Review: Office Online is 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

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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 presentations
PowerPoint 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 is severely limited.

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