Hands on: The new Google Sheets is faster and slicker

Google's newest version of its spreadsheet cloud app handles big documents better and sports some useful data-filtering and presentation features

Each incremental improvement of Google Docs moves it that much closer to being a fair substitute for a desktop application. Granted, there's always going to be users with a need for a full-blown local copy of Microsoft Office or OpenOffice.org, but each time Google -- or even Microsoft -- revs its Web apps, it's impressive how much ground they're able to cover.

This week Google announced a revamped version of Google Sheets, its online spreadsheet tool. All the changes are incremental ones, but a few of them go a long way toward making Sheets far more useful. I gave the revamped Sheets a try using the latest edition of Google Chrome on my desktop

The first and most notable improvement is having Google Sheets work in the offline mode that Google has been slowly enabling more of its apps to work in. Offline mode is exactly what it sounds like -- you can edit documents in Google Docs without needing a network connection, provided Google Drive has synchronized a local copy of the document in question.

Note that offline mode isn't enabled by default -- you have to turn it on in both Drive and Google Chrome, and documents in Google Drive have to finish syncing completely before you can edit them offline. Once that's done, though, editing documents in Google Sheets is more or less indistinguishable from editing them live.

One complaint commonly thrown around about Google Sheets was how scrolling through documents got really slow for some people. The latest iteration of Sheets scrolls with a great deal less hesitation; scrolling through a 2500-row document was as fast as using a native application.

The "filter views" feature lets you create a filter on a datasheet and then save it for future use. This is handy if you want, for instance, to apply a non-destructive sort order to a spreadsheet, or if you want to screen out data. Applying filters doesn't slow down Sheets by any measureable amount, either.

When creating a function in a cell, Sheets now provides autosuggestions for how to use functions. For example, if you type =sum( to begin creating a summation formula, Sheets will hint that you need to select or type in a range. Range selection has also been improved a bit.

The "conditional formatting" feature lets you change the formatting of a cell if it meets certain stipulations -- for instance, any value over $500 could be marked in bold or with a red background. Conditions can also be stacked on cells so you don't have to settle for just one rule. In the same vein, dates, currency, and numbers can now be custom-formatted using special rules. Find and replace has also been improved; you can now use regular expressions with it, something that pushes Sheets that much closer to being a bulk data-processing tool.

Note that the new Sheets isn't automatically available; you have to manually enable it in your Google Drive settings. On the plus side, you can revert to the old Sheets if you don't like the changes, and any existing spreadsheets will still be backward-compatible for now.

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