As Google Docs demonstrates, the days are over when you could only write and do basic editing in a featureless text field (with tools for working with text that were primitive at best). Google Docs both handles the basics and offers powerful collaboration features that make it easy to work on documents with other people.

Google Docs, previously known as Google Docs and Spreadsheets, now adds presentation functionality. Click here for PC Advisor's full review.

See PC Advisor's Google Spreadsheets review. Click here for PC Advisor's Google Docs & Spreadsheets review

Using Google Docs

If you use Microsoft Word, Google Docs will feel familiar. Google Docs supports several fonts; multiple text sizes and colours; bulleted and numbered lists; adjustable alignment and indentation; graphics; tables; links; and more.

You can edit text in Google Docs by copying and pasting or by dragging and dropping, check spelling (in more than 30 languages), undo and redo multiple edits, and do most of the other things that you'd expect to do in a word processor.

Important features that you won't find in Google Docs include headers and footers, footnotes, text frames, tables of contents, cross-references, and a powerful find-and-replace feature.

Importing and exporting

Depending on what you need to do, Docs' lack of advanced text features might not be a problem. Its ability to work with Word, however, will probably be important. That's where the program's importing and exporting features come into play.

Google Docs lets you import Word documents (.doc), Rich Text files (.rtf), HTML files, plain-text files, and OpenDocument text files (.odt); each file can have a maximum size of 500K. To upload a file, go to the Google
Docs and Spreadsheets homepage
and click on the Upload link. Then click on Browse, locate the file on your hard drive, and click on Open. (If the file is already accessible on a web server, enter its URL instead). Click on the Upload File button. (Complex formatting may be lost when you do this.)

You can also email a file to your account. To do this, go to the Google
Docs and Spreadsheets homepage
, click on the Upload link, and copy the special email address shown there. Attach a supported file to a new message, and send the message to that address - the file will become a new Docs document. Alternatively, simply send an email with text in its body to that address; the text will become the new document, and the message's subject will become the file's name. (The email import feature tends to be flaky; your success may depend on which email application and ISP you use, among other factors.)

Files you edit in Google Docs are stored online in your Google Apps storage space. The system saves your work periodically, as well as whenever you click on the Save button. You can also save files to your PC in formats including Word, Rich Text, PDF and HTML. This makes it easy to create a local backup copy or share a file with someone who needs to edit it in Word. You can also print your documents directly from Google Docs. However, Docs offers no control over document attributes such as margins, paper size or page orientation.

Tracking revisions

When you're repeatedly revising a document - especially if you're working on a file with other people - it can be helpful to see what has changed from one version to the next, and who made the changes. Google Docs isn't compatible with Word's Track Changes feature. (If you import a Word document with tracked changes, all the text in the document - even text that was marked as deleted - shows up in Docs as regular text. Comments entered in Word don't appear at all.)

Instead, Google Docs takes a different approach. Every time your document is saved, manually or automatically, Docs stores a copy of that version. You can go back to any previous version and even compare two versions to see what the differences are. (This is similar to Word's Compare Documents feature.)

To work with revisions, click on the Revisions tab. Select a previous version of the file by choosing it from the pop-up Revision menu. The selected version will appear in the window. To continue using this version, click on Revert To This One, and click on okay when the confirmation alert appears. (You can go back to any of the other revisions later.)

To find out what changed between one version and another, click on the Compare Two Revisions link and select the versions to compare from the two pop-up menus. Text added to or deleted from the newer version appears in a colour that indicates who made the change.

Collaborating Docs really shines when several people need to work on the same document. Without Google Docs, you might end up emailing files back and forth numerous times - risking garbled attachments and version conflicts. With Docs, you can all edit the same document together online, thus avoiding those problems.

To grant other people permission to view or edit any document, click on the Collaborate tab, select As Collaborators (to give editing access) or As Viewers (to give read-only access), and enter one or more email addresses. Then click on Invite Collaborators, type a message (optional), and click on Send. Each collaborator will receive a message with that document's URL.

Although you can send these messages to any address, collaborators must have a Google account to log in and view or edit the document, and they must sign in using the address you sent the invitation to. The names of people viewing or editing the document appear at the bottom of the screen.

You can also publish your document so that even people without Google accounts can see it. Click on the Publish tab, click on Publish Document, and copy the URL. You can link to this URL from a website or email it to anyone who needs to see the document.