You never know where or when you’ll need to get work done. With these tools and tips, your vital programs and files will always be along for the ride.
For a while now, it has been possible to carry all of your data with you everywhere you go–but until recently, doing so was a hassle. You had to take the time to install your applications and put every scrap of relevant data on a laptop, or set up remote access to a PC that had to remain on continuously. These days, however, thanks to various new and improved Web services, you can not only store your files online but edit and share them with others there–all from the comfort of your browser. And you don’t need a dedicated PC of your own: Any connected computer will do.
We evaluated a wide range of options, from online services like Google Docs & Spreadsheets that combine storage and editing, to approaches that use both online and offline resources to give you more control over where you store your data and how you work on it. We also tell you how to reach your home PC’s files using a cell phone, and how to take your desktop with you via a thumb drive.
1. Do Everything on the Web
In an ideal world, we could walk up to any computer; punch in a Web ad – dress, name, and password; and instantly gain access to all of our applications or to an archive of all our data, ready for editing. And to do this, we wouldn’t have to run a single piece of extra software, aside from the browser. We’re on a path leading toward that ideal, but challenges remain along the way. Though online office and collaboration suites are readily available now, they’re not yet fully mature.
Reliability and availability continue to be major concerns. Your Internet line or the hotel’s Wi-Fi connection can flake out at a moment’s notice, interrupting your work and causing data to vanish. Virtually all of these services are in beta, so you can expect a few bugs and random errors. That said, the professionals who manage these services responded quickly to our questions and went the extra mile to address our bug reports. Most services enforce strict limits on file size, too. Though a 10MB maximum is common, some companies impose far lower limits: Google’s ceiling for a text document is a paltry 500KB, for example.
Finally, don’t forget that you’re working in a Web browser, not an offline app. Large documents will load and refresh slowly, and in most cases you won’t get an “Are you sure?” warning if you accidentally try to close the browser window without saving your changes. The bottom line: Today, hosted application services are great for occasional or emergency use when you’re on the road, but we wouldn’t rely on any of them as our primary system for storing and editing documents–so you should make sure to keep a copy of your data locally. Still, if you’re willing to try, here are the mobile options we found that worked the best and did the most.
2. Google Docs & Spreadsheets
This plain-Jane addition to the Google empire is one of the easiest and most full-featured data and applications hosting services we evaluated. Though it doesn’t yet include a presentations editor (one is on the way, we’re told), it easily rates as the most trustworthy online host for documents and spreadsheets. It’s free, too. All you need is a Google account.
Transferring your data into and out of Google Docs & Spreadsheets is easy. An upload system accepts files one at a time and can export them in such formats as Microsoft Office, OpenOffice, HTML, and PDF. Google even provides a custom e-mail address that you can use for sending text or attached documents (no spreadsheets yet); the system then automatically converts and stores them alongside your other on line documents. If nothing else, this arrangement gives you a convenient way to make instantaneous, on-the-fl y backups without monkeying around in a browser. (Caveat: The service is in beta form and still has various bugs.) Gmail users can e-mail an online document as text or as an attachment without leaving the Docs & Spreadsheets system.
You can share any document or spreadsheet, and up to 50 people can work on a file at once. Though document changes aren’t visible until a user refreshes the browser window, spreadsheets update in real time; this can make for some interesting collaboration scenarios as multiple users add, delete, and overwrite data simultaneously. Google’s editing tools and controls tend toward the rudimentary, and file size is severely limited–500KB for docs and 1MB for spreadsheets.
A handy revisions system keeps track of old versions of your files; most competing services lack this killer feature. In addition, each user can store up to 5000 documents and 200 spreadsheets on the service. If you need broad project management functionality, the multiple-editors at- once feature of Google Docs & Spreadsheets probably won’t work for you. There’s no workflow system, no chat or discussion system, and only a basic interface that ties in well with Google’s other minimalist properties. Still, Google Docs & Spreadsheets seems remarkably stable, and its learning curve is friendly. It is arguably the most reliable and complete hosted data and applications service available.
Though the no-cost ThinkFree displays Google AdWords on the right side of your screen while you edit word processing, spreadsheet, or presentation documents, the ads are fairly nonintrusive and don’t narrow your workspace in other respects.
