There was once a time when the first piece of software most people installed on their PC was Microsoft Office. Without Word, Excel or PowerPoint, any kind of work-related tasks were practically non-starters. Simple jobs like keeping track of the family finances or writing documents to share with others became problematic if you strayed from the Microsoft path. Office still offers complexity and compatibility today, but other options have emerged, providing the bare essentials that most people actually use, yet for a fraction of the price. One of the most popular of this new breed is Google Docs, which has some rather nifty tricks up its virtual sleeves.

See also: Collaborate with Google Docs

Work offline with Google Docs

We say virtual because, like all things Google, Docs lives online. It’s a fully functional office suite with a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation package, plus specialised applications for creating forms, drawings, and tables. The best part is that it's free to use.

Google even stores your work on its servers (the cloud) so you can access your data from any computer with an internet connection. Due to its online nature, Docs is also an excellent option for collaborating with others on a document in real time without the complications of emailing versions back and forth. With Docs, you can create a document, either by uploading it from your hard drive or starting from a blank page directly in Google Docs, invite your collaborators, then watch as the changes happen in front of your eyes.

With the recent changes in its privacy policy, all Google's services work under a  single user ID. If you already use Google+, Gmail, Google Calendar, Picasa, or any of the other services, you’re already set up to use Docs. Otherwise you can create a free account and begin using the services immediately - just visit

If you're yet to dabble in the cloud, it can take a little while to get used to the idea of your data not being stored locally (although you can download anything you create) and raises the issues of security and confidentiality. Thankfully Google takes these things very seriously, due to its whole business relying on consumer trust. So as long as you keep your password safe and enable extra measures such as 2-step verification, then we think you’ll agree that Google Docs is rather splendid.

How to get started

1. Browse to the Google Docs website. If you already have a Google account, you can enter your usual credentials and you’ll be taken to the Docs home screen. Otherwise, create an account by clicking on the red Sign Up button.

 Google Docs

2. On the Docs home page click the red Create button on the left hand side of the screen to begin a document. A drop-down menu appears which allows you to choose the type of file: document, spreadsheet, presentation and more. 

 Create doc

3. You may already have a file on your hard drive that you want to use instead. If so, click the red Upload button next to Create to import it. Most common file formats are supported and there’s a useful feature to extract text from PDF files. You get 1GB of free storage space, but you can buy more if you need it.

 Import document

4. If you select a Word-style document then you’re presented with a clean white and grey page on which to type. The first thing to do is name your document by clicking on ‘Untitled document’ and entering something appropriate.

Save document  

5. The word processor may have a spartan look, but all the functions you'd expect - formatting, printing, tables and hyperlinks are available on the main toolbar. There’s also an Equation toolbar available for those who need it. 

 Toolbar functions

NEXT PAGE: Revision history, saving, printing and sharing docs