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Review: Microsoft Office Online vs. Apple iWork for iCloud vs. Google Drive

Woody Leonhard | June 12, 2014
Online word processors, spreadsheets, and presentation apps can be surprisingly useful, or surprisingly lame, and not even Microsoft aces Office document compatibility

Over the past few weeks I've regaled you with detailed reviews of the three major online office productivity suites: Microsoft Office Online with Word Online, Excel Online, and PowerPoint Online; Apple's iWork for iCloud with Pages, Numbers, and Keynote for iCloud; and Google Drive (aka Google Apps) with Docs, Sheets, and Slides. Which suite is for you? There is no clear winner in this horse race, so your specific needs will dictate that choice.

All of these browser-based products are free for personal use. Microsoft Office Online and Google Drive are also available in paid plans for businesses. Enigmatically, Apple calls iWork for iCloud a "beta," and hasn't yet committed on pricing for the final, shipping version. However, keep in mind that iWork for iOS and iWork for OS X are both free for those who bought Apple machines after September 2013. As of this moment, iWork for iCloud is free to everyone, thus giving Apple a nice boost in the "value" category.

All of the programs in the suites are accessed using one of the major browsers. None of them require you to install, activate, or maintain any programs on your local computer. Log on, use the browser-based app, and walk away.

I approached each of the suites from the perspective of a Windows and Office user, taking special interest in the way each handles Office document compatibility. Compatibility with Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents may or may not be important to you. I also ran the suites with a keyboard and mouse. You screen-tappers will certainly have a different perspective. Both Office Online and iWork for iCloud are more functional than Google Drive on mobile devices, whether you access them via mobile browser or use the native mobile client.

My reviews concentrated on the three traditional key productivity products: word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation apps. All of the suites also include mail, calendar, contacts, notes, and other apps, but I did not consider them in this review. I did discuss storing, managing, and accessing files in Microsoft OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive), Google Drive, and Apple iCloud. All three suites push you into a cloud walled garden, with limited file handling and interoperability with other cloud storage services.

All of the primary tests were performed with Windows 7 and Internet Explorer 11 (except for Keynote for iCloud, which I ran in Chrome). I also ran a series of secondary tests using a wide array of operating systems and browsers.

Take it from the top

Microsoft's Office Online (known as Office Web Apps before February 2014) works with any recent version of IE, Firefox, Chrome, or Safari. It's free for personal use. Individuals and organizations with Office 365 subscriptions (from $60 to $240 per person per year) automatically get licenses to use the Office Online apps. If you're familiar with Office 2010 or Office 2013/Office 365, you should be able to jump right into the Office Online apps and get going.


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