It doesn’t usually take long to find a good word processor because so few options dominate the landscape, and that’s why Google Docs stands out.
Google has built up Docs to be the counter-software to Microsoft Word, a web-based alternative with collaboration in mind. It’s still largely driven by online access, but the feature set has evolved to be more competitive.
While Word is often bundled with Windows PCs, or even some tablets, it’s hard to get it as a standalone program. Microsoft 365 is subscription-based, so unless you pay for the suite, you’re not going to be very productive with the company’s word processor. Google skirts that entirely, serving up everything it can without charging a dime for it.
If you’ve used Docs before, you already know what you’re getting. The basics are all there beyond just typing the words you want. You can change things, like font, size, spacing, format, track changes, and much more. Google even finds any avenue it can to squeeze in its other services, which explains why there are shortcuts to its search engine and translation tools.
But the point is the documents themselves. Whatever you create, you can share with up to 100 users through the sharing capabilities via the Share button or a dedicated link. The idea is that a team can collaborate in real time and edit the same document without having to message or email it back and forth. There’s no pulling a fast one on others, either. Docs records all changes each user made, so everyone is accountable along the Version History chain.
To keep things further organized, the document comes with a sidebar to the left that contains an outline of the headings. Put in a heading or sub-heading, and it populates the sidebar, effectively turning them into quick links you can click when you need to go to that section.
There’s a lot to work with, except for working offline. Docs is heavily dependent on Internet access, so without that, you can’t do much with it. There is a workaround if you tie the document to your Google Drive account, but it’s nowhere near as straightforward as simply saving a Word doc to your computer and working on it, regardless. Or you can download a file for offline editing, so you have some recourse in case you’re not online.
Any major web browser easily handles Google Docs, which matters because there is no desktop app. That may not be significant if you’re working from home, where Internet access is a 24/7 situation, but commuting or travelling does change the calculus. The old adage of “you get what you pay for” does feel appropriate under those circumstances.
But at least the tools and processes are improving. Chromebooks get some special treatment, like in the way you can work on documents offline. The iOS and Android mobile apps are the closest you get to a standalone experience, though you won’t get the full gamut of features for those. For example, some of the formatting options aren’t available on the mobile apps because they would look different compared to the browser version. The level of help and suggestions Docs offers is also more extensive through the browser.
The Help section is useful, mainly because you can type in what it is you want to do and it will suggest tools to get there. It’s a pretty uniform experience no matter what computer you’re using, including Chrome OS and Linux.
You could use Word for years as your word processor and still not fully realize the scope of the features available on it. Microsoft has built the program over decades, squeezing in whatever it could into it. Chances are, there will be at least a few things there you can’t do in Google Docs. But if your needs are modest, and your workflow not all that complicated, you may appreciate the contrast.
And Word isn’t free. If you pay for Microsoft’s office suite, you get everything Word has to offer, including browser-based online document access, albeit with sharing options that aren’t as well thought out as Google’s. Word does integrate well with other Microsoft apps, and the mobile apps have definitely improved since they first launched.
Docs does stand out as an interesting alternative for collaborative brainstorming documents. Each person can add in their parts, and because each version is saved as a separate file to the cloud, there’s always accountability along the way. For school group projects, that makes a lot of sense, but it’s just as pertinent in the business world, too.
Given that it’s free, it’s worth trying it if you already have a Google account. That’s all you need to gain access, though anyone you share with doesn’t necessarily require it. If they don’t use Gmail, nor have a Google account at all, they can still contribute to the document. That’s great if your group includes people who either use something else, or don’t want to set up an account at all.
For businesses looking to scale, Google Workspace is a subscription-based option, but you won’t need it if you’re just looking for basic access. Workspace makes more sense for a team or business that requires administrative features or a direct line to Google’s support. Privacy is another element there, which is always a concern with anything Google does. Sharing a Docs link isn’t inherently secure unless everyone involved keeps it that way.
There’s nothing wrong with using both word processors if you have access to them. You can pay for Word, but there’s no reason not to use Docs when convenient. The fact that shareable access is so easy makes it a viable choice to have in an office toolbox.