Microsoft Office Web Apps Review

Importance of cloud-based computing in our (otherwise crippled without the internet) work and personal life cannot be denied; and productivity suites are just one of the extremely useful computing applications to have migrated to the Cloud. Among many other cloud-based productivity applications, Google Docs — the free, online word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, form, and data storage service offered by Google — has managed to not only attract, but also satisfy and retain many users. For three years after the launch of Google Docs, Microsoft offered no competing product — until June 2010. The software giant from Redmond announced the stable release of Office Web Apps this summer. However, while many users invariably compare it with Google Docs, Microsoft itself holds that Office Web Apps is a “companion” to its Office 2010 suite, and not a standalone Web application. Currently, Office Web Apps includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. Read on to find out whether Microsoft Office Web Apps is a welcome companion or a sluggish dawdler.

Prerequisites

In order to get started with Office Web Apps, you need a Windows Live account. The documents are stored on SkyDrive — a Microsoft service that provides 25 gigabytes of free, online, file storage space.

Discarding any reservations about appearing blatantly promotional, Microsoft recommends using Internet Explorer 7 or above and installing Silverlight to run Office Web Apps. Moreover, an excellent internet connection is another crucial prerequisite to run the web application smoothly – low or average bandwidth connections will only frustrate users and should simply forgo using Office Web Apps.

Getting started

Office Web Apps provides users two options to work with documents; either create a new document online, or upload a document from the PC to work. Also, users can take full advantage of Office Web Apps only if they have Office 2010 installed; it does not work with previous iterations of Microsoft Office.

Files created with Office 2010 (on desktop) can easily be saved to the SkyDrive storage account while working on them, eliminating the need to manually upload or synchronize the files. Another peeve with the service, which Microsoft prefers to call a design feature, is that by default, users can only work on one document at a time. This is in contrast to Google Docs, where documents can be opened in different tabs, enabling users to work on different documents simultaneously. To force-open individual files in separate tabs, users need to right- click and then opt to open another document in a new tab in the browser.

Viewing documents

The viewing mode of Office Web Apps is its relatively stronger feature. The Word Web App immaculately preserves the formatting in basic- to average-level compound documents, and close to 100 per cent formatting of even the most advance level documents. Text search works without a glitch, mimicking the Office 2010 Navigation pane, and showing all matching strings on the left-hand side of the document. The “Replace” functionality in the “Find” feature is, however, not available.

documents. Text search works without a glitch, mimicking the Office 2010 Navigation pane, and showing all matching strings on the left-hand side of the document. The “Replace” functionality in the “Find” feature is, however, not available.

Different zoom levels and the handy option to directly jump to a particular page are also available. Hyperlinks within documents work without a problem. The option to print Word documents, directly from the cloud, also work smoothly, detecting printer settings on the fly. However, all is not perfect — if your document contains tracking markups (extensively used for reviewing changes in a document) or comments, it is not possible to edit the document in the browser. The application will launch the locally installed Office 2010 application in order for you to edit the document.

The viewing options available in the PowerPoint Web App are quite stripped- down, though text, charts, transitions, graphs and images are retained with admirable accuracy. The Find-Replace functionality is completely absent, as are functions from the View tab of its desktop counterpart.

While the Word Web App does an excellent job of retaining formatting and accurately displays almost all items, Excel Web App fails to properly display even some of the most commonly-used elements — like pictures, drawing shapes or WordArt. Also, while the Find feature works in the Excel Web App, its Replace function is absent. There is no option to print Excel worksheets on the go as the “Print” functionality is missing. Also, users will have to accept the single viewing size available, as there is no option to zoom in or out – a definite annoyance when dealing with extensive number-crunching. On the other hand, hyperlinks within the worksheet or workbook function normally and the app retains document fidelity by not fumbling any formula used within the spreadsheet. On the whole, the viewing capabilities of the online Excel app are average at best – while it is adequate for simple worksheets, it will not do for complex worksheets.

