Google Spreadsheets will surprise you

Google Spreadsheets is a free, Web-based spreadsheet tool from Google that does a surprisingly good job as a basic number cruncher, and the price is right. Google began accepting sign-ups to participate in a limited public beta test earlier this week, so you can sign up and try it yourself.

I didn't expect to see high-end spreadsheet features. There are no PivotTables, there's no charting, and apart from sorting, you can't do much with text. But there's a lot more functionality than you might expect. Google Spreadsheets' user interface, functions support, collaboration features and performance are all strengths.

Where the files are

Files you create or import with Google Spreadsheets are automatically saved by default to Google's server, though it's easy to delete them there. Data files are not encrypted, though, which should give at least some users pause. Google offers encryption with some of its other user-data services, so perhaps this capability will be added later. But even if Google does eventually offer worksheet encryption, any notion of saving sensitive data to some other company's server via the Internet is rarely a smart move. (This problem might potentially be offset if Google were to offer an enterprise product that ran on corporate intranets.)

You can use Google Spreadsheets to work with your pre-existing worksheets (either native Microsoft Office Excel .xls or comma-separated-value .csv files) by uploading them to Google Spreadsheets. You can also save a Google Spreadsheets worksheet to your hard drive and convert it to an .xls or .csv file. Be prepared to lose some formatting, such as row height and column width, when saving to .xls format. You can also create an HTML file of your worksheet as a read-only file.

Every time you make a change, the Google server automatically updates the worksheet. While I experienced no serious lag, and you do have access to undo and redo buttons throughout the interface, this constant saving means you can't make a series of changes and then save the file in a particular state. Every time you make a change, your spreadsheet is saved, so "Wait, wait, wait, I want to go back to the last good version!" is not an option.

Regular use of Google Spreadsheets might tend to make spreadsheets smaller. By default, new worksheets are sized at 100 rows by 20 columns, and inserting large numbers of rows or columns is cumbersome. Although Google Spreadsheets can import existing worksheets with more rows, there are limits. You can work with up to 100 spreadsheets in all, each with up to 20 worksheet tabs, 50,000 cells, 256 columns or 10,000 rows, according to Google. If any worksheet exceeds any of these conditions, you're prevented from adding data to the spreadsheet. Your .xls and .csv files cannot exceed 400KB each.

The Format tab

Google Spreadsheets' interface is clean and simple. Standard drop-down menus, icons and buttons handle many common chores. Buttons control formatting choices, such as toggling between two or no decimal points, applying dollar or percent signs, aligning text and inserting rows and columns.

The main interface is divided into three tabs, Format, Sorting and Formulas. The Format tab is where you'll probably spend most of your time. I like the feedback and naming conventions given to user interface elements, particularly on the Format tab. For instance, when you select a cell range and press the Delete menu button, the online spreadsheet tool presents you with user-friendly, plain-English options that offer feedback about the range you selected, such as "Delete Rows 1-4," "Delete Columns G-H" or "Clear Selection." Likewise, select two cells and click the "Merge Across" button to merge the cells, or choose a merged range and click "Break Apart" to do the opposite, just as the button says. There are no cryptic icons to decipher.

Formatting is simple, direct and fast. You can format cells in any of seven font faces and 11 font sizes; make them bold, italic, and underlined; and wrap text within a cell. You can choose among 40 text and background colors, although there's no provision similar to Microsoft Office Excel's custom colors.

Google Spreadsheets provides good feedback in many places. When you select a range, the program initially turns the background of that cell range blue. When you perform an operation on the range, such as Copy, it temporarily changes the background to light red to let you know it recognized and is performing your command.

There are some disappointing omissions. For instance, you can change cell width and height by dragging cell borders, but you can't double-click on a row/column border to automatically adjust the dimension to the widest or tallest entry in the selected row or column. You also can't control the number of decimal points uniformly in a worksheet. Google Spreadsheets lets you format numbers in these settings: showing all digits to the right of the decimal point, showing two digits, or not showing the decimal point.

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