Google stack day four: Google Docs good and bad

Google Docs has its strengths. It is a great tool for collaborating on a writing project.

Sharing the same document and making changes in real-time is a powerful way of working on some shared editorial projects. A team of journalists can quickly polish a document before publication.

Until the last few months, Google Docs was the only practical option for real-time sharing and collaboration.

That’s changed now that Microsoft has added collaboration to its Office Web Apps and Apple has done something similar with Pages. All three now how real-time shared editing across their software suites.

Google Docs, otherwise ordinary

Take sharing out of the equation and Google Docs is an ordinary word process with shortcomings. I wouldn’t normally recommend it and I do my best to avoid it. This is the main reason I wasn’t looking forward to spending a week working in the Google stack.

For me Google Docs biggest problem is the lousy user interface.

It doesn’t work well. My eyes are not what they were so I need to see relatively large-sized text on a page. With Microsoft Word, Apple Pages or any other writing tool I can simply zoom the text to a comfortable viewing size.

Browser woes

Because Google Docs is browser-based, this means zooming a browser Window – that’s easy in itself.

The problem is that in most browsers, Google Chrome included, running on most operating systems Google Docs doesn’t handle zoomed documents at all well.

There’s a mismatch between the onscreen cursor and the actual text. So I might try to insert the cursor at a point in the text to type, only to find my words turn up at some other point elsewhere on the page.

If you’re just writing something for your own use, you can get around this by increasing the point size to something comical, say, 20 point, then reducing it when you send or publish the document. That’s awkward and fiddly.

ChromeBook is different

I’m sure more technical types can explain this, but none of this is a problem when typing on the Acer ChromeBook 720C.

I suspect it isn’t a problem on Chrome OS in general – although I’d need to do more testing to be sure. Which means the zoom-cursor-insert problem with Google Docs is OS related and not Chrome-related.

My other Google Docs gripe is that it is subject to other browser activity. By that I mean if you have Docs running in one browser tab and do something in another tab that breaks the browser, you lose the document.

Fortunately Google Docs does a grand job of auto-saving, so you rarely lose any work. On the other hand, it’s rare for a conventional word processor to keel over this way. Chrome is far more stable on the ChromeBook, so this wasn’t a problem either.

A better Google Docs experience

Either way, I found Google Docs a better experience on the ChromeBook than on my Mac or Windows machines.

Google Docs still has limitations. You can’t easily open two documents side-by-side, you can’t command-tab to other apps for cutting and pasting or research.

The other Google Docs user interface shortcomings don’t go away when you work on a ChromeBook.  And printing – yes some clients still need to see paper documents – is harder than with other word processors.

Respect

Overall, I came away from working on the ChromeBook with a new respect for Google Docs. It’s still not my favourite. I still don’t recommend it for professional writers. I still think Fairfax insisting its journalist use the software is a cruel, unusual punishment.

Yet I don’t think I’ll run screaming from the room the next time a paying client asks me to work in Google Docs. I’ll just ask them to buy me a Chromebook. Or add the price of one to the invoice.