthermore, when you do return to a good old-fashioned keyboard to format your fevered on-the-go jottings, with Office for Android, you’re going home to the best word processor in the world (sorry, LaTeX fans) — not the slightly awkward, feature-poor web app that is Google Drive. Even if you don’t own Microsoft Office, Microsoft’s free online web apps are actually pretty good these days. Over the last year or so, without any fuss, Microsoft has quietly caught up with and surpassed the feature set of Google Docs by a surprisingly wide margin.

As things stand, the only good reason not to make the jump to Office for Android is concern about being locked into Microsoft’s ecosystem, which is newer and potentially more ephemeral than Google’s established line of web services. The move to online services is a new one for Microsoft, and it’s not clear that they’re in it for the long haul. Furthermore, Google docs integrates nicely with the other Google services that you definitely use in a way that Microsoft’s equivalent services just don’t. That said, measured on a scale of sheer user experience, Office for Android beats Google Drive hands down.

Image Credit: Feature Image via Placeit

  1. Eli
    May 8, 2014 at 4:15 am

    MS Office Mobile is not compatible with my Nexus 10

  2. Alan T
    May 8, 2014 at 2:04 am

    Slight problem for me, I get the message that this app is incompatible with my devices, that's a Sony and a Samsung by the way.
    Shame, I am a big office fan.

  3. Usman M
    May 7, 2014 at 7:57 pm

    I see no reason to call Microsoft's online presence as ephemeral.

    as far as the comparison is concerned, I'really only used MS Office for mobile (on windows phone) to do last minute editing of documents or checked up on others made by my team mates. True I have yet to see how the rest fare against it, but I'm really going to prefer the one which keeps format the same on mobile and desktop. I tried open office once, but went back soon.

  4. moszer
    May 7, 2014 at 2:34 pm

    Google DOCS most likely to be chosen because it is free, and it will never replace Microsoft Office, for now, same goes to other office tools such as Polaris Office, what i would like to see is the Microsoft Office goes free, free for Android, free for ipad, and yeah make one for Linux, by then, the MS Office will be invincible! Like that's gonna happen. I Choose Microsoft Office for Android & for ipad.

  5. Rajaa C
    May 7, 2014 at 2:40 am

    Andre,

    I am a bit surprised why MS Office on Android is being compared with Google DOCs at all. I personally really doubt, how many really used Google DOCs at a personal level at all unless they were forced to as their workplace is on GApps. Mostly people used alternatives like Polaris Office, Quick Office and my own personal favorite KingSoft Office, all available on the Android platform either free or paid, much before MS Office. I personally used KingSoft Office on Android and never missed MS Office for Android literally. So ideally a comparison should be made among MS Office, Polaris Office, Quick office and KingSoft Office on the Android platform for a more even and interesting read article.

    • likefunbutnot
      May 7, 2014 at 5:00 am

      @Rajaa C,

      Google Drive is part of my standard workflow and it has been since Google first introduced Google Docs Sync for Microsoft Office. Drive/Docs has had the modest amount of editing capability I've needed on systems that don't have access full-featured document editing. From personal experience I do know that I can do about 85% of the work I might do in Word using QuickOffice or Polaris Office or with Google Docs if I really have to. That is more than good enough for my expectations of any sort of mobile device since on some level I really would prefer to be doing anything like "real work" on a computer with a large screen and a full size keyboard.

    • Andri Agassi
      May 8, 2014 at 6:00 am

      I use Google Docs a lot, for work and personal stuff. In my organization we also use Google Docs more than Microsoft Office because we can collaborate on documents and work from any computer/device.

    • Francois
      May 9, 2014 at 5:27 pm

      I agree with Andre, Kingsoft was pretty cool.

      In the workplace, Microsoft Office remains the standard - whether we like it or not - and Google's obsession with converting everything to its (somewhat inferior) document standard did nothing to help adoption.

      Delighted to have Kingsoft alongside Office and Google docs on my phone (yes, I read and edit content on my small screen just because I have it everywhere with me)... Loving Office for Android.

  6. likefunbutnot
    May 6, 2014 at 11:35 pm

    ... glossing over everything that actually makes Google Drive a legitimately better choice on Android, it becomes a lot easier to recommend the Microsoft product. Like, hey, the fact that it works on tablet-size devices where a user might be more inclined to attempt to do any amount of content creation or editing.

    Do you think that anyone actually wants to do document editing on a 3.5 to 6" screen? Really? REALLY?

    There's nothing that prevents me from editing multiple files in multiple browser tabs on my phone or tablet using either Google Drive or Office 365. I've found in practice that the "app-ified" experience really adds very little since my needs for access to that data on a mobile device almost always involve a quick E-mail or document share, printing or perhaps a last minute edit of textual data, something that either product will accomplish adequately. In the end, I just didn't think that Office for Android was worth the storage space on my phone.

    Hildy J's comment does speak to a feature missing from Google Drive/Docs/Sheets, but if security of documents in cloud storage is a particular issue, it's always possible to encrypt them prior to their storage in Google Drive. Professional versions of Windows have direct support for file encryption, and there's always TrueCrypt or GPG for users who need something with cross-platform support.

    • Tony Karakashian
      September 15, 2014 at 3:27 pm

      "Do you think that anyone actually wants to do document editing on a 3.5 to 6? screen? Really? REALLY?"

      Do you really think that because YOU don't want to edit documents on a 4.5 to 6" screen (Are there any screens less than 4" on the market anymore?) that NO ONE does? I just did a bunch of editing of some spreadsheets on my tablet last night, so nyah!

  7. Hildy J
    May 6, 2014 at 4:55 pm

    One other thing to note - Office can open encrypted Word documents. It allows you to create a file of miscellaneous information, some of it sensitive, and save it as a password protected document in Dropbox or another cloud service. There it's available to your phone as well as your PCs.

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