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Getting Work Done Online - Spreadsheet


In this installment of Getting Things Done Online we're going to look at the spreadsheet component of our big three offerings. As with many of these posts, I'm going to use a real-life example as a way to show the differences and similarities between the products. In this case, I fired up my personal budget spreadsheet. It's a semi-complicated spreadsheet with multiple cross-sheet references, a pie chart, and a multi-nested 'IF' formula to do paycheck withholding for both Federal and State (Minnesota) taxes. There are plenty of other features I could also review, but I wanted this to be a real-life example, and not just a mock-up stress test.

First, some background on the file that I used to perform this review, and how I got it imported into each of the services. My budget spreadsheet was originally done using an old version of Excel many, many years ago. When Apple's iWork Numbers came out, I converted it to that, and was mostly happy with it for many years. However, the lack of cloud accessibility and being locked into to OS X to use it, made me decide to try something different. So a few months ago I converted it to a Google Drive spreadsheet. Interestingly, I had to convert it to an excel spreadsheet first before importing it to Google Drive. For the past few months the spreadsheet has been performing fine in Google Drive, and I haven't had any issues accessing it wherever I needed to.

For this test I needed to get the spreadsheet back out of Google Drive and import it into SkyDrive and iCloud Numbers Beta. This posed my first challenge, as when I took the exported Excel document and tried to import it into SkyDrive I was told that the file was corrupt. After a bit of research I discovered the solution, which was to first open the exported spreadsheet in Excel on my desktop, which prompted me to "Repair" the file. Once the repair was done, SkyDrive and iCloud were both able to read it, and import it, just fine.

Google Drive

So the export issue is my first problem with Google Drive. The export to Excel can be somewhat flaky, causing the file to need to be repaired before it can be used on the desktop or other services. Despite needing to be 'repaired', the spreadsheet appeared to be complete and functional. So I'm not sure exactly what was fixed. 

Despite this issue, Google Drive is really the star of the show when it comes to online office suites. Google choose to forgo creating desktop versions of their suite, and instead focused on creating robust online applications. Spreadsheets is no exception. In my budget spreadsheet I was able to reference secondary sheets with ease, in exactly the same way I have done it with desktop clients (point-and-click). Formulas behave just like in Excel, including nested IF's. I didn't have a chance to test the limit of 7 nested IF's like in Excel, but I presume that they kept that limit in to preserve compatibility. 

Inserting a pie chart was straightforward, and I had a few different design options to choose from. I've also done various line graphs n other spreadsheets, and all of them have behaved properly. Because Drive exists only online, all the features to manipulate charts are available online. 

Formatting was functional, albeit simplified from desktop clients, but it gets the job mostly done. One issue I've had however, is that unlike in my Numbers spreadsheet, when typing a long string of text I can't get the text to flow over the next cell. Instead it gets cut off unless I merge the two cells into one. Not quite the ideal formatting I was looking for, but overall it's the only issue with formatting I've had. 

Overall, Google Drive spreadsheets perform as advertised, and are a very robust alternative to a desktop application. In addition, the live sharing capabilities of all the Drive products make this an incredible collaboration tool for teams of people working together. I've worked on many shared spreadsheets in Google Drive and the experience is exemplary. 

Microsoft SkyDrive

Next up is Microsoft's Excel web app that is included with SkyDrive. SkyDrive tries to maintain a similar look and feel as desktop Excel, and for the most part succeeds in 'looking the part'. Although it creates a familiarity for people who are used to working with the latest Office product, for people who may not like the large ribbon style menus at the top of their applications, it can be less than ideal.

From a functional standpoint, SkyDrive works as advertised. All of my formulas worked as expected, including across spreadsheets. However, you need to manually type in a reference to another sheet, you can't just click onto the other sheet and select the cell you want to use.

One unexpected bonus was that chart editing was quite full featured. I was able to do almost everything I've ever done in Excel with charts, within the web app. It also has some chart styles that Google Drive didn't have, such as Radar style. Manipulating the charts was easy and intuitive and operated just like Excel on the desktop.

Although sharing wasn't as full featured as Google Drive, it was functional and managed to get the job done. One thing that I missed from Google Drive was the ability to see which cell other people were manipulating in real time.

An additional bonus with SkyDrive is that any Office documents that are in your SkyDrive can be opened in either the web app, or in Excel, meaning you can work on a document using the desktop client, save it, then open it up on the web from another location and pick right back up where you left off. This is the type of integration that many people have been waiting for from Microsoft, and I'm happy to report it doesn't disappoint. Overall, if you're a big Office user, SkyDrive should probably fit the bill quite nicely for your online needs as well.

Apple iCloud iWork BETA

Although some might question including Apple's iCloud iWork BETA in this review, as it isn't fully released yet, I think it's important to see where Apple is in it's process. Realistically, Apple is way behind in this arena, and it needs to hit a home run with this release to catch up to Google and Microsoft.

So how does this first iteration hold up? Overall, not bad. iCloud Numbers was able to load up my spreadsheet just fine, and everything was displayed properly. All of my formulas worked as expected, and even my pie chart imported identically to the desktop version. I was able to work with the spreadsheet as normal, and didn't even encounter any bugs or crashes.

However, I did encounter a lot of missing functionality. I'm sure that many of these features will be addressed in coming beta versions, but I did want to highlight what you'll be missing if you try to use iWork Numbers right now. First, although the pie chart imported fine, it was not editable at all online. Second, the formatting of cells is limited; you can't change the background color of a cell for example. Third, as with SkyDrive, you need to enter references to other sheets manually, no clicking and selecting. Finally, something that is less a bug, and more a design issue, is that the sheet titles don't expand, so if you have a sheet with a long title it gets cut off and there's no way to see the full title. Sharing has also not been enabled in iWork online, and I'm doubting it will be anytime soon, since Apple hasn't really included any sharing features in other parts of their iCloud experience. 

Like SkyDrive, spreadsheets that are saved in iCloud will be accessible from your OS X desktop and can be opened by Numbers on your desktop or on your iOS device. This last piece is perhaps one of the strongest parts of Apple's offering, it's integration with their iPhone and iPad devices. The iWork apps on these devices are beautiful, and a joy to work with. Having an online component to them is a huge bonus. For people who are embedded in the Apple ecosystem, iCloud will allow you to get work done online, although not quite to the level of it's competitors. As a first start, it's impressive enough to keep me hopeful. 

Wrap up

Although I don't want to declare a "winner" for each of these segments, I do feel like I can say that Google Drive is the current front-runner of the pack for spreadsheets. Because it's completely focused on being online, it has to be fully functional online. SkyDrive and iCloud both have legacy desktop clients that they can ask users to fall back on for more complex operations if needed. Having said that however, even my complex budget spreadsheet was able to be handled by all the apps just fine with only small limitations. 


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