Microsoft Office Web Apps: Limited, mediocre, dismal

Web-based editions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote are underwhelming at best

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Office Web Apps: Favorable first impressions
As mentioned earlier, the Web Apps are available for free to anyone with a Hotmail or Live.com account, via SkyDrive. Signing up for an account and accessing the Apps was easy enough, as was uploading and viewing files, but I found the SkyDrive UI to be somewhat inconsistent and occasionally confusing. For example, "Recent Documents on SkyDrive" showed documents I'd accessed recently, but not ones I'd uploaded recently. The View All link and the SkyDrive link both seemed to display the same files and folders, albeit with slightly different menus up top. Sometimes the File Properties view would allow me to scroll through files other than the current one and sometimes it wouldn't, depending on the context.

Nor was I particularly fond of the prominent advertising on the SkyDrive pages. Naturally Microsoft needs to pay for its free services, but this seemed to offer a mix between legitimate advertisers and the dregs of Web marketing, including dating services and garish, animated ads for online college degrees. Fortunately, there were no ads on the Office Web App pages themselves -- for now, at least.

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The Windows-like UI and prominent advertising will put off some users, but Windows SkyDrive and the Office Web Apps are available 100 percent free of charge.

Clicking on a file in SkyDrive revealed the same remarkable, faithful rendering of Office documents I saw in the prerelease versions. This is where the Office Web Apps really shine. Customers who lack software that supports the newer, XML-based Word, Excel, and PowerPoint file formats -- including Linux users -- can now use the Web apps to view and print those files with perfect fidelity, even when they include complex formatting.

Users of 64-bit Windows, however, will be frustrated by some shortcomings. Printing, which produces truly admirable output on 32-bit Windows, doesn't work from 32-bit browsers running on 64-bit Windows 7, presumably because of a mismatch with its 64-bit printer drivers. One work-around is to print from 64-bit IE8, but even that only produces a PDF file, rather than sending output directly to the printer. It's also a partial consolation, because other features, such as opening Word Web App files directly in Word 2010, seem to work from 32-bit browsers only. Printing from Firefox on Ubuntu Linux yielded a PDF as well.

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The Word Web App does a truly impressive job of rendering Word documents, even when fed a real torture test.
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