Google’s embrace of minimalism is on full display with its Docs, Sheets, and Slides apps. This free office suite integrates all the power and capabilities most people will ever need into intuitive web and mobile experiences. The apps also have best-in-class collaboration and revision-tracking features. Unlike rival suites, Google doesn’t offer traditional desktop versions and, unless you plan ahead, you can’t use them without an internet connection. If you’re willing to live with these limitations, then Google’s office suite may be all you ever need. For a more complete and stable experience, we recommend Editors’ Choice winner Microsoft 365.
Google’s free apps have almost all the features that you get in the same-named apps in the subscription-based Google Workspace, which is now open to everyone with a Google account. One major difference in the interface is that you can’t easily create document templates in the free version, while the paid version lets you build templates with a couple of mouse clicks.
A free Google account gives you 15GB of free storage on Google Drive. Those 15GB are shared with Gmail and Google Photos, which means you might quickly run out of space. Google Workspace adds more storage per user, plus videoconferencing and other corporate features, all of which are beneficial to businesses of all sizes.
You can’t get an office suite that costs less than Google’s, but, if you don’t want to pay anything, you’ll have to live with the 15GB storage limit. You can upgrade your storage through a Google One subscription, which starts at $1.99 per month for 100GB of storage. The top-end 2TB Google One plan costs $9.99 per month.
The real disadvantage of Google’s free and paid suites is the lack of desktop apps that work offline. Competitors, such as Libre Office and Apple iWork, are both free, for example, but offer local apps. Microsoft 365, the suite that has the best of both online and desktop worlds, starts at $69.99 per year for one person and 1TB of online storage. I think it’s worth the money.
Google Docs is ideal for brief reports, student essays, personal diaries, and other uncomplex tasks. Compared to other office suites, Google Docs ranks last in power, but first in ease-of-use for straightforward editing tasks. The online-only nature of the suite plays into that simplicity; Google wants you to just trust that your data is reliably accessible in the cloud. In fact, by making it difficult to work offline, Google is not-so-subtly encouraging you to not even bother with that functionality.
To edit a document offline, you need to first install the Google Docs Offline extension in Chrome and make sure that Chrome is your default web browser. Then, in Chrome, go to drive.google.com/settings and enable the Offline setting. Next, go to your Google Drive directory, right-click on every document that you want to edit offline, and then enable the Available Offline option. Now, unless some glitch gets in the way—and glitches sometimes happen—when you’re offline, you can click on any of those documents in your Google Drive folder on your desktop (you must install the Google Backup and Sync app) and edit it in Chrome.
This all gets even more complicated if the organization you work for has disabled offline access for its users, as one of the companies I work with has done. In this case, I got offline access to files in my corporate accounts by sharing them with my personal account. All this is so ridiculously complex and reminds me why Microsoft 365 is such a good value.
Google Docs uses a clean, minimal interface with modern-looking typography and a sparsely-populated top-line menu, which you can hide entirely. The toolbar has clear, black-and-white icons. The design is exceptionally straightforward and well thought-out, with only Apple’s Pages rivaling its simplicity and clarity. The mobile versions of Google’s apps offer a dark mode, but you’ll need to install a third-party add-on to get the same feature for the web apps.
If you can’t find something on the menu, you can search for it in the Help box and open it directly from there. Unfortunately, the Help system doesn’t show you where to find the same options on the menu when you want them again, an annoying oversight that it shares with Microsoft 365.
Some features, such as the word count, are surprisingly badly implemented. Docs can display the word count while you type, but it doesn’t update the count in real time; you have to click it to get the latest totals. Every other office suite (except Corel WordPerfect) has an option to display a real-time word count that updates as you type.
The list of shortcomings continues. For example, the app supports footnotes, but not endnotes. It lets you insert and resize images, but doesn’t make it easy to change their position on the page. If you use page numbering, you can prevent the number from appearing on the first page, but you can’t otherwise change a page header and footer for one section of a document. You can modify the limited set of built-in paragraph styles, but you can’t create styles with custom names or that apply to any block of text that’s smaller than a paragraph.
However, Google Docs does some things well. I like, for instance, the option to display a document in print layout, but without the blank spaces at the top and bottom of the page. You don’t have to shift your vision down two inches when a sentence extends across a page break with this view. Among the other office suites, only Microsoft Word and Corel WordPerfect have the same feature.
Google’s templates are elegantly designed and easy to use, but there’s no simple way to create a document template with the free version of the apps. You can find complicated workarounds online, but if you want to create your own templates, you’re better off with Google Workspace or any of the other suites.
Google Sheets can’t match Excel’s high-end features and automated conveniences, but it performs feats that make it preferable for corporate users and others who need a full audit of changes in a worksheet. As with the rest of the apps in Google’s office suite, you can view all changes to a document in chronological sequence. Sheets goes one step further with a feature that lets you view the editing history of individual cells. Google has added a recorded-macro feature to Sheets too, but not to Docs. That said, if you know how to program your own macros, a script editor available in Docs, Sheets, and Slides lets you create automated scripts that optionally link to Google’s APIs. You can, for example, write a script to manage YouTube uploads from a Sheets worksheet.
Google’s Slides presentation app is surprisingly speedy and elegant. It performs almost all the dazzling effects built into Microsoft’s PowerPoint and Apple’s Keynote. You don’t get advanced editing features like sliders that can trim a video, but you’ll find sharp-looking templates and conveniences like a question-and-answer history that you can consult when you need to remember an answer you gave weeks ago.
Google Docs and Google Sheets both get painfully slow when you work with large documents or worksheets, but they’re satisfyingly snappy with smaller ones. You can import documents in Microsoft Office, OpenOffice, and other standard formats. Note that if your file is too large and your upload speed too slow, you won’t be able to upload it.
I tried to upload a 2,000-page Word document over my home internet connection (35Mbps upload) and got only a terse message from Google Docs that the server rejected the upload. I tried to work around the problem by installing the Backup and Sync app from Google and copying the same document to the Google Drive folder on my desktop. I waited for the document to upload to the cloud and then tried opening it in Google Docs. Again, the file would not open. In contrast, when I opened the same file in browser-based versions of Microsoft Word and Apple’s Pages, the file uploaded instantly and opened without any problems.
The mobile versions of Google’s office apps look terrific, but offer only a small subset of the browser versions’ features. Basically, you can expect to use the mobile versions to change the text and formatting of a document or worksheet, but not much else. You can’t, for example, auto-sum cells on your iPhone’s Sheets app.
Microsoft’s mobile apps pack a lot more features; the mobile version of Excel has far greater capabilities, including the aforementioned auto-sum feature. Apple’s mobile Numbers app is more sophisticated, too—it offers automated suggestions when you start typing a formula.
Google’s office apps are free, effective, available anywhere through a browser or mobile device, and refreshingly easy to use. They stumble over large files, however, and anyone who wants power in reserve will prefer either Microsoft’s or Apple’s office suites depending on your OS. We recommend that you try out Google’s apps so that you’ll be ready to use them if a coworker shares a Google document, presentation, or worksheet with you—or if you decide that their compact feature set and convenience suit your everyday needs.