Google Drive, and the apps in it — Docs, Sheets, and Slides — are great for people looking for a simple office suite. It's free, makes collaboration easy, and almost anyone can use it. But if you're used to something more traditional, like Microsoft Office, you may be hesitant to try Drive. Here's how to make Google Drive work more like the desktop suites you're used to.
Why Google Drive?
Don't get us wrong: full office suites are ideal for many tasks, and offer a much wider range of features. But many of us don't need those features on a daily basis.
The more features exist, the more confusing a program gets, and while software like Word is great, it's also sometimes slow and hard to use if you just want to sit down and make something. More importantly, Google Drive actually makes certain tasks easier than a desktop office suite. Collaboration with large groups is significantly easier with Google Drive. Sharing documents doesn't require special software just to open, and you can access all your documents from anywhere on just about any device with an internet connection. What it lacks in power features it makes up for usability.
Google Drive definitely lacks some features people need from an office suite. But with some slight tweaking, you can make Google Drive do just about everything a common user could want.
Learn The Basics Of What Google Drive Can (and Can't) Do
Google Drive encompasses a lot of different services, but the three apps it has which compete with desktop office suites are Docs (word processing), Sheets (spreadsheets), and Slides (presentations). Let's take a look at the more important features of Google's suite and how it relates to most desktop office suites:
- Google Drive can open and edit Microsoft Office documents
- Google Drive saves 30 days' worth of versions of a document so you can go back and look at previous edits. That also means if you can restore an earlier version if you overwrite something important.
- Google Docs offers a large number of templates, just like Office, for things such as resumes and budget planners.
- Google Docs features collaboration tools and notation options, but you'll need an add-on to get something closer to Word's "Track Changes" feature.
- Like Office, Google Drive supports add-ons for additional functionality
- Google Docs' research tool makes it easy to store your notes and other research documents.
- All Google Drive's files autosave to your Google Drive account so you can access them from any computer, phone or tablet, any time.
- Google Sheets supports basic formatting, formula editing, templates, spreadsheet functions and filter views.
- Google Slides doesn't have as many snazzy animation features as Powerpoint, but its simplicity means anyone can build a good presentation in just a few minutes.
Google Drive has plenty of other features, but the above covers the bulk of functionality that crosses over between a desktop suite and Google Drive. Now, let's look at extending that functionality to make Google Drive useable by small businesses, writers, students, and anyone else looking to ditch their desktop suite.
Take Google Drive Offline
At first glance, it seems like Google Drive is online only. After all, it's a web app, right? But you can use all the apps in Google Drive offline, just like a desktop office suite, if you set it up ahead of time. All you need is Google Chrome. Here's how to set it up:
- Go to drive.google.com in Chrome.
- Click "More" and select "Offline".
- Click the "Get the App" button to head to the Chrome Web Store and download the Google Drive app.
- Once it's installed, click the Drive icon and then the "Enable Offline" button.
To get the most out of this feature, you should enable offline mode on all the computers you work on. Now, the files you're working on will get synced to Google Drive, and you can work on them regardless of whether you have an internet connection or not. If you want a more traditional style folder access and local versions of your files, the Google Drive app makes it a little easier to access your files from your desktop.
Use Add-Ons In Google Docs
Google Docs doesn't have the broad feature set of something like Microsoft Word. And for the most part, that's OK. But for the specific features you do want, the recently introduced add-ons to Google Docs and Sheets makes it possible to add more advanced functionality. Here are just a few example of some of the more useful add-ons currently available:
- Table of Contents: As the name implies, this add-on gives you a basic Table of Contents. Like the table of contents in Word, it's created dynamically as you type and add new sections. It's not quite as robust as the one in Word and probably won't work for your PhD thesis, but it provides an easy way to access various parts of a document.
- EasyBib: Bibliographies are always a pain to type, but office suites made that a little easier by providing a simple way to add in sources without worrying about formatting. EasyBib does the same for Google Docs.
- Track Changes: Word's real killer feature in collaboration is its Track Changes feature. This add-on brings similar functionality into Google Docs.
- Easy Header and Footer: Google Docs doesn't have an easy way to manage your headers and footers on the page like Word does. This add-on makes it slightly less painful by letting you bring in formatting from another document.
- Consistency Checker: Word's consistency checker is helpful for large documents where you need to make sure you're not accidentally changing formatting. This add-on makes that possible in Docs.
- DocumentMerge: Word's document merge is one of its most powerful features; this add-on offers a similar service for Google Docs.
- Thesaurus: If you're not a fan of opening up a whole new tab to hunt for synonyms, this add-on brings a Thesaurus right into Docs.
Use Add-Ons In Google Sheets
Like Google Docs, Google Sheets has a lot of add-ons that bring in new functionality. Most of these can't get you up to a powerhouse like Excel. Stil, combined with a basic understanding of formulas, they will get you close enough if you only use spreadsheets for specific tasks:
- Styles: Styles adds in the styling ability of Excel for when you want to make those spreadsheets more exciting than a series of black and white boxes.
- Merge Values: It sounds boring, but Sheets was missing this pretty common spreadsheet function, so it's nice that this add-on makes it possible.
- Advanced Find and Replace: Sheets has a simple find and replace function, but this add-on brings it more in line with Excel's.
- More Fonts: As the name implies, this gives you access to a much larger library of fonts in Google Sheets.
- Template Gallery: For those of us who aren't spreadsheet wizards, templates can make our lives a lot easier. While Sheets has its own set of templates, this add-on brings in a stack more.
Sheets still has a long way to go before it can even come close to replacing desktop spreadsheet program for businesses. That said, if you're just logging expenses, managing mailing lists, or tracking anything else in your life, Sheets does its job well.
Add Custom Functionality With Scripts
The add-ons and basic feature set of Google Drive are great, but if you really want to dig deeper you'll need to try out Google Apps Scripts. These scripts enable you to add just about any feature you could imagine to Google Docs and Sheets. They're similar to Office's Macros. These include simple functions like adding macros to much more complicated actions like converting a Google Doc to Markdown.
You can browse scripts made by other people and add them into Sheets so you don't need to learn programming yourself. A lot of these scripts are moving over to add-ons, but they're still pretty useful as they are:
- Remove duplicate rows: Why this basic function is missing in Sheets is beyond us, but this script adds it in.
- Add reminders to a spreadsheet: Spreadsheets are easy to forget about; this script makes it possible to add little reminders into them.
- Merge spreadsheets into Google Docs or PDFs: Done with your spreadsheet? This script merges it into a Doc or PDF.
- Schedule email messages: This script allows you to write an email in Gmail and use a Google Sheet to trigger when it sends.
- Convert between units: Excel's convert function is excellent; this script makes most of that possible inside of Sheets.
If you use a desktop program like Excel for a specific function that Sheets or Docs can't handle, someone probably made a script that will add that functionality in. Obviously it won't always be the case, but it's worth looking for if you only have a couple of specific functions tying you down to your desktop software.
Familiarise Yourself With Google Slides
Google Slides is the presentation software component of Google Drive. Unlike Docs and Sheets, you can't really extend the power of Slides much (yet). That said, it still has a rich feature that most of us can use to make a good presentation, especially since most of PowerPoint's features do more harm than good anyway.
The real trick with Google Slides is to familiarise yourself with how it works and get used to the themes. Once you finish a presentation, you can export it in a bunch of formats — including PowerPoint — so you'll be able to run that presentation on any computer you run into (you can also publish it online to make your life easier). You have a lot of options for free and cheap PowerPoint alternatives, but Google Slides gets the job done well enough for most of us.