Microsoft Office compatibility
If you want the most Office compatibility of any of the big three online suites, of course, you'll end up with Office Online. Realize, though, that even Office Online has problems -- working with moderately complex docs can bring up big headaches, even in Microsoft's own product. Google Drive circumvents some of those problems by simply refusing to open docs it doesn't understand.
I tested each suite's capabilities with six real-world documents. For the word processors, there was 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 the spreadsheets, there was a big but simple XLS and a relatively complex one-page XLSX with a chart. Finally, I turned the presentation programs on a simple PPT file. All of the documents were collected "in the wild."
Opening the simple Word document in Google Docs brought something of a surprise. The Monotype Corsiva font was rendered perfectly onscreen in Google Docs, but Docs' font changing drop-down menu -- which normally shows the font name -- was blank for the Monotype Corsiva characters. Wingdings didn't make it through the transition; they disappeared completely. A spurious page number appeared in the header. Items inside tables could be edited, but the formula didn't work.
After changing a few words in the document and downloading, the retrieved DOCX file had one major problem: The Monotype Corsiva font, which rendered so well onscreen in Docs, was changed to Corsiva, and Word displayed a completely different font from the original. The formula in the table was gone as well. It seems that Google's font handling isn't as robust as it should be.
The DOCX with tracked changes fared better, with no problems in rendering. All of the tracked changes had been accepted, and the Calibri font stayed the Calibri font. I made changes to a couple of words, and the downloaded DOCX file worked just fine in Word. That was quite remarkable.
The four-page DOCX newsletter, which was composed almost entirely of simple text boxes and pasted photos, was a nonstarter. Every attempt to open it in Google Docs resulted in the message, "Sorry, an error occurred when opening this file. Please try again." Considering how badly Word Online mangled the same file, I figure that's a blessing.
The large but relatively simple XLS opened in Google Sheets with no problems. The formulas worked, and there were no spurious errors (unlike Numbers for iWork, which refused to subtract dates). Changes in cells updated very quickly -- as quickly as in desktop Excel. Downloading the resulting XLSX proved a very pleasant surprise -- the changes took, and everything else was pristine.
The more complex spreadsheet with chart didn't fare as well. Repeated attempts to open it resulted in the now familiar message: "Sorry, an error occurred when opening this file. Please try again." Apparently that's the message Google apps show whenever they can't render a file. The "Please try again" part seems like mockery.
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