Google is holding a "back-to-school" event today at its San Francisco office to introduce a set of new Google Docs tools specifically built with the classroom in mind -- though all Docs users will benefit from these changes. Some will only be appearing on Android, some will be in the desktop, and some will be hitting both, but regardless it should make life easier for Docs users. Google introduced six new features, including built-in Search for Docs on Android, voice typing, automatic chart creation for Sheets and more.
Research is what Google's calling the new search feature built right into Docs for Android. It exists on the desktop today as sort of a Google search sidebar, but it hasn't been available for mobile until now. Google wanted to make it easier for people to insert content they find on search into documents they're creating on mobile -- rather than jumping back and forth between Docs and search, you can now do it in a more efficient fashion in one app. It sounds like it'll be particularly useful when trying to insert images on mobile, but it should also make copying and pasting text quite a bit faster as well.
Gallery: New Google Docs, Sheets and Slides features | 7 Photos
On the desktop side, Google has added support for voice typing into Docs for Chrome -- there's a menu bar item that brings up a microphone, and from there you can just start dictating. In the demo we saw, it works nearly as fast as Google's excellent voice recognition features in search, and it's fortunately smart enough to know that when you say "comma" or "new paragraph," you're giving it formatting commands. Right now, that feature will only work in Docs, not in Sheets or Slides, and it only works if you're using the Chrome browser. But if you want to use it on mobile (either iOS or Android), you can use the built-in dictation features by hitting the microphone on the keyboard.
Another solid addition to the desktop experience for Docs is a "see new changes" feature, an update to the venerable "revision history" found in most word processors. With the "see new changes" button, you'll get a nice view of exactly what has changed since the last time you opened the document. You'll also see exactly which collaborators you're working with made the changes. It's not wildly different than the existing version history feature, but it should come in handy if you're working collaboratively and want to keep up with what gets updated while you're away.
The Sheets spreadsheet tool also received a major update called "explore." It's meant for helping you deal with large data sets more efficiently: When you click the "explore" button, Google automatically analyzes the spreadsheet and automatically builds some charts to help you visualize important parts of your data set. You can also selectively highlight certain parts of the spreadsheet, and the charts will update accordingly. The "explore" sidebar also runs quick analysis on the data it's displaying, telling you quick facts about the trends it sees. It's probably one of the smartest features Google announced today -- if you're not a numbers person but still need to deal with spreadsheets, this will definitely make your life easier.
Google also made a few small design changes: the Forms survey tool now features Material Design, like the rest of Google's Docs suite, and it features responsive design for the desktop and mobile. There are also a host of new templates for Docs, Sheets, and Slides on the desktop to help you jump right into document creation with a pre-formatted layout, something Office and iWork have had for years.
Teachers weren't forgotten here, either. Google's "Classroom" tool, which lets educators manage all the digital materials they submit to their students (and vice versa) got a small update as well. There's a new Chrome extension that lets a teacher push a web page right out to everyone in a class -- Google said the goal there is to keep teachers from having to dictate unruly URLs to a classroom full of students. It's a pretty specific feature, but it should make life easier for teachers.
As with most updates to products like Google Docs, none of these features are ground-breaking on their own. But on the whole, it shows a major commitment from Google to continue slowly evolving these tools from bare-bones document editors to full-featured competition for the dominant and entrenched Microsoft Office. The Research, Explore, and See New Changes features seem particularly useful, and by and large play to a lot of Google's strengths. At the end of the day, it's a better time than ever to use Google Docs -- particularly given its price. All of these new features will begin rolling out today.
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