Following on from yesterday’s thoughts on using a Chromebook for an extended period, I thought it worth updating it (coming soon!), as well as jotting down some thoughts about Google Docs.  This got so big (and is relevant to all platforms, not just the Chromebook) that for the sake of clarity I decided to hive it off as a separate post.

Game-changing features

I think the main thing I’ve had to learn in terms of my expectation of what Google Docs can do, is to consider them as functions of a large and very advanced database.  From this perspective, the vague consideration of “wow – how do they even do that?” becomes much easier to resolve and put to rest.  With that in mind, I can now take a deep breath and present some major gains I’ve found with Google Docs as opposed to working in traditional desktop productivity apps like MS Office.

Never hit “Save” (or ctrl-S) again

This is a big one.  I type out a sentence, and then pause to look up to the toolbar… the word “Saving…” presents itself for a few seconds, before eventually changing to “All changes saved in Drive”. In theory, this means I can go into a document, type some stuff, then just navigate away from it in the knowledge that the changes were saved without my even having to worry about it.  Compared with MS Office, where it’s quite normal to get completely sucked-in to writing that important document then have it crash when fine-tuning the formatting and then find you didn’t manually save that last 3 hours of work, even the Autosave functionality often doesn’t keep up with important edits.  The Google Way™ seems so much better, and has saved many a draft.

Always available, on any computer in the world…

…provided that it has an Internet connection and a modern web browser.  This has massive implications for the freedom of users to roam the planet as they need and still have access to the information that’s important to them.  Obviously this doesn’t negate the need for backup of truly valuable data – but does act as a less-admin-intensive solution than providing a full roaming Windows/Mac roaming network account with all the security and software licensing hassles that creates.

Collaboration

It’s now routine for my boss and I to dump a load of notes into a Document, or run through entries on a spreadsheet, then have both of us view and edit the same document at the same time.  While we remain online and inside the document(s), we can each see who is doing what and where – even where the cursor is for each user.  This helps us greatly in documenting expenses, working through tricky wording of contracts, manuals, specifications and other basic project management tasks.  This feature alone, working across documents, spreadsheets and even presentations, has changed our working lives for the better.

Word processing

Generally, for any document created in Google Docs itself, everything pretty much works as expected – at least from a simple “type up some notes, edit then, make them look vaguely presentable, and print/email it” perspective.
That said, some foibles have been found that have stepped in the way of my making a more complete switch to Google Docs full-time, and relying on MS Office:

  • Previewing of MS Office documents does indeed (mostly) work, but Google Docs’ more simple headings, formatting and layout options mean that document fidelity with formal reports tends to suffer.
    • Sometimes inserted graphics disappear, or are rendered very badly, or appear in the wrong place with text wrapping mangled in the process.
    • Appendices and other numbered/customised headings tend to get lost – sometimes changing the implied meaning and flow of the incoming report.
    • To get around these issues, I tend to ask those reporting to us to submit (both final and draft) reports to me either as email body text (for informal reports), or as PDF’s for more formal work.
  • Page layouts that preview well on-screen can end up with very different pagination, especially when printing to A4, or rendering to PDF.
  • Working with headers and footers is basic, but in fairness does allow insertion of tables, images etc for fine control over layout of logos, titles, author details, page numbers etc.
  • While I’m pleased to see that footnotes work, it’s not a full referencing system that can log and tabulate the source of each reference – again this makes full academic and some reporting use-cases awkward, and calls for migration to more powerful desktop software.
  • Table of Contents can be inserted, taking and automatically updating its entries from headings used throughout the document.  Good basic stuff, but:
    • No page numbers alongside the links.
    • No obvious control over which heading classes are included, nor over the specific formatting of the table entry.
    • Headings cannot be formatted with numbering, in the way that MS Word or other word-processing apps handle.  (Collaborative) Drafting of formal proposals, reports or academic writing can be done on Google Docs, but really formal documents are best having the final text copy/pasted into MS Word or a more advanced desktop word processing or page layout tool of your choice.
    • Table formatting is quite flexible, but not as many available line styles or formatting options as MS Word.
      • Also, can only move cell boundaries when they are visible, eg. when they have a border thickness greater than 0pt.
  • Printing and output
    • Page size is set to US Letter by default. This can be changed to any other supported paper size – A4 for me, please!
    • Equations entered through the Equation tool end up inconsistently placed and pixellated on both PDF and printed output.
    • Documents can be downloaded (or shared) as PDF
      • An example of the PDF output, combining these and yesterdays’ posts, is here:  SamsungChromebook303Cusability (2))
      • Useful for sending out fixed versions of a document files as a reference.
      • The PDF rendering engine can have some strange results, notably with changes to pagination.  Stray blank pages get inserted, and some placement changes made for the onscreen page preview end up looking different on paper.
      • A 20-page report (such as this one, according to the page count in the footers) on-screen ends up coming out as a PDF with 22 or more pages, depending on how and where simple page-breaks have been used.
      • Interestingly, automatically-generated page counts remain correct regardless of whether the document is viewed in the Docs editor, or as a PDF.
      • These are the kind of inconsistencies that most users I know find absolutely maddening for formal work – and a crucial limitation for users to be informed of. It’s like using a camera that takes a photo of the most beautiful mountain range in the world, at sunset, and when you download the photo to your home computer you find it actually gives you a photo of a discarded needle on a wet East London street-corner.
    • Documents can also be downloaded in common MS Office and other (more open) file formats.

Spreadsheets

My needs for spreadsheets tend to fall into one of two categories:

  1. Simple line-entries and basic summaries thereof, for things like expenses, inventory-lists and the like.  This kind of use is so easy to cater for that I’ve yet to find any flaws – and the extra collaboration and availability of the files tends to win over the bulk of a desktop application and opening an actual file from a disk.
  2. Complex mathematical data import, analysis and charting, with templates for print output of charts and tables  to be included in other documents.  Such work tends to involve complex and obscure cell functions, and often (in Excel) some customised VBA code.  Such documents have previewed in Google Docs with reasonable fidelity, but there’s no way I’d expect anything other than MS Excel to understand the file, let alone work with it in any meaninful way or timeline.

Presentations

Rather than using presentations in teaching, I tend to use more of a show-and-tell approach, or even use a Google Doc (word processor) as a virtual blackboard to help explain what’s going on.  That said, when I want a simple pack of slides to summarise the points made, or to outline the plan for a day,
I’ve not played with the Presentations tool much beyond this, mostly because I expect problems even getting Powerpoint files to open and play out correctly on another copy of MS Powerpoint – let alone transferring them to another app such as Google Presentations.