Office Online review: Great for Word and Excel, not PowerPoint

Word Online and Excel Online are surprisingly capable, but PowerPoint Online and Office document compatibility are still half-baked

This is the first in a series of three reviews covering the major online productivity apps: Microsoft Office Online, Apple iWork for iCloud, and Google Drive (aka Google Docs or Google Apps). We'll wrap up the series with a detailed comparison, but, in the meantime, I won't leave you hanging: There's no standout "best" online suite. Each has something compelling to offer, but none emerges as the clear winner.

Office Online leads in Office document compatibility -- no surprise there -- but, even in that department, it still has a long way to go. Office Online and Google Drive lead in raw word-processing and spreadsheet features, but iWork's elegant and cohesive design runs rings around the other two. As for presentations, iWork takes the prize. PowerPoint Online looks like something the cat dragged in.

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Before February 2014, "Office Online" was the name of the website Microsoft used as a repository for templates, clip art, and other helpful adjuncts to Microsoft Office. Now "Office Online" refers to a collection of apps that run in a browser. These include Word Online, Excel Online, PowerPoint Online, and a few others -- Outlook.com, Calendar, OneNote Online, and a social-networking hub called People -- that I won't be examining here. In this review, I'll focus exclusively on the three main productivity apps -- Word Online, Excel Online, and PowerPoint Online -- and how well they play with their counterparts on the Windows desktop.

Office Online works with any recent version of Internet Explorer, 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 that allow them to use the Office Online apps for business or commercial purposes or in organizations.

It should come as no surprise that if you absolutely require 100% compatibility with traditional Office documents, Office Online is a far better choice than either Google Drive or Apple iWork for iCloud. However, it may surprise you that even Office Online occasionally mangles even simple Office docs.

Familiar looksAs you might expect, Office Online takes its visual cues from Microsoft Office 2013, with the Ribbon flying in full force (see Figure 1). Opinions about the Ribbon run the gamut, but it works reasonably well in Office Online, even if it steals a fair amount of screen space. (Those of you with Office for iPad might want to take a look at how that version accomplishes basically the same thing in considerably less space.)

To edit an existing document in Office Online, you must first upload it to Microsoft's OneDrive, the online storage glue that binds together the Office Online apps. OneDrive works much as Google Drive does, integrating itself into Windows Explorer/File Explorer. (OneDrive integration is built into Windows 8.1. For previous versions of Windows, and for the Mac, you download and install a free app that syncs between your computer and OneDrive.) As with Google Drive, OneDrive lets you set up folders and manage them easily and do all the things you would expect a cloud-based file manager to do: upload, download, rename, copy, delete, and share files.

The only irritating hang-up comes when you want to open a file inside Word Online or PowerPoint Online. To do so, you have to double-click on the file inside OneDrive and then in a separate step choose Edit Document, then Edit in Word Online (see Figure 2) or Edit in PowerPoint Online. For some reason, Excel Online doesn't require this additional step.

If you're using Windows 8 or Office 2013, you've already been nudged to death to use OneDrive as your default data storage location. Microsoft, of course, is trying to get you to move everything to its service -- an irritating, frustrating propensity that InfoWorld's J. Peter Bruzzese talked about last week. If you want to use Office Online with Dropbox or Box, with your non-OneDrive corporate servers, or even with your own hard drive, you're in for a very difficult time.

Printing in the Office Online apps is easy but not nearly as powerful as in Google Docs. In an Office Online app, choose File > ;Print, and the app generates a PDF. Then, with a click, you can open the generated PDF in your browser's PDF viewer and use the browser to print it. Not elegant, but it works.

Microsoft was late to the collaboration game, incorporating color-coded cursor indicators for each collaborator and real-time updates only this past November. For typical online collaboration, Office Online, Google Drive, and Apple iWork are strikingly similar.

Worthy word processingMicrosoft Word Online has the most complete feature set of the three online word processors. It offers extensive font formatting, a significant selection of predefined paragraph styles, and extensive manual paragraph-formatting options. There's excellent support for tables, including easy styles, color, and shading. Hyperlinks are easy. Headers, footers, page numbers, and footnotes all work as expected.

That said, you won't mistake Word Online for its desktop counterpart -- plenty is missing. Existing styles can't be changed inside Word Online. There's no support for mathematical functions in tables. No text boxes or shapes are available. If you open a document containing text boxes, shapes, SmartArt, and the like, you can see the objects, but you can't move them, resize them, or edit the contents. You can scale pictures, but you can't drag and drop them, crop them, or attach captions to them. Macros don't work in Word Online. Linked and embedded pictures and ActiveX controls appear as placeholders, but you can't do anything with them except delete them.

