Google Docs and Sheets: A first look at the underpowered iOS apps

Two new competitors in the realm of productivity apps for iOS showed up on Wednesday in the form of Google Docs and Google Sheets. Docs is, of course, a word processing/page layout application that works like the web-based Google Docs, and Sheets is the equivalent of its web-based sibling. Both of the apps work both in sync with their online counterparts and offline, and Google's blog says that a presentation app -- Slides -- is on the way. Let's take a quick first look at both of the current apps:

Google Docs

Launching the Google Docs app, you're greeted with a login for your Google Drive account. Sign in, and a list of all current docs you have online appears. Either tap one of those existing docs to open it, or tap a plus sign button for a blank document.

And blank is what you get. A white page with no ruler (not that it's needed in this day and age), and a toolbar with some standard mundane formatting commands: fonts, bold, italics, underline, justification (left, center, right and fully justified), numbered/unnumbered lists, and indent/outdent.

If you're looking for full page layout capabilities as you see in Apple's own Pages or on the Web version of Docs, you're going to be disappointed because they're not here. On the other hand, if you're working on simple memos, letters, or notes, then Google Docs is probably up your alley. What's even better is that the app is targeted to those who want to collaborate on documents -- there's a comments button on the right side of the toolbar, along with a button showing who else is viewing the document.

To share your Google Doc, just save it with a tap on the "checkmark" button, and then tap the information icon to bring up a Details pane. From that pane, you can share the document, rename it, even get a link to send to others who you'd like to have download the document. Unlike Microsoft Office for iPad, Google Docs supported printing from day one. There's a toggle on the Details pane for keeping a local copy of the document, and a graphical indication of who is currently sharing the doc.

At least at this point, there's no way I could find to actually drop an image into a document -- c'mon, Google! Even the original MacWrite back in 1984 could handle copying an image and pasting it into a doc. In many iOS document apps, a tap-and-hold in a document brings up "paste" in a pop-up, or you can add an image directly by tapping a plus sign button and searching for an photo to paste in. Here? Nothing.

Google Docs is also missing most of the features I've come to know and love in Pages. Things like real-time spell checking, the ability to do actual page layouts? Not there.

If you're planning on writing a simple document and need to have others check or comment on your writing, then Google Docs is a workable alternative. Offline work can be immediately synced upon connecting to a network, and you can polish things drafted on an iPad or iPhone once you're using the online version of the app. The Web app is at least fully-functional and also has a variety of add-ons that you can use to make your document look beautiful and professional.

The bottom line: Google Docs for iOS is an excellent bare-bones text editor that syncs with the Web-based version and can be used to create rough drafts of work that will be finished in the online version.

Google Sheets

For spreadsheets, Google Sheets provides an on-device-synced-to-Google-Drive solution similar to Google Docs. And by that, I mean that it's a faint replica of the Google Sheets found online. In fact, Google Sheets is only usable for portable data entry. You can't do anything even remotely spreadsheet-like with the app except for entering numbers or text into cells.

Want to add a formula to a spreadsheet? You'd better know what the exact format for each function is, since Google Sheets for iOS has no way of inserting those formulas from a pop-up, nor does it give you hints when you're starting to enter a formula. At least Google Sheets has some of the collaborative tools of its Web-based sibling, so you can share documents with other or open and edit spreadsheets created online by others. But there's no way to leave a note for one of your collaborators as there is with Google Docs.

You can change the font, borders, and formatting of cells, but that's about it other than just entering data or hand-typing formulae into cells.

The bottom line: Google Sheets for iOS is a only good for doing basic data entry into existing spreadsheets that are created online with the Web-based version.


Both Google Sheets and Google Docs are very bare-bones and basic versions of what's available online. Rather than useful tools, both apps appear to be rushed-to-market responses to Microsoft Word and Excel for iOS. While Google Docs can at least be used to do drafts of documents and share them with other individuals while mobile, Google Sheets has nothing to commend it as a true spreadsheet other than the fact that it presents cells on a page.

Anyone who is looking at getting real work done on an iOS device at this point will be better served by Apple's Pages and Numbers (US$9.99 each, free to owners of new iOS devices) or Microsoft Word for iPad and Microsoft Excel for iPad (free, but requires an annual subscription to Office 365 at $75+ per year).