Have you been thinking of reassessing which word processor your business should standardize on? The obvious choices are the two best known: Microsoft Word or Google Docs. But which is better?
Several years ago, the answer to that would have been easy: Microsoft Word for its better editing, formatting and markup tools; Google Docs for its better collaboration. But both applications have been radically updated since then. With Office 2016, introduced in September 2015, Word was given live collaboration tools. And Google has been adding more sophisticated formatting, editing, and markup features to Docs.
To find out which word processor is now better for which tasks, I’ve done the tech version of a taste test. I compared Google Docs and Microsoft Word by using them to perform basic, everyday tasks, including starting a new document from a template, changing fonts, copying and pasting, using templates, inserting charts, doing online research, and more.
Then I began by creating a typical business report and did some text formatting, chose new styles, copied and pasted text, and performed similar tasks.
Given that it’s a multiplatform world, I worked on the same document on multiple platforms: a Windows PC, a Mac, an Android tablet, an iPad and an iPhone. I used both the local client and the online version of Word (Google Docs, of course, are only web-based). Then I saved the report in a variety of file formats.
To keep things simple, the descriptions that follow are all based on the version of Word 2016 that is part of Microsoft Office 365, used on a Windows PC. Some of the features may appear differently on a Mac.
And before I forget — there is one glaring difference between the two that should be mentioned: price. Google Docs is, of course, free. Microsoft Word is available as part of Microsoft Office, which has a variety of different iterations for personal or business use, and is also available as either an annual subscription or a one-time purchase.
And, of course, there are a number of plans for business that have per-seat annual licensing fees.
How you present something visually can have as much of an impact as the content of the report itself. So I started by looking for a visually compelling template to base the report on. Then I tested text-handling and other common features you’d use to write a report.
Word shines when it comes to its choice of templates. I chose File > New, and was immediately shown 25 templates for reports, calendars, flyers, and more.
However, only three of those were for reports, which isn’t a particularly impressive number. So I turned to Microsoft’s online template repository by typing “report” at the top of the template page. And hit the jackpot: 96 different templates in a wide variety of designs and styles for many different types of reports. I could choose from annual reports, employee status reports, client satisfaction survey reports, and more.
When I clicked any template, I got more details about it, including its purpose and what it’s ideally suited for. All I had to do was download, save, and name it, and I had a well-designed template for the report, ready to go.
As mentioned before, I wanted something visually compelling, so I chose one that already had graphics in it. I figured I could always delete the default graphics and replace them with ones I could find online. Besides a nice design and graphics placeholders, the template I selected included other extras as well, including a pre-built table of contents that included links to each of the report’s sections (labeled Head 1, Head 2, and so on). When I renamed each of those sections, that text flowed back into the table of contents automatically.
I decided to change fonts and text attributes as well. It was easy: I just chose them from the Ribbon’s Home tab. It was just as simple to customize paragraph styles, including alignment, spacing, and so on. The same held true for bulleted and numbered lists.
Word’s themes (found on the Design tab) are also straightforward to use. Themes let you apply pre-created collections of text and paragraph attributes to an entire document, including titles, body text, and headings. Hover your mouse over any theme, and the document you’re working on will show a preview of what it would look like if the theme were applied to it. Click the theme to apply it to the document.
When it comes to copying and pasting text, Word’s smart paste feature may be its biggest unsung productivity enhancer. You paste text from another source, you can then choose to keep the text formatting from the source. Use the formatting in your current document, or combine the two using the “Merge formatting” choice. Then you merge formatting, it uses most of your current document’s format, but retains important formatting from the source, such as an embedded web link.
Word has another extremely useful feature for formatting text: Highlight text you want to format and a mini-menu appears that lets you change attributes such as font, size, weight and color; you can also turn the selection into a bulleted or numbered list, or apply styles to it.
It’s simple to create a new document from a template in Google Docs, but I didn’t find the same wealth of templates that I did in Microsoft Word.
After logging in, you start a new document by clicking on a blank template or one of the pre-created templates at the top of the screen. There is initially a handful of templates to choose from; when I clicked More, I found about three dozen in several categories, including Resumes, Letters, Education, and Work.
The choice was underwhelming. While Microsoft Word had 96 templates for creating reports, Google Docs had only four — and all were in the Education template section. The designs themselves tend to be bare-boned, without sophisticated layouts or interactive tables of contents, such as the ones Word has. Google Docs simply can’t compete with Word when it comes to pre-built templates.