Autocorrect -- changing "adn" to "and," for example -- happens whether you want it or not, although you can undo individual changes with Ctrl+Z. You can see tracked changes inside a document that's created with a different version of Word, but you can't track changes inside Word Online itself, nor can you accept or reject changes.

Figure 1: Although Word Online has fewer menu items than Word 2013, it clearly shows its allegiance to the Ribbon faithful.

In the latest version of Word Online, Find and Replace both work quite well, with only a few minor differences with desktop Word. (For example, searching for "^p" in desktop Word will match a paragraph mark, but it won't in Word Online.) Word Online shows red squiggly underlines for misspelled words but doesn't (yet) have the ability to do grammar checking. There's good footnote and endnote support. Document margins can be set easily. Thankfully, Word Online doesn't automatically convert website URLs or email addresses to hotlinks, so you can type "www.infoworld.com" without fear of Word automatically making it blue and underlined. Nor does Word Online automatically superscript ordinals -- for example, changing "1st" to "1st." Someone in Redmond is listening.

Word Online doesn't have the desktop edition's Navigation pane, so working with large documents is a pain. There are no rulers, horizontal or vertical. You can't create bookmarks or cross references, set up columns, or set global hyphenation rules. There's no autocreation of tables of contents, no envelope generation, and no mail merge. Word Online doesn't have a zoom, nor does it display multiple pages or allow you to view two parts of a document at the same time (split). Presumably, the browser should do some of that for you.

Word Online will open PDF files -- and will convert a PDF to .docx with varying degrees of success -- but to create a PDF file, you have to "print" your document and retrieve it from OneDrive. When you edit a .doc file in Word Online, it's converted to .docx before editing begins.

Surprisingly, Word Online won't open password-protected documents, but Apple's Pages for iCloud will.

If you're accustomed to working with Word 2013, Word Online will make you feel right at home. Putting together a fancy document can be challenging. The inability to create styles, switch on the Navigation pane, review tracked changes, or add items to the spelling dictionary may drive you up a wall. The lack of macros may be a showstopper for some of you. But, for most everyday use, Word Online will suffice. And the .docx files generated by Word Online come through with nary a hiccup in the desktop versions of Word.

Strong spreadsheetsMicrosoft's Excel Online borrows all the desktop Excel cell-formatting and -calculation capabilities you would expect, including almost allthe functions you know and love, although the results of some functions may be slightly different in Excel Online (for example, CHAR for nonprinting characters in Excel Online returns a blank; INFO in Excel gives the current path, but in Excel Online it returns #VALUE!).

Excel Online includes the ability to merge cells, for text to spill over into adjacent cells, and to put borders around cells. There's Ctrl+drag to autofill. There's no conditional formatting, no paste transpose. But you do get Freeze Panes, autocomplete (when you type part of a cell value that's appeared before), hyperlinks, sparklines, and drop-down data-entry lists. Tables come through fine, too, with column headers, total rows, and the like.

With a few complex exceptions, charts in Excel Online match those in the desktop version, as do PivotTables and PivotCharts. Excel Online won't update external references -- that is, cell references to other worksheets stored in OneDrive. Any ActiveX controls, old-fashioned macros, XML smart tags, or shapes inserted using other versions of Excel will prevent you from opening the workbook in Excel Online.

Excel Online won't open workbooks that are password-protected, although it will show protected worksheets. When you open an .xls file, it's automatically converted to .xlsx.

Figure 2: Opening a Word document for editing in Word Online is a two-step process. First you open the doc in Word Online -- that puts it in viewing mode -- then you choose Edit Document > Edit in Word Online.

In short, Excel Online covers all the bases -- including, notably, Pivot Tables and Pivot Charts -- that experienced desktop Excel users are likely to need, although the lack of shapes may be a problem for some workbooks, and the lack of macros may be a showstopper. As with Word Online, if you work with password-protected documents, Excel Online won't even open them.

Preposterous presentationsPowerPoint Online is undoubtedly the weakest of all the Office Online programs. You can edit only in Editing View. There's no equivalent to desktop PowerPoint's Outline Master or Slide Sorter views. Your presenter notes won't help much -- PowerPoint Online has no Presenter View either.

Video and audio can't be inserted into a slide using PowerPoint Online, although shapes, text boxes, and SmartArt are supported. If you have a presentation created with the desktop version of PowerPoint, and it has video or sound on a slide, playing a previously embedded clip requires Silverlight. Playing a clip linked from a website requires Flash. (This means they won't work on mobile browsers.) Trying to play a previously embedded video file larger than 50MB or a WAV file larger than 100KB in PowerPoint Online can cause headaches.

