Google Spreadsheets is a free, web-based spreadsheet tool that does a surprisingly good job as a basic number cruncher, and the price is right – well, it’s free.
Google is accepting sign-ups to participate in a limited public beta test so you can sign up and try it yourself (www.google.com/googlespreadsheets/tour1.html). We didn’t expect to see many high-end spreadsheet features and Google Spreadsheets didn’t surprise us. There are no PivotTables, there’s no charting, and apart from sorting, you can’t do much with text. But there’s a lot more functionality than you might expect. The user interface, functions support, collaboration features and performance are all strengths.
You can use Google Spreadsheets to work with your pre-existing worksheets (either native Microsoft Office Excel .xls or comma-separated-value .csv files) by uploading them to Google Spreadsheets. You can also save a Google Spreadsheets worksheet to your hard drive and convert it to an .xls or .csv file –be prepared to lose some formatting, such as row height and column width, when saving to .xls format. You can also create an HTML file of your worksheet as a read-only file.
The files you create or import with Google Spreadsheets are automatically saved by default to Google’s server, though it’s easy to delete them there. Data files are not encrypted, though, which should give at least some users pause. Google offers encryption with some of its other user-data services, so perhaps this capability will be added later. Even if Google does eventually offer worksheet encryption, any notion of saving sensitive data to another company’s server via the internet is rarely a smart move. (This problem might potentially be offset if Google were to offer an enterprise product that ran on corporate intranets.)
There are some disappointing omissions though. For instance, you can change cell width and height by dragging cell borders, but you can’t double-click on a row/column border to automatically adjust the dimensions to the widest or tallest entry in the selected row or column. Another niggle is that it’s not possible to control the number of decimal points uniformly in a worksheet. Google Spreadsheets lets you format numbers in these settings: showing all digits to the right of the decimal point, showing two digits, or not showing the decimal point.
Sort it out
The Sort function does precisely what you’d expect. To sort a range of cells, highlight them, click on the appropriate button, and you’re done. Sorting in ascending or descending order is possible only on a single column; you can’t sort on Column A and within that by Column B. Likewise, you can’t sort by a custom order, such as a custom list of region or department names, as you can in Excel. Nevertheless, for everyday list management, Google Spreadsheets’ sorting feature is perfectly serviceable.
Most Excel functions are supported. To insert a function, click on the More text link to open a pop-up list of functions organised by type. The list of compatible functions is extensive (we counted 233), but that number is deceptive because it’s incomplete. For example, Excel has an hour function to extract the hour from a time field and even though Google Spreadsheets doesn’t list that function, it supports it. Likewise the NOW function isn’t listed but does work. If you were casually evaluating Google Spreadsheets, you might make the mistake of assuming it’s less powerful than it is. The biggest problem with composing formulas is that there’s no help available for the online spreadsheet’s functions. Hopefully, that will be remedied in later releases.
Unfortunately, one of the smartest features in Excel isn’t available in Google’s spreadsheet. Excel can fill a series of cells with values that increment automatically in a common way, for example: 6/10/2006, 6/11/2006, 6/12/2006. If you show Excel the initial progression between two cells and then drag the mouse to extend the cell range, it automatically populates all the cells in the range with consecutive dates. Google Spreadsheets doesn’t offer this feature.
In order to keep operations simple, Google Spreadsheets has omitted features that some Excel power users might desire. Google Spreadsheets is by no means an Excel killer – but no one expected it to be. If you’re a financial analyst responsible for consolidating large budget spreadsheets, you’re not going to adopt Google Spreadsheets. For simple maths or managing short household lists, though, it’s a perfectly fine, easy-to-use tool.