Working in Google Docs Keeps Getting Better

The past few months have seen a raft of features added to Google Docs. Here's a look at some of the most useful improvements

Google has been quietly adding a raft of new features to its Google Docs online office suite over the last few months, and there are rumors even more significant features are due very soon.

Here we take a look at some of the more interesting upgrades.

Fonts

Google Docs now features the Calibri, Consolas, and Cambria fonts found on Windows Vista and Windows 7, along with the Droid font set created for use on Android mobile phones. There's also a new cursive-style font called Corsiva. None of these fonts need to be installed on the user's system to appear in Google Docs; they're downloaded to the user's web browser as needed using Google's Font API (something that can be easily utilized on any website). Even more fonts are to come soon.

Drag and Drop

Users of Chrome, Firefox and Safari can now drag and drop files onto the file upload area of Google Docs. File upload, introduced early in 2010, lets you use your Docs space as a store for just about any file, with Microsoft Office documents being automatically converted to Google Docs format.

Additionally, you can drag and drop images into the browser window when editing documents for instant insertion at the cursor position, again provided that Chrome, Firefox, or Safari are in use. No Internet Explorer support? It's almost as if Google's trying to tell us something.

Automatic Substitution

I remember when autocorrect and autoformat came to Microsoft Word back in the 1990s. They were obvious but insanely useful features. Well, they're now part of Google Docs too. Type 3/4 and it'll be instantly converted to ¾ . Type (c) and it'll be converted to ©. You can create your own autocorrects too--click Tools --> Preferences, and enter it in the list. No more typing received without realizing!

Better Charts

Google Docs' charting feature has been massively overhauled and now features prettier graphics, an improved chart editor, and new types of charts that help visualize data across time periods, such as motion charts. Organizational charts are also now on offer.

Charts can also be published to the Web, so they can be viewed independently of the data. Any changes made to the data will instantly be reflected in the chart. Just select the chart you've created, click the menu at the top left of the frame, and select Publish Chart from the submenu. You'll then be given HTML code to insert into your Web page.

Maximize Screen Space

A common criticism of Google Docs, especially when it's being accessed on netbooks, is that it's wasteful with screen space. Above the document editing area there's a lot of empty space showing little more than the filename, for example.

This can all now be hidden, in two different ways: clicking View --> Compact Controls on the menu will simply hide the aforementioned white space, while clicking View --> Hide Controls will also get rid of the toolbar and menu (hitting Esc will return things to normal). The latter essentially dedicates the entire program window to editing, and can be combined with a browser's full-screen mode (usually View --> Full Screen on the browser's menu) to dedicate your computer's full screen to distraction-free editing.

Revision History

The capability to view revisions and revert to earlier drafts is an area where cloud-based office suites beat traditional software hands-down. Revision history in Google Docs has now been enhanced so that it's possible to view all previous document states. Essentially, it's like stepping back in time to see how the document looked at a previous time or date. Click File --> See Revision History to get started, although be aware this only works with more recent files you've created. Any old files that haven't been edited recently will probably have the same old revisions listing that doesn't offer this degree of functionality.

Connectors in Drawings

That Google Docs has a drawing application might come as a surprise to you, bearing in mind it was only added last year, but a key new feature introduced last month is the ability to link shapes using connector lines. That's to say that moving a shape will mean a line attached to it stretches so that it stays attached. This can make creating certain types of diagrams significantly easier.

Video Playback

Any video files you upload to your Google Docs space can now be played back within the browser. The same playback engine used in YouTube.com appears to be used. Up until now, Google Docs was limited to viewing business document formats.

New Features Yet to Come

As if all this wasn't enough, the unofficial Google Operating System blog claims to have unearthed some interesting forthcoming features via a comb-through of the Google Docs code.

For example, it's likely there will soon be a fully-featured media player that'll expand on the video player functionality. This comes as part of a new preview pane feature that'll probably display technical info about files, and possibly provide thumbnail previews. It seems you might even be able to create playlists from your uploaded media files.

Additionally, it appears an option will be added to open a file not just with the Google Docs apps but also with third party apps, potentially offered as part of the Google App Marketplace. Examples could include various Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) offerings.

Sync services are to come soon, too, which could address one of the outstanding failings of Google Docs: offline storage. Keeping a backup on your computer was once possible using Google Gears but this has been withdrawn in favor of functionality offered in HTML5. However, it hasn't yet arrived, and most users consider it essential.

All in all, if you haven't looked at Google Docs recently, it's definitely worth a look. Steady progress should mean it'll put up a strong fight when Microsoft's own cloud office offering, Office 365, arrives later this year.

Keir Thomas has been writing about computing since the last century, and more recently has written several best-selling books. You can learn more about him at http://keirthomas.com and his Twitter feed is @keirthomas.

This story, "Working in Google Docs Keeps Getting Better" was originally published by PCWorld.

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