Google docs has been getting a string of updates over the last few months, from simple tweaks in the interface layout to moving from a document editing application to a cloud storage provider.
Their latest update, up for testing, completely revamps all their online document-editing tools, and adds a new application to the Google Docs package, a drawing editor. With the latest update, Google Docs gains much more powerful collaboration features, while enhancing support for formatting, and improving document import fidelity.
The long overdue revamp
If you use Google Docs coming from the Microsoft Office world, you are sure to find it woefully underpowered; it surely feels like taking a step backwards. The latest update begins to close the gap—which is still a few miles deep—by adding better formatting and layout tools.
Laying out content in Google Docs used to be an especially difficult task, and often required dabbling with the HTML code editor, and if you didn’t know HTML or CSS, you were out of luck. With the new tools added to Docs, laying out content is now incredibly easy.
Filing station: Google Docs is now closer to becoming a full-fledged Office suite. Imaging by Harish Rawat / Mint
First and foremost, what you notice is a new ruler tool at the top of the document. This now lets you modify the margins of your content on a paragraph or document level. You can easily select a portion of text and drag the margins to better lay out your text.
Of course, margins are useless unless you are working with a fixed document size. And this is another new addition to the document editor. A revamped “Print Settings” dialog will let you select a page size (Letter, A4...) from a list of very few—but popular—selections. Here you also have set orientation, margins and even auto-numbering of pages.
Other new formatting options include line and paragraph spacing, more list styles and a much easier-to-use table editor. Inserted images can now be more freely placed on the page with text flowing around it.
The spelling check is now also better integrated into the editor and spelling suggestions appear in the right click menu for incorrectly spelt words.
The new features take collaborative creation and editing of documents to a whole new level. Google Docs now offers the kind of collaborative editing features available in Google Wave.
For those who don’t know about the collaborative features Wave, here is a brief introduction. With Wave one can start a conversation which people can reply to in real time, or create a document which people can edit in real time. As you edit, each change you make is transmitted to the other person’s computer in real time. You can thus see the changes others are making to your document, or the replies they are sending to your messages in real time as they are being typed, character by character.
Now one can get exactly the same kind of feedback while using Google Docs, wherein you can see the changes others make racing across the screen, trailed by their name highlighted in a unique colour.
Commenting on documents in the new Google Docs is again much improved. Unlike the earlier system where comments were inserted in-line into the document text, now they are attached to text blocks and appear in floating boxes aside from the text. Another nice collaborative feature in Google Docs is that of an integrated chat panel which lets you converse with your fellow editors while working on a document.
Google recently acquired a small company which created EtherPad—an online document editor which provided real-time editing features such as those in the new Docs—with the intention of integrating them into the team working on Google Wave. It is clear that their talent has been put to good use.
Google Spreadsheets has had its own share of enhancements. For one, Google claims that they are much faster now, and working with large-sized spreadsheets should be a much better experience, with smoother scrolling and a more responsive interface.
Google Spreadsheets has seen a few more time-saving enhancements. Such as the ability to drag-drop entire columns—something which was earlier only possible by multiple copy-paste operations on columns—and auto-completion in spreadsheet cells. There have also been improvements to the way one can switch between sheets in Google Docs.
With the new version of spreadsheets, you can now edit the contents of a spreadsheet from the formula bar, much the same way you would in Excel. Google Docs spreadsheets already had a chat panel for communicating while editing, and had better collaboration features than documents; now it also has the same real-time features as those available for documents.
Adding some art
Google Docs earlier introduced a drawing feature for documents with which one could create diagrams/drawings for inclusion in a document. Now it has introduced a stand-alone drawing tool which packs in more features.
As with the other Google Docs applications, collaboration is a big part of the new drawing editor, and chatting functionality is in-built, as it is in the documents and spreadsheets editor.
The drawing editor packs quite a lot of tools and shapes to help you get started on creating drawings fast. However, it still lacks some important features, such as creating connecting lines between drawings (such that they always move together), and while it can export to SVG (scalable vector graphics), it doesn’t seem to be able to import SVG documents. Of course this is just the beginning, and like all other Google Docs tools it is sure to see its features improve over time.
The Google Docs Drawing editor uses the SVG standard for drawing shapes and can export the content you create to SVG or to raster formats such as PNG and JPG.
Google Docs now also features improved fidelity while importing document files, which is sure to ease transition for those still on the fence. With these new features you now have a much more usable document-creation experience online. No doubt this is because of Microsoft’s upcoming online office suite, which is sure to tout better compatibility with their own formats, although they too will not be offering the entire range of features available in their desktop suites. And understandably so.
These new features are now available to all for testing—yes, testing, this is just a preview—and can be enabled through the Google Docs settings page. Unfortunately the new editor is only available for new documents, and your old documents will continue to use the older editor. Google plans to rectify this over time.
That isn’t the only bad news. The new editor doesn’t bring some of the features found in the older one. It no longer gives you the option to edit the HTML and CSS formatting of your document, and now lacks the embeddable Google drawing editor.
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