You can't paste pictures into slides that have been copied from other presentations or applications. There's no Find/Replace, very few animation effects, and only fade and wipe transitions. You can embed hyperlinks in text, but you can't hyperlink on pictures or shapes. You can insert tables, but you can't edit them. You can't insert charts or equations. And I crashed the bloody thing, over and over again.

PowerPoint Online might be useful for creating a very simple presentation or sketching one to be fleshed out when you get to a real version of PowerPoint. I wouldn't trust PowerPoint Online for editing an existing presentation -- too many bugs, too many crashes. Compared to Word Online and Excel Online, PowerPoint Online seems severely limited.

Microsoft Office compatibilityYou would expect that Office Online would handle Office documents properly, wouldn't you? To find out whether it does, I exposed it to six real-world documents. For Word Online, my test included a simple .doc with a weird font and a table with a simple formula; a .docx with tracked changes; and a four-page, 65MB .docx newsletter created by an everyday Word user, packed with text boxes and graphics. For Excel Online, I tried a big but simple .xls and a relatively complex one-page .xlsx with a chart. Finally, I exposed PowerPoint Online to a simple .ppt. All the documents were collected "in the wild."

The simple .doc opened in Word Online without incident. The document looked good, although the Wingdings were replaced with grayed-out fields marked "[Symbol]." The formula didn't work, but it had a gray background, presumably in warning. I made a few changes, then right-clicked on the file in OneDrive and chose Open in Word. I was greeted with a cheerful warning that "[s]ome files can harm your computer. If the file information below looks suspicious, or you do not fully trust the source, do not open the file."

With a sense of fear and trepidation, I opened the file. My Wingdings were back. The field inside the table was grayed out, and it hadn't been recalculated. I right-clicked inside the formula and chose Update Field, and everything was hunky-dory.

The tracked-changes .docx also opened without a hitch. All the tracked changes had been accepted. I made a few changes, waited for Word Online to sync with OneDrive, and then opened the file in Word. Not only had the old tracked changes returned, but the changes I made while in Word Online also were tracked. The document worked perfectly. Score two for the home team.

Figure 3: When Word Online finally opened a trimmed-down version of the newsletter, it looked like this.

The four-page newsletter presented quite a challenge, however. Initially opening the document -- into view mode -- took more than 10 minutes. Once it was open, trying to edit the document (Edit Document/Edit in Word Online) left me with the error message, "Sorry, Word Online can't open this document because it's too big."

To give Word Online another try, I went into the newsletter and deleted the last two pages -- which consisted entirely of photos and text boxes -- slimming the 65MB .docx down to 37MB. When it was opened in Word Online -- this was only in preview -- I came up with the mess you see in Figure 3.

I didn't try to edit or save the garbled newsletter to see if it would stand up to a round trip. Surprisingly, the document appeared identically in Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer.

The long-but-simple .xls opened fine for viewing in Excel Online, but trying to edit the workbook brought another error message: "We couldn't open this workbook because it contains macros, which we can't show in the browser."

The more complex .xlsx wouldn't open either: "We're sorry. We can't open the workbook in the browser because it uses these unsupported features: Workbook encryption. Do you want to open the file in Excel instead?" This is the same workbook that opened easily in Apple's Numbers for iCloud.

Finally, the simple PowerPoint presentation would not open correctly in PowerPoint Online either. Opening for edit in PowerPoint Online dropped a graphic, replacing it with a big black box. Fortunately, the slide show progressed properly, with transitions and automations intact. When I changed a few words and opened the PowerPoint Online-modified file in desktop PowerPoint, the graphic disappeared, but everything else worked correctly.

Office productivity online? If you think Microsoft's Office Online will let you view and edit Office docs with nary a hiccup, you're wrong. Although simple Office documents can go through a round trip to Office Online and escape without much trouble, even moderately complicated documents can end up in shreds. The technology just isn't there yet.

If your needs are modest and you don't rely on PowerPoint much, Office Online may be all the productivity software you need. Word Online has many of the features everyday users might want, and Excel Online's capabilities come even closer to those of the desktop version -- to a first approximation, anyway.

Creating simple documents in Word Online or Excel Online works very well indeed. Simple documents, so long as they remain simple, can be opened and edited in both the desktop and online versions of Office. No problems at all. You should expect problems, though, when you bring an even moderately complex document from Office on the desktop into Office Online. Presentations are a lost cause.

For most individuals, and for many organizations, Word Online and Excel Online offer a great deal of capability for an unbeatable price. Let's hope that, with time, PowerPoint Online will catch up -- and that Microsoft may see fit to loosen the ties to OneDrive.

This story, "Review: Office Online is great for Word and Excel, not PowerPoint," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in Windows, applications, and cloud computing at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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This story, "Office Online review: Great for Word and Excel, not PowerPoint" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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