Tech Review: Microsoft Office Web Apps

Standard productivity suites such as OpenOffice and Microsoft Office are tops when it comes to sheer file-editing power, but they don’t offer much in terms of connected flexibility. If you need remote file access or real-time collaboration capabilities, you’re out of luck.

Enter Microsoft Office Web Apps, online versions of four major Microsoft Office programs — Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote — that are a bit light on features but heavy on “anywhere” accessibility. Best of all, they’re free. But are they actually useful? And how do Microsoft’s apps compare to the cloud-connected Google Docs or the standalone Office 2010? Let’s find out!

A Hard Drive in the Cloud

Microsoft Office Web Apps are built around the company’s SkyDrive cloud service, which offers 25GB of online storage space, albeit with a 100MB limit per file. In fact, the Office Web Apps home page redirects you to SkyDrive when you click on Get Started. SkyDrive is free, but you’ll need to create or use a Windows Live ID to sign in. Files stored on a Microsoft Sharepoint server are also supported.

Any file you want to edit needs to be uploaded to SkyDrive or SharePoint before you can work on it. SkyDrive’s upload manager can be a bit slow — not to mention a bit tedious — but it works well enough, and we never ran into any errors using it.

Once a file is uploaded, simply click on it to open it, or use the SkyDrive dashboard to create a file from scratch. You can browse documents in read-only mode, or you can click on Open in Word/Excel/PowerPoint/OneNote or Edit in Browser (in the menu bar at the top of the screen) to get to tinkering. One major drawback: only files saved in Microsoft-created formats — such as .docx, .xlsx and .pptx — can be edited or even viewed in-browser. PDFs can also be viewed if you have Adobe Reader installed, but all other files need to be opened using local standalone tools. Sorry, RTF and ODT fans.

Futzing with Files

Office Web Apps should feel like home to experienced Microsoft Office users; the interface looks the same as in Office 2010 applications, right down to the love-it-or-hate-it Ribbon. But the bells and whistles have been trimmed down in Web Apps: You’re limited to the Home, Insert, and View tabs, which have had their options severely reduced compared with their premium counterparts. However, whipping together a basic document, spreadsheet, or slide show is still doable; you have the ability to add basic graphics, tables, and hyperlinks.

The online nature of Office Web Apps is a major “selling” point for the free service, but we found the connectivity options to be hit and miss. Being able to edit your files anywhere is a major plus — again, assuming they’re in a Microsoft format — and Office Web Apps has a ton of sharing options that allow you to dish out content via email, live links, and embedded HTML.

While a collaboration mode lets you edit files in real-time with other users whom you’ve granted editing permissions, it isn’t as polished as Google Docs. Collaborative changes appear in real-time in Google Docs; Office Web Apps show you which section(s) others are editing, but the actual changes don’t appear on your screen until the other person saves the document and you refresh or save on your end. This is a handy feature, but not as useful as it could be.

Files saved in your SkyDrive may also be browsed and edited in the Microsoft Office Hub of Windows Phones, which we covered in-depth in a separate review. (In a nutshell: We love it.) Other mobile devices can view and download files from SkyDrive, but editing is restricted to Windows Phones.

Office Web Apps or Google Docs?

Office Web Apps definitely has its uses. The ability to create, edit, share, and collaborate on basic documents and files from anywhere there’s an internet connection is huge. But Google Docs does the same stuff, and it does that stuff a little better: Google’s collaboration mode and file support outshine Microsoft’s similar capabilities.

So, while Office Web Apps is a solid, polished, and impressive cloud-productivity suite, we recommend sticking with Google Docs unless you’re a Windows Phone owner or a major fan of the Ribbon interface. Just don’t forget to back up your data!

About Brad Chacos

Brad Chacos is a freelance writer-slash-small business owner who finds himself endlessly fascinated by technology and its role in business. He's worked with Wired, Laptop Magazine, the Global Strategic Management Inst., New York Times properties and a bevy of local businesses. Connect with Brad on LinkedIn.
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