Microsoft Office Web Apps: Limited, mediocre, dismal

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

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Word Web App and Excel Web App: Mixed results
Viewing and printing documents are all well and good, but the real test of any Web-based app suite is how it handles document creation and editing. The prerelease versions of the Office Web Apps could only edit Excel documents, so I was eager to see how the other Apps would hold up. Unfortunately, the results were very mixed.

The Word viewer handled my complicated test document flawlessly, but the browser-based editor fell far short of the mark. First it wouldn't open my document because I had used Word's Track Changes and Comments features while editing it. No problem; I opened the document in Word 2010, removed the offending portions, and tried again. This time it worked, but the document I saw in the editor looked almost nothing like the one I had uploaded. An error message warned me that it was a "complex document" -- guilty as charged -- and advised me to edit it in Word 2010.

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Complex documents that look great in Word Web App's viewer mode show their true colors in the editor. Good luck making sense of this mess, but Microsoft offers a suggestion: Open it in Word 2010.

On the other hand, the Word Web App editor handled less-complex documents fairly well. Text looked close to how it looked in the original files, and there were even tools for working with tables and some limited image editing capabilities. Disappointingly, however, styles and formatting that were visible in the online viewer disappeared in the editor, although making basic text changes didn't seem to corrupt any formatting when I re-opened the same file in Word later.

Editing was also a little cumbersome. Page margins always extended to the width of the browser window, for example, and text rewrapped whenever I resized the window. Text selection seemed rather slow and clumsy, even by normal browser standards. My overall impression was that this was a clever, Web-based text editor -- which of course it is. Still, the Word branding had me expecting something closer to a real word processor.

Excel has arguably received the most attention from the Office Web Apps team, having been the first one made available to reviewers. The final version worked much like that earlier preview -- and that's not entirely a good thing. Similar to the Word Web App, it worked well for simple spreadsheets, but by the same token, its shortcomings were glaring. It was able to display files that contained shapes, objects, or VBA macros to a limited degree, but it couldn't edit them. Likewise, while embedded graphs would update when I changed data, there was no way to create new graphs from within the browser. And forget about pivot tables or other advanced features. In a nutshell, while Excel Web App will keep a basic ledger just fine, if you've grown even a little bit creative with your Excel workbooks, don't expect much.

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Changing data in Excel spreadsheets updates the corresponding graphs automatically in Excel Web App. They look great, but don't bother looking for a button to create them: You can't.
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