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. 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, 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 Drive for Android is a lot like the Google Drive web app: useful, but just a little frustrating. We’ve covered Google Drive before, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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