Creating and editing documents

Microsoft Word Web App provides just enough features to pass as an online word processor. It includes the bare essentials, such as font and paragraph formatting features, basic document formatting styles, and table, picture and clip art insertion. Stingy even with basic features, MicrosofVs Word’s online version has a very limited selection of bullets and does not allow pictures to be dragged across a document. Also, an extremely important function that Microsoft failed to include is the Page Break feature. On the other hand, a fairly commendable Spell Check feature is available, though its other half – Grammar – is nowhere to be found. Support for keyboard shortcuts, though present, leaves much to be desired.

Like Word, the Excel Web App also replicates the familiar interface of its desktop counterpart – though with several distinctions. Calculations and formulas are critical elements of an Excel spreadsheet and fortunately these are retained with 100 per cent accuracy in the online version. Changing the values of cells automatically updates calculations within a worksheet. It is quite easy to create basic spreadsheets and insert tables and hyperlinks. Sorting and filtering data work without a hitch. Unfortunately, this is where the good part comes to an end. There is absolutely no existence of the right-click pop-up menu for cell features and moving cells by dragging and dropping is greatly missed. Another sorely-missed basic feature is the “merge cells” button. Moreover, a feature that Google Docs users may find oddly missing is the ability to freeze panes or even correctly display uploaded files that have fixed panes – the online app displays these panes as “unfrozen” in edit and view mode. Furthermore, if a file includes any data validation checks, it cannot be opened, even in the view mode. A dialog box, displaying the error message along with the option to open the file in Excel (2010, of course) appears on the screen. In other cases, a spreadsheet may open for editing, but will include a message, warning that some of the features of the document may be missing.

The PowerPoint Web App provides editing functions suitable only for minor tweaks and modifications. While it is possible to insert or delete pictures and Smart-Art objects, resizing them is not possible – leaving users the option to edit only the text in the presentations. Multimedia content, like audio and video files, in a presentation cannot be opened in the Cloud, and need to be accessed via PowerPoint 2010 (desktop). While creating a new presentation, the option to select a theme appears only at the beginning, and the online version also lacks the functions to add transition effects to presentations. All things considered, the PowerPoint Web App is basically a glorified slideshow presenter on the cloud.

A less commonly used Office application, called OneNote, is also included in the Office Web Apps suite. Though an extremely attractive, intuitive and useful note- taking, resource aggregation and collaboration application, its online companion offers no viewing mode in the browser. OneNote files stored on SkyDrive need to be downloaded, opened and edited in OneNote 2010 on the desktop. However, the OneNote Web App does an excellent job of maintaining the formatting and different features included in any OneNote file. Creating OneNote files from scratch on the Web was not a satisfying experience, due to the extremely limited features provided.

Speed and performance

We  tested Office Web Apps in Internet Explorer 7 and 8, Chrome 5.0 and Firefox 3.5. Though the performance of most of the features remained consistent in all these browsers, loading PowerPoint and Excel files took comparatively longer in Chrome than in Internet Explorer 8. On a regular home user broadband connection, opening a file in Word (or other Office Web App) took approximately 15 seconds, while saving the same file to the Cloud took four seconds. Uploading an average-sized Word file (50KB) to SkyDrive took 16 seconds, and saving changes took two seconds, at most. Also, it didn’t take much to stress out Office Web Apps, as at least one browser (Chrome 5.0) stopped responding when we attempted to open more than five heavy files in different tabs. These numbers, when compared against the performance of Google Docs, are sadly quite unimpressive.

Sharing and collaboration

In Office Web Apps, users can only share folders, not individual files with other users — who have Windows Live accounts. They also have the prerogative to set different permission levels for each user; others can be allowed to either only view the files in the folder, or to add, edit and delete files in that folder. Also, a link to the shared folder can be shared and only the users who have the set permissions can access the link. Collaboration is not in real time; if one user has a shared file opened for editing, another user cannot edit it. The user can, however, view the document.

Conclusion

Though MS Office suites on the desktop have an exceptionally well-established customer base, the requirements and expectations from a cloud-based service are completely different. It seems that Microsoft strategically evaded the embarrassment of launching bug-filled software by simply limiting numerous features. Office Web Apps would indeed serve as a “companion” only if you have Office 2010 and Silverlight installed on the computer, use Internet Explorer 7 or above, and have an excellent internet connection wherever and whenever you access the files. Need we say more?

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