On the other hand, it’s easy to use the menu across the top of the screen to perform tasks such as text handling, creating bullets, and changing fonts and font sizes. It’s also quite simple to use the Insert menu to add a variety of objects, including images, links, equations, lines, special characters, headers, footers, and more.
But don’t expect anything more sophisticated than that. Google Docs doesn’t have Word’s built-in themes, there’s no mini-menu for handling text and formatting, and there’s no smart paste feature, either.
Microsoft Word has a much better selection of templates than Google Docs and its templates are far more sophisticated. Word also has better tools for formatting text and changing document styles. If you care about how a document looks, Word is clearly the way to go. Google Docs generally creates plain-looking documents and lacks any but the most basic tools for dressing up or inserting text.
What’s a report without a chart? Pretty boring and often not very informative. So I tested how easy or hard it is to create and insert a chart into a business report.
Word makes it exceedingly simple to create a chart. From the Ribbon, I chose Insert > Chart, and selected the type of chart I wanted to create. I was able to pick just about any chart type — in addition to the usual (such as column, line, pie, bar, area, and histogram), I found a host of others that were a bit more esoteric, like waterfall, funnel, and box and whisker.
Depending on the type of chart, you may get more than one possibility. For example, you can choose from five different types of pie charts, four types of stock charts, and six types of line charts. I’m a big fan of 3D pie charts, so that’s what I used for the report.
Just as I inserted the chart, a kind of mini-spreadsheet appeared into which I could input the data. When I was done, I clicked the chart itself to make the spreadsheet go away so that it was not visible in the document. To edit the data again, I just had to click the chart and, from the menu that appeared, select Edit data > Edit data.
It takes very little work to change the layout and style of charts, or to make other edits — for example, deciding which elements to include or exclude. You click in the chart and a small set of four icons appear to the right of the chart. One lets you change the way the chart is laid out in the text, so you can customize how text wraps around it. A second lets you select which chart elements to include — the chart title, data labels, and legend. The third lets you change the colors and the chart style — for example, whether a pie chart should be 3D, have cutaway pieces, and so on. And the fourth handles which chart values to show.
You can right-click the chart for even more options, such as adding new data labels or changing the chart type.
As with Word, it’s a breeze to insert a chart in Google Docs: Select Insert > Chart and choose a chart type (bar, column, line, or pie); a basic chart of that type — with sample data — will then be inserted into the document. You then input your own data by clicking an “Open in Sheets” icon, which opens a new browser tab with the sample data and chart in a Google Sheets (Google’s spreadsheet app). Go back to your original document, where you’ll find a new Update button. Click that, and any changes you made in the Sheets document will be reflected in the Docs chart.
I found that having to switch between browser tabs and click an update button was a clunkier method than Word’s, where everything is done right within the document itself. Also problematic is that, in order to edit the chart title, legend, and so on, you have to go to the spreadsheet tab — you can’t do it from within the chart itself.
When you first create a chart in Google Docs, you get a choice of only a few bar, column, line, and pie charts. But if you edit the chart in the separate spreadsheet tab, you get a larger selection, including a scatter chart, histogram, area chart, combo chart and stepped area chart. Again, though, if you want to see how that new chart type looks in the report itself, you’ll have to go back to the report tab and click update. For me, this is all unnecessarily confusing.
As for differing styles of chart types — for example, if you want to create a 3D pie chart — you can’t do it. You get only a single design and layout for each chart type: Bland, vanilla, and — there’s no other way to say this– just plain boring.
That being said, there are some good things about the way Docs handles charts. Wrapping text around a chart is straightforward: Click the chart and choose “Wrap text” from the menu that appears at the bottom of the chart. And if you’ve already created a chart in Google Sheets, it’s easy to insert it into your document. Select Insert > Chart > From Sheets and you’ll be able to browse to the Google Sheet where you want to insert a chart and then insert it.
Microsoft Word is a clear winner here. You get a far larger selection of chart styles, it’s easier to make them look good, and it’s far less awkward to input data than in Google Docs.
Contributing Editor, Computerworld | Dec 6, 2016 3:00 AM PT[ Further reading: Windows 10 annoyances and solutions ]