Microsoft Word vs. Google Docs: Which works better for business?

Has Docs caught up to Word as an enterprise productivity application? We compare the two word processors to see which wins in today's online environment

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Tracking changes in a document

Nothing is perfect the first time around—and most companies like to track the changes that are made using what are called review features. We tested the review functionality—markup, commenting, etc.—of Word and Google Docs.

Microsoft Word

Microsoft Word’s extensive review features have been considered the gold standard for years—and with good reason. To begin with, Review has its own tab on the Ribbon.

To put a document in mark-up mode, you select Review > Track Changes. At that point, every edit someone makes to the document will be visible, with deletions marked as strikethroughs, additions marked in colored text, and comments appearing in a pane on the right-hand side of the screen. Each edit carries the name of the person doing the editing. You can also opt to have the various edits labeled on the right side of the document instead of within the text, if you wish.

word markup

Microsoft Word’s extensive review features have been considered the gold standard for years—and with good reason.

When going over other people’s edits, you can choose to see all changes, some changes (for example, you can decide not to see formatting changes), or none at all. You can easily accept or reject individual changes by right-clicking on each change; there is also an icon in the Ribbon that lets you cycle through all the changes—or you can decide to simply accept or reject all at once. Even if you’ve never used markup before, you’ll find it easy to do.

One of the nicer features is that, by right-clicking on a comment, you can reply to that comment directly inside it (creating a thread of comments) or mark it as Done. The comment will still exist, so you can revisit it if you want, but it’ll be grayed out, so that you know it no longer requires attention.

We found Simple Markup mode particularly useful. When you turn on Simple Markup, you’ll see a vertical line in the margin where any revisions were made, but you won’t see the markup itself. That makes it easy to read a revised document—you know where edits have happened without having to see all the markups. To see the edits, click the line.

In sharing my document for editing, we found an underused feature especially helpful—the Protect group on the Review tab. It lets you control the kind of editing that other people can do to the document—for example, if there’s a section you don’t want touched at all, or certain markup features you want turned off.

Select an area of the document and select Block Authors, and no one except the document creator can make edits there until the feature is turned off. With the Restrict Editing feature, you can also make a document read-only, or only allow certain kinds of edits—for example, allow only comments but not edits, or edits but not comments, and so on.

If you’re on a corporate network, you’ll can also set this on a user-by-user basis—a very useful feature that Microsoft should make available to individual users, not just corporate ones.

Google Docs

Surprise: Google Docs’ editing and markup features are excellent and give Word’s a run for its money.

To use markup, you put the document into Suggesting mode by clicking the Editing button on the upper right of the screen and selecting Suggesting. At that point, edits are tracked—each user is assigned a color, and deletions (shown as strikethroughs), additions, and comments are all in that color.

docs track changes

Google Docs’ editing and markup features are excellent and give Word’s a run for its money.

Edits are displayed not just inline, but on the right-hand side of the screen, making it easy to see what edits have been made. (In Word, edits show up either inline or on the right-hand side of the screen, but not both.) Comments are shown only on the right. To accept a comment, click a check mark. To reject it, click an X. You can also comment on the individual edit—that way, you can have ongoing conversations about edits until they’re resolved.

You share a document for editing in the same way you share for collaboration—by clicking the Share button on the upper right of the screen, then typing in the email addresses of people with whom you want to share the document.

All this is to the good, but Google Docs lacks some of the fine-grained editing features offered by Word. For example, although you can give other users edit or read access, you can’t get more granular than that—for example, you can’t block parts of the document, as you can with Word.

Very useful, though, is a somewhat hidden feature that lets you revert to a previous version of a document. Select File > See revision history and a pane appears on the right side of the screen that shows each time you or others worked on the document. Click any instance on the list and you’ll see the edits made during that session, as well as the names of the people who edited it. If you prefer that version to your current version, click Restore this version, and you’ll revert to it. You can easily undo that reversion by going back to your revision history, and restoring from there.

Bottom line

Google Docs has done a lot to catch up with Word’s editing and markup features—but it hasn’t quite gotten there yet. Although the revision history capability is a useful one, Docs still lacks some of the fine-grain controls that Word offers. If you don’t need that amount of control over editing, though, the two are about equal.

Working on different platforms

We live in a multi-platform world, in which people frequently have several devices on which they work, including Windows PCs, Macs, tablets and smartphones. So we tested working on the report in Microsoft Word and Google Docs on multiple devices, including an iPad and Android tablet.

Microsoft Word

Once upon a time, Microsoft largely ignored the Mac version of Office, letting it languish while lavishing development time on the Windows version. There was also very little enthusiasm for developing Office for non-Windows mobile devices—probably in the hopes of giving a boost to Windows Phone and its Surface tablet.

