When it comes to fantastic online word tools you are spoilt for choice. But only three can claim to be complete, full-fledged word processors: Microsoft Word Online, Google Docs, and Zoho Writer. The last of these has recently been overhauled, and the new Zoho Writer 4.0 seems like a real challenge to the big two.
The focus of the new app is about reducing clutter in the interface, and making tools easy to find for a writer. Far too often, you might be stuck trying to add a particular type of table, or can’t figure out how to make an index/table of contents for your document. Zoho Writer 4 wants to reduce that effort from you, so you can concentrate on writing alone.
What’s New in Zoho Writer 4
The Big Changes
Open the app and you will first notice that it looks cleaner and more sparse than Google Docs or Microsoft Word. Zoho has removed the toolbar, or Microsoft Office’s famed Ribbon, to make the writing environment more minimalistic.
Instead, the rich editing and formatting tools pop up whenever you select a word or a sentence. Having that toolbar right next to your selection means that you don’t have to move your mouse as much.
In case you always want to see the rich editing tools, Zoho Writer 4 does the smart thing by putting them in a pane on the left. Modern monitors are all widescreen, so you usually waste space on either side of your document page.
By putting the formatting tools there, not only do they make better use of valuable screen space, but they can also include labels next to icons. How often have you moused over the various tiny icons in your toolbar, waiting for the tooltip to announce what that button does? Clear labels make that a non-issue in Zoho Writer.
The Three Stages of Writing
Zoho has divided the writing process in three natural stages: Compose, Review, and Distribute — each with its own button.
Compose is all about actually writing, so it’s as distraction-free as possible. You should probably check Zoho’s Settings once before you start. It includes useful writing tools like auto-correcting words where the first two letters are accidentally capitalized instead of the first letter alone, or turning quotes into smart quotes.
Review is where the spellcheck and proof-reading tools comes in. Zoho Writer 4 comes with a built-in Reader Mode. Try it out, it’s like looking at your document in a whole new light, which will often let you spot mistakes that you wouldn’t otherwise notice. The Review mode also has collaboration tools, so you can add colleagues and ask them to comment or make changes.
Distribute, the last of the three stages, is simply about sharing or publishing your document on the Web. Here too, Zoho Writer shows how a word processor meant for the current Web should incorporate more elements, like directly posting to WordPress or figuring out who has accessed your document. With simple “yet to view”, “view”, and “active” labels, you know exactly what the status of the document is with a certain colleague.
The Zoho Writer 4.0 Experience
I alternate between Google Docs and Microsoft Word often. Both have their own uses, with Word being my preferred offline word processor while I work with Docs online. This entire article was written in Zoho Writer 4.
In my opinion it offers a nicer writing environment. It wasn’t the minimalism that sold it for me, though, it was the ease of use. After having dived into the settings to change what I want, I found myself typing faster than I do in Word or Docs.
For example, the command search feature is better than what you get in Word’s Ribbon or the hidden menu search in Google Docs. Press Alt+/ at any time and a search bar pops up, akin to any launcher on an operating system. In this, search for anything you want to do. Typing “table” will drop-down all commands that contain the word “table”. Using the arrow keys, I was able to insert a table in no time, without knowing the keyboard shortcuts at all.
Yes, keyboard shortcuts are useful in any program, and you can learn them too with the built-in shortcut help. Most of them are the same as the shortcuts you’ll use in other word processors, so you should be able to get going without any issue.
However, I found myself using Alt+/ more often, since it was more intuitive. Great software is when the software blends into the background, and the technology seems to work without you getting stuck. That was my experience on Zoho Writer 4, which I can’t always say about Word or Docs.
Ugh, A New Cloud to Contend With
The biggest problem with Zoho Writer 4 quickly becomes clear after finishing. I missed the online storage options! Where Google Docs are automatically stored in Google Drive and Word Online can be saved in OneDrive or Dropbox, Zoho Writer doesn’t work with any of the three main cloud storage providers. And just like that, I was stuck.
Zoho Writer is useful if you are willing to put all your documents into it alone, forgoing your current Google Drive, Dropbox, or OneDrive cloud storage. But that just doesn’t seem like a good idea.
It also requires anyone you are collaborating with to have a Zoho Writer account. Sure, Word Online and Google Docs require that too, but it’s more likely that your collaborators already have a Google or Microsoft account. How many people do you know who are using Zoho Writer or would be willing to sign up for it?
If Zoho Writer 4 hooked into the big three cloud storage services and I was able to collaborate with users with those accounts, I’d make the switch right now. As it stands, the decision is a little more complicated, especially since Word and Google Docs make collaboration simple too. On the bright side, Zoho Writer is available as one of those awesome Google Drive add-ons to open Docs in Zoho Writer directly.
Zoho Writer 4 vs. Google Docs vs. Word Online
So how does Zoho Writer compare with the other two big word processors? Surprisingly, I’d rate Zoho Writer as a better writing tool than either, which is high praise from someone who has to tap away on his keyboard for hours everyday. But let’s break it down a little…
Writing environment: This one is bound to be subjective, so there’s no clear winner here. None of the three are off-putting, but I did like Zoho Writer’s aesthetics the most. That said, the minimalism comes at the cost of research tools in Word and Google Docs.
Ease of tools: Zoho Writer is the clear winner for me here. Putting clear labels on the formatting tools helps in quickly identifying them, and not having to hover over icons for tooltips. More importantly, the command search bar is an excellent addition, and one which clearly gives Zoho Writer the edge for me. The bottom line is that whether you use a mouse or a keyboard for your formatting, both types of users are well supplied with intuitive tools here.
Word File Support: It’s a no-brainer that Word Online is the best at this, since you can directly open DocX files in their original formatting. However, Zoho Writer 4 also supports DocX, unlike Google Docs which converts it into a different format.
Revisions and Proof-Reading: Here again, Zoho Writer 4 got a major plus from me. Have you ever pressed Ctrl+Z (undo) and Ctrl+Y (redo) one too many times in the midst of an editing process and lost the original writing? Zoho Writer’s built-in document history takes care of that. I’d also recommend using the Create Version tool, which saves the way a document looks at a certain time, so you can go back to that version later, in case subsequent edits have messed things up too much.
Collaboration: Zoho Writer’s collaboration tools are fantastic, and the ability to lock certain portions is unseen in Word Online or Google Docs. However, I worry about actually working on a document with other people since they’re required to make a Zoho account too. You can’t use your company-issued official Microsoft or Google accounts, which is a major miss — especially if you’re collaborating on a work-sensitive document and can’t open it with your personal account. And remember, Office Online has impressive collaboration tools too.
Cloud Storage: I’ve made my feelings about this clear. Since Zoho doesn’t let you auto-save to Google Drive, Dropbox, or OneDrive, it’s the loser here.
Would You Switch for a Better Product?
Overall, I do think that as an online word processor alone, Zoho Writer 4 has the better product when compared with Google Docs or Word Online. However, since collaboration is such a key aspect of the modern online writing experience, I am unhappy with the lack of support for existing cloud storage or popular online accounts.
At the end of the day, the question is this: Would you switch to using a new cloud ecosystem if it had a slightly better word processor, or would you continue with your current cloud ecosystem which has a good enough word processor? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.
Image Credits: Shyamala (Zoho) / Product Hunt