Microsoft recently launched Office 2013 as well as Office 365, a subscription service. Office 365 will cost you $9.99 per month or $99 a year, while Office 2013 will cost you $219.99 for the Home and Business edition, which can only be used on one PC at a time.

Before you open your wallet, take a step back and ask yourself whether you really need Microsoft Office. If you’re like most home users, students, and even many business users, you don’t really need Microsoft Office. There are high-quality office suites you can use instead.

Web-Based Office Suites Are Free

Google Docs is completely free. It can be used on as many devices as you want and even offers smartphone and tablet apps so you can quickly view your documents on a mobile device.

Microsoft also offers their own free Office Web Apps, which compete with Google Docs. Microsoft’s Office Web Apps are also completely free, requiring no subscription fee at all. You access Microsoft’s Office Web Apps in a browser, just as you do with Google Docs.

Faced with the prospect of paying hundreds of dollars every time Microsoft releases a new version of Office or spending $1000 over the next ten years on an Office 365 subscription, you should seriously consider whether one of these free office suites can suit your needs.

Do You Really Need Full Microsoft Office?

The full desktop version of Microsoft Office is packed with a huge amount of features, most of which you won’t find in Google Docs or even Microsoft’s Office Web Apps. If you’re writing a book and need to build an index using Microsoft Word, managing a complicated database with Microsoft Access, or using complicated macros in Microsoft Excel, these solutions aren’t going to cut it.

On the other hand, if you use your office suite to write up a standard Word documents, create simple presentations, or put together spreadsheets with formulas, Google Docs or Office Web Apps will work for you.

Google Docs can export your documents to Microsoft Office formats and to PDF files. Office Web Apps is created by Microsoft and should have excellent compatibility with Microsoft Office formats. You can even host your document online as a web page for easy sharing with others.

Advantages of a Web-Based Office Suite

In addition to being free, a web-based office suite is available anywhere and includes great collaboration features — both office suites allow people to work on the same document at the same time over the Internet. There’s no desktop software to install, so you can log into your browser and get started working on any PC without having to install a local office suite.

Your documents will always be in sync across whatever laptop and desktop computers you use — you can even access them from a smartphone or tablet. They’re stored online, so there’s a single master copy and you won’t lose them if your computer’s hard drive dies.

The lack of features in these office suites can even be an advantage. Google Docs and Office Web Apps offer simpler interfaces, making it easier to find the most important features you use.

What About Offline Support?

Whether your ISP is having trouble with your Internet connection, you’re on an airplane over the Atlantic, or you’re trying to get work done in a subway tunnel, having offline access to your office suite of choice can be critical.

Google Docs does offer offline support, although it only works in Google Chrome. If you use Google Chrome, you can enable offline access in Google Drive. You’ll be able to view, edit, and create documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and drawings offline. Your changes will be synchronized when you next connect to the Internet.

Microsoft’s Office Web Apps they don’t offer any offline functionality. To edit documents offline, you’ll need the full Microsoft Office suite for your desktop.

Google Docs vs. Office Web Apps

Google Docs was the trailblazer in web-based office suites. it still offers features Office Web Apps doesn’t, such as the ability to create, edit, and view your documents offline. It also automatically saves documents while you work on them, while Office Web Apps require you to save your documents manually. If you have a connection hiccup or your browser crashes, your document will be safe in Google Docs, while it may not be accessible in the Word web app. However, the Word web app does have a “document recovery” feature that may help.

Microsoft’s Office Web Apps followed later. Its interface is more familiar if you’re used to the ribbon interface in the recent versions of Microsoft Office.

One negative with Office Web Apps is that it offers buttons in its interface to open your documents in the desktop versions of Word, Excel, or PowerPoint. These buttons serve as an omnipresent reminder that you’re not using Microsoft’s preferred office experience, while Google Docs is Google’s main office suite. The Office Web Apps try to push you towards purchasing the full Microsoft Office.

Google Docs is accessible from Google Drive, while Office Web Apps integrates with Microsoft’s SkyDrive website. We’re most familiar with Google Docs and it’s the most mature option in many ways with offline support, automatic saving, and other features. Office Web Apps is still missing these important features, but if you love the Office ribbon interface and want the best compatibility with formatting in Microsoft Office file formats, you may prefer Office Web Apps. Feel free to give both a try.

Other Free Alternatives

Obviously, Google Docs and Office Web Apps aren’t the only alternatives to Microsoft Office. There are many alternatives, but we’ll mention two good ones you can download to your computer and use locally if you’d prefer a free local office suite.

  • LibreOffice: LibreOffice is an actively developed project based on OpenOffice. It’s a powerful office suite with a wide variety of features. It can’t match all of Microsoft Office’s features, but it’s more feature-complete than the web apps above. However, this also makes it more complicated than the web apps above.
  • Abiword: Abiword is a very simple word processing program that works well if all you do is write basic documents. It’s small, quick-to-download, and very lightweight.

Microsoft Office is the gold standard for office suites — we know that and aren’t going to argue. Office is the most powerful, feature-rich office suite out there. But most home users and students — and even many business users — don’t need the gold standard. They need something that does the basics well, and both Google Docs and Office Web Apps qualify. As free products, they’re a better option for many people than the full, paid Microsoft Office is.

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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