If there’s one downside to cloud-based services and apps, it’s that you always need to be online to use them. If your Internet goes down, or if you’re travelling, your work grinds to a halt.
Fortunately, Google Docs, now better known as Google Drive, has this covered. You can take the service offline, and access and edit your files even without an Internet connection.
Best of all, you can do it on virtually any platform or device. In this guide, we’ll take a look at how to set it up and get working everywhere you use Google Drive.
On the Desktop in the Browser
You need the Chrome browser to be able to access Google Drive offline on the desktop. This is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, and works in the same way on each platform. On non-supported browsers, the settings to activate offline access are missing.
To get started, you’ll need the Drive Chrome web app installed in Chrome. It comes as a default option with Chrome, but if you need it, you’ll be prompted to install it before you continue.
Activate Offline Mode in Google Drive
Log into your account at Google Drive, drive.google.com. Click the Settings icon (the cog) toward the top right corner of the screen and select Settings.
In the window that opens, check the Sync Google Docs… option in the section labelled Offline. Your files will begin downloading to your computer — these include Docs, Sheets, Slides, and Drawings.
Activate Offline Mode in Google Docs
Go to Google Docs — docs.google.com — and login. Click the hamburger menu icon toward the top left of the screen and choose Settings.
Under Offline sync click Turn on. A new tab will open with instructions to install the Chrome Web app if needed, then to confirm you want to enable offline access.
It takes a few minutes to download your files, and also to cache copies of the Docs apps. Don’t disconnect from the Internet too quickly, or you won’t be able to access them. To ensure that a specific file you need is available offline, simply open it and then close it again.
When you are offline, open Google Drive or Google Docs in your browser by going to the same URL that you use in online mode. All of your files will be listed as usual, but the ones that aren’t available offline will be grayed out.
Double-click to open a file. You’ll see a gray “Offline” icon displayed alongside the filename.
Your changes are saved automatically as you edit a document. When you go back online they will be synced back to your account. Any files that have been edited locally but not yet synced will be displayed in bold type in your docs list.
You can also create new documents when working offline. These will be uploaded to your account the next time you are online.
On the Desktop Using the Drive App
Another way to use Google Docs offline comes via the dedicated Google Drive app. This is available for desktop devices for Windows and Mac, as well as for Android and iOS on mobile.
By default, the Drive app for desktop downloads the entire contents of your Drive account to your computer. It’s similar to how desktop cloud clients like Dropbox work. To only download specific folders go to Preferences > Sync options within the app.
When installed, you can access all your Drive files — not just documents — through an Explorer window on Windows, or the Finder on Mac.
You can edit any file downloaded through the Drive app. Google Docs files, saved in the .gdoc, .gsheet etc formats, are edited in Chrome.
You have to double-click on the file to open it, so you must have Chrome set as your default browser: a file won’t be accessible if it opens in another browser. You also need to have activated the offline feature within the Drive web app itself, as we outlined above.
Other files open in your local app of choice — Excel spreadsheets in Office, images in Photoshop and so on.
Edit these and save your changes as normal. They will be synced to your cloud account when you next connect to the Internet.
The Drive app is probably the most convenient option if you primarily use the service on a single computer. It does come with the inconvenience of having to store many gigabytes of data locally, so is not ideal for having on multiple machines.
On a Chromebook
Contrary to popular belief, Chromebooks do work offline for a variety of functions. This includes using Docs offline.
The process for setting it up is exactly the same as that for using Chrome on Windows, Mac, or Linux. Open the Drive or Docs apps to load the corresponding site in the Chrome browser, then activate the offline feature in the same way as you would on those other platforms.
In Google Apps at Work
Offline access to Google Docs can also be enabled in Google Apps for businesses. The feature isn’t available to individual users, though, and needs an administrator to activate. As always, the users need to be using Chrome.
Log into the Google Admin console and go to Apps > Google Apps > Drive > Data Access. Check the box labelled Allow users to enable offline docs followed by Save.
These settings are applied to the entire organization. For Google Apps Unlimited or Google Apps for Education accounts, you can restrict offline access to individual users or groups for security purposes.
The Google apps for iOS and Android provide offline support for smartphone and tablet users. On Windows tablets you should use the desktop methods for Chrome outlined above; for Windows Phone there is no support. The third-party app GDocs gives offline viewing on Windows Phone, but no editing.
Use Docs Offline on iOS and Android
The apps for iPhone and iPad, as well as Android devices, work in the same way. They don’t feature an all-encompassing “offline” setting, but instead you need to make your content available offline on a file-by-file basis.
There are three different ways to achieve this. From the app’s main screen simply tap the “three dots” menu button beneath your chosen file and select Keep offline.
Alternatively, when the file is open you can select Keep offline from the menu. Or select Details and select the same option from there. In all cases, just deselect the option to remove the offline version from your device.
Once you select it, the file will be downloaded. A notification will alert you when the process is complete.
Swipe in from the left edge of the screen and choose Offline from the options to display only the files that are available offline.
Any edits you make are automatically saved, and those changes synced to your account when your device next connects to the Internet.
Avoid Problems When Working Offline
There are a few issues you should be aware of when working with Google Docs offline.
- Sync Issues. Two of the main benefits to Google Drive is that you can access your files on any device, and that it is easy to collaborate on documents with other users. Remember that when you edit a document offline, the changes won’t be immediately available in another browser, or to another user. If you sync your offline edits after the document has been edited elsewhere, the two versions of the file will be merged. To avoid confusion, you should let any collaborators know when you take a file offline, so they know not to work on it themselves.
- Offline Spreadsheet Compatibility. Spreadsheets created in Google Sheets before December 2013 cannot be edited, and only accessed in read-only mode. Copy and paste the content into a new document if you need to edit an older spreadsheet.
- Limited Functionality. When you take Google Docs offline on the desktop, it reverts to being little more than a basic text editor. You get basic formatting options, but many common features are removed. These include spell checking, adding images, and accessing any add-ons you have installed. This is less of an issue on mobile, where the apps are already lighter in features.
Working Offline is a Compromise
Taking Google Docs offline does not give you a full-on replacement for MS Office, or any other traditional desktop office suite. You’ll get the best from the service by using it online whenever you have an Internet connection available.
But so long as you’re aware of the limitations, as well as a few potential pitfalls, the functionality is incredibly useful. It enables you to keep working wherever you are, safe in the knowledge that your data is secure, and will be seamlessly synced once your connection resumes. With no performance hit for having the feature switched on, we’d recommend activating it now, even if you don’t think you’ll need it that often.
And remember, like Google Docs, there are many more excellent productivity apps that work offline.