Those days are gone. Microsoft has considerably beefed up Office for the Mac, and offers full versions of Office for iOS and Android tablets and phones.

The Mac version, Office 2016 for Mac, looks and works very much like the Windows version. It sports the same Ribbon-focused interface, with the same tabs (minus the File tab—those features are available via keyboard combinations or by clicking on a folder icon just above the Ribbon on the left-hand side of the screen).

(For a full review of Office 2016 for Mac, check out Review: Office 2016 for Mac offers a new interface and better features.)

Because of the similarities, we could move seamlessly between the Windows and Mac versions while working on the same report. Text and paragraph handling, inserting photos, changing layouts and styles, collaborating live, commenting and editing, and seeing others’ edits and comments worked identically. However, the menus and ribbon are slightly different, so you will have to get used to a slightly different interface on each.

ipad word

The iPad version of Word has a layout that mimics the Windows and Mac versions. 

We also tested the iPad and iPhone versions of Word. Both apps are exemplary—in particular, the iPad version. Its layout mimics the Windows and Mac versions, with six tabs across the top: Home, Insert, Draw, Layout, Review, and View. The features on the tabs mimic the equivalent ones on Windows PCs and Macs, although not all of the features are available. The Home tab, for example, has icons for text handling, including creating bullets and lists, and changing fonts and font attributes, but it lacks more advanced features such as paragraph styles.

The document, when viewed on a tablet, looks like it does on the Mac and Windows PC, keeping the same fonts, layouts, graphics, and so on. It also lets you see all the edits, comments, and markups; and you can collaborate on a document in the same way as you do on a Mac and Windows PC.

The iPhone version doesn’t have the same rich feature set as the iPad version, given the small screen size and small virtual keyboard on a phone, so you don’t get the depth of text-editing and other features. However, it does a very nice job of accommodating for the iPhone’s form factor. Icons across the top give you fast access to changing fonts and attributes, searching, saving, and searching. There’s also an icon for switching to a mobile view that fits your document on the screen. You can view markup and edits others have done, mark it up yourself, make changes, and so on. Collaboration also works.

Somewhat confusing is that the equivalent of tabs in other versions of Office are hidden. To get to them on the iPhone, you have to click the font-handling icon at the top of the screen, and then tap the upper leftmost item from the menu that appears at the bottom of the screen, labeled Home.

Although all mobile versions allow you to read and edit Office files, you don’t get access to all features such as tracking changes unless you get an Office 365 subscription.

Finally, we tested the Android tablet version of Word, which looks and works much like the iPad version, but with one additional feature—besides the Home, Insert, Draw, Layout, Review, and View tabs on the Ribbon, it has a File tab as well, similar to the File tab on the PC version. As with the PC version, you can open and create files from here. You can also see the version history of a file you’re working on (a feature which isn’t available in the PC version), print, share a file, and change Word settings. However, unlike the PC version, you can’t export the file to a different format or manage your Office account.

Aside from that, the Android tablet version is essentially the same as the iPad version. As with that version, you don’t get access to all features such as tracking changes unless you get an Office 365 subscription.

Google Docs

Google Docs is web-based, and so working with it on the Mac is no different than working with it on a Windows PC. However, there are Google Docs apps for Android and iOS tablets. We tested the iOS and Android versions of those apps by reading and working on the report.

ipad docs

The iOS version of Docs can be initial confusing.

The tablet and phone versions of the Google Docs app for iOS are identical, and both display the reports accurately, including graphics, layouts, and charts. The only difference is that for larger text such as on the front page of my report, some text on the phone version had to be displayed on three lines rather than two.

At first I found the iOS app confusing—even just for something as simple as adding text, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, depending on where you are in the document. When you’re on the first page of a document, an Edit icon appears at the bottom right of the screen. Tap it and the keyboard appears, and you’re put into edit mode. You can then add text and make edits to the document. At the top of the screen you’ll find icons for common text-handling tasks, such as making text larger and smaller, making it boldface or italic, and so on.

But if you’re not on the first page of a document—and you haven’t started editing the document—there’s no Edit icon. However, you can double tap anywhere on the screen to put yourself in Edit mode.

To access the app’s features, you use a menu which you get to by tapping the three vertical buttons on the upper right of the screen. It gives you options such as find and replace, put the document in outline form, do a print preview, and share the document with others.

We were able to use the app to collaborate in real time the same way I could using the web version. But it has a serious shortcoming for working with others: You can’t track changes to a document, or see edits and comments other people have made, unless the file is in Word’s .DOCX format, In that case, you can tap the menu button and select “Track changes.” This is an odd decision on Google’s part, given that Word is Google Doc’s main competitor.

