Microsoft’s Office Online is a completely free, web-based version of Microsoft Office. This online office suite is clearly competing with Google Docs, but it’s also a potential replacement for the desktop version of Office.

We’ll compare Office Online to both the desktop version of Microsoft Office and Google Docs to see where it fits. Should you use Office Online instead of Office 2013 or Google Docs?

Office Online vs. Desktop Office

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Unlike all of Microsoft’s other Office products, Office Online at is completely free. This is Office Online’s biggest advantage over desktop versions of Microsoft Office. You can use it on all the PCs you want without paying for additional boxed copies or subscribing to Office 365, Microsoft’s subscription service for Office.

Becausee it’s a web application that runs in your browser, Office Online will run on everything, from Linux PCs and Chromebooks to iPads and Android tablets. It doesn’t require any special plug-in and works in any popular browser, including Firefox, Chrome, and Safari — not just Internet Explorer.

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Office Online saves your documents to your Microsoft OneDrive (formerly known as SkyDrive) storage online. You can use the OneDrive integration in Windows 8.1 or the OneDrive desktop application on previous versions of Windows to sync the documents you create to your computer, getting local copies in Microsoft Office format. Office 2013 saves your documents to OneDrive by default, so Office Online works well as a companion web application. Your documents may already be available in OneDrive.

The web-based version of Office also offers better collaboration features than the desktop-based version of Office does. For example, when you collaborate with other people in the desktop version of Word 2013, only one person can edit the same paragraph at a time. Word Online offers real-time editing that allows multiple people to edit the same paragraph at a time.

Office Online is more limited than Microsoft Office. Microsoft provides Word Online, Excel Online, PowerPoint Online, and OneNote Online. If you depend on other applications, like Microsoft Access, you’re out of luck.

These online applications are also simplified and stripped down. While they offer a similar interface to the desktop version of Office, complete with a ribbon, they have fewer features built in. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as most people don’t use all of the features available in the desktop Office apps. Want to do a mail merge or run macros? You can’t do that in Office Online, but you probably don’t need those features anyway.

Office Online also won’t work when you don’t have an Internet connection. If you want to edit documents offline, you’ll need the desktop version of Office.

Pros: Office Online is completely free, can easily be accessed from any device, and is better for real-time collaboration.

Cons: Office Online only provides a few popular Office applications, doesn’t have many of the more advanced features, and only works when you have an Internet connection.

Office Online vs. Google Docs

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Google Docs is Google’s free, web-based office suite. Office Online is Microsoft’s response to the rise of Google Docs.

Office Online and Google Docs are fairly similar at this point. Both are free, web-based applications you run in your browser. Both are simplified, stripped-down experiences that save your files to an online storage service — Microsoft OneDrive or Google Drive. Both have built-in real-time collaboration features. Both offer applications for creating documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. Google Docs also offers applications for creating forms and drawings, but Office Online offers a full-featured note-taking app in OneNote. Each has a few different features the other doesn’t have, but they’re very similar for average users.

Love it or hate it, Microsoft Office is still basically the standard when it comes to office suites. Office Online feels much more like Microsoft Office than Google Docs does — right down to the ribbon. More importantly, Office Online saves your documents in Microsoft Office file formats like .docx, .xlsx, and .pptx. Office Online should have better compatibility with Microsoft Office files. When you create a file in Office Online, it should look the same in the desktop version of Microsoft Office. Microsoft knows their own file formats, while Google Docs isn’t perfect at dealing with them.

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Google Docs works offline, but Office Online always requires an Internet connection. Despite Microsoft’s Scroogled advertisements, Google Docs has offline support while Office Online doesn’t. Google Docs is compelling if you want to use a free office suite offline as well as online — Microsoft would like you to pay for the desktop version if you’d like to occasionally use it offline.

Pros: Office Online offers native compatibility with Office document formats. It also has a more familiar interface if you’re used to modern, ribbonized versions of Office.

Cons: You can’t edit documents offline with Office Online.

So, should you use Office Online? Well, that’s up to you. If you’d like a completely free version of Office so you don’t have to pay Microsoft $9.99 a month, it’s a compelling option. On the other hand, you may need the more advanced features in the desktop version of Office. If you’re already using Google Docs, you may want to switch for the better office document compatibility — or you may want to start with Google Docs for the offline support. It’s up to you.

You should give the different applications here a spin and see which one is best for you. Some people need many of the advanced features in Office, while some people just need the basics.

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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