Approaching the Fork: Part 5. Free Options for Editing MS Word Documents Online

Are you fed up forking out for a commercial OS, OS updates, and office software? Well, in this series of posts, I’m considering whether I can move away from Windows 7 in the future. So far, things look promising, especially with the explosion of the Android platform and with viable Linux desktop options. As I’ve discussed before,  one thing holding me back is that I need to be able to edit MS Word documents for clients – you may be in the same boat. In an earlier part in this series, I looked at open source software OpenOffice and LibreOffice from one aspect –  editing documents with tracked changes. I ran a test on these two packages to see whether I could:

  1. Open a MS Word doc file with tracked changes in the file and with tracked changes turned on
  2. Edit it adding further tracked changes and comments in OpenOffice or LibreOffice
  3. Save it in MS Word doc format
  4. Open it in MS Word to see if all the tracked changes and comments had been preserved through the process.

In that first test, OpenOffice was just slightly better as LibreOffice introduced some minor formatting errors, but both did a pretty good job.

So what about other free options online for editing MS Word documents? Well as you may know, there have been some developments from Google Drive recently with add-ons to allow, among other things, tracked changes in Google Docs.  Microsoft have also renamed its Microsoft Web Apps to Office Online so I wanted to check that out as well. As I go, I’ll try and walk you through using Google Drive and Office Online. I hadn’t used either before so if you have some comments or tips or if you feel I missed something important, please drop a comment at the bottom and I’ll update the post.  On the other hand, if you want to skip the detail, you’ll find a short summary of my results at the bottom of the post. For fairness, I’ll be using the same starting Word doc file that I used to evaluate tracked changes in OpenOffice and LibreOffice.

Google Drive

If you don’t mind relying even more heavily on Google and allowing them access to more of your data, then this may be an option for editing Word doc files with tracked changes. Obviously, you’ll need a (free) Google account to access Google Drive. Once you upload a MS Word doc file from your PC to Google Drive you can view it, but to open/edit it, you must open it with Google Docs. Right click on the MS Word doc file you want to open and chose open with Google Docs.

Google Drive1

Now, if you want to track changes made to the Google Docs file, you first have to install the Track Changes Add-on. Navigate to Add-ons and select Get add-ons. Then look for the Track Changes add-on and install it.

Google Drive2

 

The first thing I noticed was that some tracked changes that I had already made previously in MS Word didn’t come across into the Google Doc file. For example, deleted and inserted text were not highlighted as tracked changes as they were in LibreOffice and OpenOffice. Comments made in Word did come across but the commenter name was shown as ‘null’ and the comment insertion point was missing. Again, LibreOffice and OpenOffice did this perfectly, so that’s not a good start.

I then made the same tracked changes in the Google Doc file as I had made in the LibreOffice and OpenOffice files. On the Track Changes menu, I had to click Highlight my new changes before I started. When I deleted words in the Google Docs file they only showed in the separate track changes window not in the main document. However, tracked insertions did show up with a purple background in the main editing window. I later discovered that I could actually see the revision history including the comments made in Google docs and all tracked insertions and deletions. You get there by clicking File, See revision history.

Google Drive3

Another minor failing for me was that tracked changes were labelled with my Google username. No chance of selecting another user or commenter name as you can in MS Word, OpenOffice and LibreOffice, so this may be a disadvantage for a freelance worker who may want to use a trading or business name for comments and changes.

I also discovered I should have renamed the file before I started because all changes were automatically added to the original Google Docs file, not what I’m used to in MS Word. I then downloaded the file to my PC. To do this go to File, Download as, Microsoft Word (.docx).

When I opened the file in MS Word and showed Markup, this is what I saw:

Google Drive4

The original tracked changes in Word had disappeared in the journey to Google Docs and back, and the tracked text deleted and comment added in Google Docs had also disappeared. All I had was the tracked inserted text shown with the purple background and the original comments in Word but now with the commenter name replaced by ‘null’. So, all in all, a much poorer result than with OpenOffice or LibreOffice.

Office Online

Office Online is free to use at the moment. The only proviso is that you must have a (free) Microsoft OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive) online account as you have to access and edit your MS Word doc files from there. So I uploaded my original Word file with some tracked changes already made in Word, and tracked changes were turned on. Then, click on the file and it opens in the Word Online viewer. Now, to edit the file, click on Edit Document, Edit in Word Online

Word Online1

I found that the tracked inserted and deleted text in the original file were not highlighted in Word Online, and comment insertion points were not highlighted, although this time Word Online had got the commenter name right from the original file. Track Changes was still marked as ON at the bottom of the editing window. I didn’t see any way to turn tracked changes off and on from within Word Online.

There is a review section on the menu, but this only allows Comments to be inserted. So I made my standard editing changes as before. The username for comments was Guest. That could probably be changed if I knew how. Again, as I found with Google Docs, all the changes had already been made to the original file, but the original file was saved in the version history. That’s something I’ll have to get used to. Save the file with a new name before you start editing it online. So I downloaded the edited file from Word Online and found that all the changes made in Word Online had been tracked even though I couldn’t see the tracked changes when editing online!

Word-Word Online-Word

So, apart from the Guest username in the comments, all the tracked changes made in the original Word file and then in the Word Online editing had been faithfully carried back through to the file when reopened in MS Word on my PC.

Summary

I’ve looked at two free online alternatives for editing MS Word documents with tracked changes – Google Drive and Word Online. Perhaps not surprisingly, Google Drive didn’t perform as well as Word Online in my test. I found that, with Word Online, I could open a simple Word doc file with tracked changes and with tracked changes turned on, edit it in Word Online, and download it to my PC and still see all the tracked changes from the original Word file and from the editing in Word Online. The only downsides were that I couldn’t see how to set the username in Word Online, there seemed to be no option to turn tracked changes on or off in Word Online, and I couldn’t view the tracked changes in Word Online (but they were there!).

But for me, from every free option I’ve looked at so far, I’d put Word Online slightly behind OpenOffice from the point of view of editing a MS Word document with tracked changes. I have no doubt that a more complex Word file would have caused some formatting problems but it looks like free alternatives, online and offline, may be able to give MS Word a good run for its money for many of us who perhaps don’t need tracked changes. Have a look at Office Online and see what you think.

Next time in this series, I’ll have a look at editing MS Word documents (for free) on an Android tablet or smartphone and see how that compares to my frontrunners so far.

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