The Android tablet version is essentially identical to the iPad version. We found only very small differences. For example, the iPad version has a Print Preview feature, which the Android version lacks, and the Android version has spellchecking, which the iPad version doesn’t have.

Bottom line

Word’s design and features are mirrored most closely among all its platforms—the tablet and phone versions look much like the Windows and Mac client versions. With Google Docs, the web version has a different look and feel than the tablet and phone versions, so you need to get used to two different interfaces.

Working on the web

Microsoft Word is a client that lives on a Windows PC or a Mac, rather than a web-based application like Google Docs. But there’s also a free web version of Word, so that you can work with Word documents online without having to install the client. We tried it out to see if it can compete with Google as a no-cost web-based resource.

Microsoft Word

We found the web version of Word to be fine for editing in a pinch. It looks much like the Windows version, with a Ribbon on top that has File, Home, Insert, Page Layout, Review, and View tabs.

word online

The web version of Word is fine for editing in a pinch, but doesn’t have all the features of the “real” version.

Unfortunately, it’s far inferior to the “real” Windows version and doesn’t have nearly the same depth of features. For example, the Page Layout tab has only the most rudimentary of tools for margins, orientation, size, indenting, and spacing; it also lacks text-wrapping features and other advanced capabilities. I didn’t need mail merge or reference tools such as footnotes, but if you do, you’re in trouble, because the Mailings and References tabs are missing from the web version.

It also lacks of markup capabilities—you can make and share comments, but you can’t create edit markups. You also can’t accept or reject markups that others have done.

Another drawback is that you can’t edit or create .RTF files in the online version of Word, although you can handle .DOCX, .DOC, .DOTX .DOCM, .DOTM, .DOT, .ODT, and .PDF files. And you can open only files that you’ve stored in OneDrive or Dropbox, which some people will find annoying.

Bottom line

The web-based version of Word doesn’t come close to having the full feature set of Google Docs. Its rudimentary formatting tools, lack of advanced features such as wrapping text, and lack of markup tools means that if you’re looking for a web-based word processor, Google Docs is the way to go.

Handling file formats

Word’s .DOC and .DOCX file formats remain the standard for word-processing files. But they’re not the standards to which everyone adheres.

In today’s world, it’s important to be able to handle the widest variety of formats possible. So we tested which file formats Microsoft Word and Google Docs can handle.

Microsoft Word

Besides its native formats, Word handles a variety of others as well. You can also save your document using .PDF, .RTF, .HTML,.HTML-related formats including XML, and the .ODT open-document format.

When you save a document to another format, you want to also retain its attributes—such as wrapping text around a photo. When I saved my report to .RTF, .PDF, and .ODT, Word worked without a hitch. Graphics, text wrapping, and charts all displayed exactly as they had in the original report.

Google Docs

Google handles a variety of formats nicely, including .DOCX, .RTF, and .PDF. It won’t save to .DOC, however. On the other hand, it offers some tricks that Word can’t match, such as saving a document in ePUB format, an open standard that allows documents to be read on phones, tablets, and e-readers.

Docs has one more nifty trick: You can publish a document as a webpage. While Word lets you save files in ready-to-publish HTML formats, Docs goes beyond that and does the actual creation of the page on the web, and gives you a link to it that you can share with others.

Google Docs also does a good job when importing files from .DOC and .DOCX formats. We uploaded.DOC and .DOCX files to my Google Drive, and was able to edit them in Docs, with formatting and layout retained.

Bottom line

Both Microsoft Word and Google Docs do an excellent job of handling a variety of file formats. For publishing to the web and in ebook format, you’ll want to use Docs.


So which of these two well-known word processors is better for creating reports and similar documents? As always, it all depends what your needs are.

If you’re looking for the greatest selection of templates, the best design tools, the most variety when it comes to creating charts, and the best text-handling and layout capabilities, there’s no doubt about it: Word is the winner.

When it comes to working with others, however, Google Docs has the slight edge. Word’s markup and commenting features are slightly better, but when it comes to live, Internet-based collaboration, Google Docs makes the process much simpler by a mile.

As for everything else, it’s a toss-up. Both word processors work well on multiple devices and both can handle a variety of file formats, although if you want to publish to the Web or as an ebook, Docs is superior.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld and the author of more than 45 books, including Windows 8 Hacks (O’Reilly, 2012) and How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

Gabe Gralla is a freelance web developer and tech consultant. He works with a wide variety of clients, ranging from the startup world to the enterprise.

This story, "Microsoft Word vs. Google Docs: Which works better for business?" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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