Review: Google, Apple decent contenders to Office

Saturday - 8/31/2013, 4:02pm EDT

FILE - This file image provided by Microsoft shows the company's newer version of its Office software. The software became available to consumers as an online subscription service for the first time on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013. If you’re looking for syncing features in a word processing and spreadsheet package, Microsoft’s Office is the industry leader and a good option when you’re working with others. (AP Photo/Microsoft, File)

ANICK JESDANUN
AP Technology Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- Over the years, as I've added laptops, smartphones and tablet computers to the collection of desktop machines I use at home and work, it has become a chore to keep track of which files are where. Once I bring in friends and colleagues to collaborate on some of these documents, the task becomes downright painful.

Because my devices are all connected to the Internet in one way or another, I'm able to take advantage of syncing features that come with the leading word processing and spreadsheet packages. Microsoft's Office is the industry leader and a good option when you're working with others. The main drawback is the price -- $100 a year for up to five computers and five phones. Google and Apple have free or cheaper alternatives that may fit your needs better, but both have limitations.

Which one will work best for you? That depends on your sharing and syncing needs.

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WORKING ON ONE COMPUTER

The Office package, which includes Word for word processing, Excel for spreadsheets and PowerPoint for presentations, is an excellent option when you have to collaborate with a lot of people.

Like it or not, Office is what just about everyone else uses, and using it yourself will save you from headaches when exchanging files with others. Word and Excel are both packed with features, more than most people will ever need.

If you're working on only one computer, you probably don't need the $100-a-year subscription. For a one-time payment of $140, you can purchase and install Word, Excel and PowerPoint on a single Windows or Mac computer. Keep in mind, the Mac package was released in late 2010 and will likely get an update next year. A subscription gets you the update for no extra charge.

Office isn't a viable option if your computer is a tablet. The Office software can be installed only on Windows tablets -- not the more prevalent iPads or Android tablets. You can work with Word and Excel files on those devices using software made by other companies or Web-based apps made by Microsoft. But you'll be sacrificing the power of having Microsoft's software installed right on your device, and you'll need a continuous online connection with Microsoft's Web Apps.

In recent months, Microsoft has released versions of Office for the iPhone and Android phones, but functionality is limited. The apps are designed for viewing and light editing, not for complex spreadsheets. The apps come with the $100 annual subscription. There's no option to buy them outright with a one-time payment.

If you have a Mac, consider Apple's iWork package, which comprises of Pages for word processing, Numbers for spreadsheets and Keynote for presentations. Each app is $20, so you pay $60 for the package. Comparable apps are available for iPads and iPhones -- for $10 each, or $30 for the set.

The Apple package is cheaper than Microsoft's. It's not as rich on features as Office, but it has all the things most people need. It's also better at automatically saving interim revisions, in case you need to go back to an earlier draft.

The problem comes with sharing files. It's likely that the recipient of your file won't have Pages or Numbers to read it. Apple currently doesn't make the software for Windows or Android devices. You can export files to Microsoft and other formats, but that's an extra step to take, and you risk losing some of the formatting. Pages and Numbers are good primarily for Apple users who create documents only for themselves.

That said, Apple is releasing an online version of iWork this fall, opening it to Windows and Android users as long as they have continuous online connections. Apple hasn't announced details on pricing.

Google Docs is a package that works on any computer with a Web browser -- Windows, iPhones, iPads, Android and, of course, Google's own operating system for laptops, Chrome OS.

It's free, and there's no software to install -- everything runs on Google's servers over the Internet. Like iWork, interim revisions are automatically kept in case you need an old draft.

But Google Docs is short on features. It lacks the option to automatically hyphenate words at the end of a line, for instance. Spreadsheets are limited to 400,000 cells, compared with 17 billion for Office. Google Docs also needs a constant Internet connection to run smoothly. An offline app you can enable for Google's Chrome browser is more of a stopgap. There's no spellchecking until you are back online, for instance. (That said, the online version of iWork doesn't work offline at all, at least in its beta test form.)