Getting files into ThinkFree is simple. The application’s upload system enables you to quickly drag files from Windows Explorer into your browser and then upload them all in one shot. You can download those files just as easily, with a couple of button clicks; a “download all files” feature is in the works.
ThinkFree gives you two ways to edit files. A “quick edit” system lets you perform simple tasks like creating basic tables and changing fonts; it’s most suitable for text-only documents. If you need more-advanced options (as most users will), switch to “power edit” mode, which gives you nearly the same level of control over the document as you’d have in Microsoft Word–in fact, the power-edit interface is a near clone of Office. The edit modes available for the spreadsheet and presentation subsystems are similar to those for text files. The presentations module also contains a boatload of clip art for you to use. Like Google’s service, ThinkFree gives you a good way to back up files on the fly. It offers generous storage space of 1GB, and its 10MB individual file size limit is more than enough for even the most complicated, art-heavy presentations.
You can store many types of files at ThinkFree–not just data documents– though certain types (such as .exe and .dll) are excluded. When you choose to share a file with another user, ThinkFree sends an e-mail trigger to the user you’re sharing the file with, directing that person to a custom URL where the document can be edited via ThinkFree’s standard interface. Invited users can view documents without having their own ThinkFree account, but they must have one to use any of the service’s editing functions. ThinkFree’s Java-heavy design is the system’s only troubling aspect. Java can cause browser problems, and there is no guarantee that a computer you borrow will happen to have Java installed.
In the world of hosted office applications, Zoho may be relatively new (the service debuted in 2005), but it’s packed with features. Zoho offers a large and mostly free set of tools designed to replace almost anything you’d have installed on your PC at work. And though some of its tools are still in beta stage, the service mostly succeeds.
Zoho comprises 12 separate modules, including the usual document, spreadsheet, and presentation services, plus a project management module, a chat system, a Web conferencing tool, and even a wiki creator. Using the various Zoho applications is straightforward and simple. Apps load quickly and the interfaces will be generally familiar to any Office user. One exception is the presentations module, which is rudimentary and not very functional. You can log in to any of the systems with a single Zoho ID, but the services are not entirely connected.
In particular, if you want to store all your data online, you may be frustrated by the absence of any central repository for files in Zoho: Instead, documents are sequestered in Zoho Writer, in Zoho Sheet (spreadsheets), or in Zoho Show (presentations). Though you can have multiple applications open in separate browser tabs or windows, having a single place to browse through all of your stuff would be far more convenient. This is possible on a limited scale through Zoho’s Notebook applet, which allows you to manage clusters of spreadsheets and word processing files, along with other media.
You can invite other users to collaborate on your Zoho documents by using the service’s integrated e-mail invitation system. As with ThinkFree, you can share documents via an e-mailed URL. People can view Zoho documents without having to create a Zoho account for themselves, though collaborators will have to sign up to edit files online.
Putting your data into Zoho is easier than getting it back out. An innovative feature lets you install a plug-in for saving any file directly to Zoho from within Word or Excel. You can also use Word or Excel to open documents stored on line in the Zoho service without ever visiting the Zoho site (you do have to be online, however). It’s a handy way to use the editor of your choice while keeping all of your data online. You can export spreadsheets and documents in various formats, but only one at a time. Worse, the only way you can save a presentation is as an HTML document with an embedded Flash file, which makes it essentially uneditable offline. Zoho has set a generous size limit of 10MB per file, with no size maximum either for word processing documents or for total storage (though the service will limit total storage to 1GB per customer at the end of its beta run).
Of the services we tested, Zoho did the best job of handling old file formats: We even managed to import some ancient Excel 4.0 files without a hitch; most other services choked on them. Overall we were pleased with Zoho, despite some early bugs that required the intervention of a Zoho administrator. For instance, when we used an e-mail address as our Zoho user name, Zoho produced custom URLs with @ symbols in them, which won’t work on the Web. If Zoho can figure out a way to tie its scattered services together better, it will be a serious contender.
Online office suites offer you a one-stop shop where you can both store and manipulate your data. In contrast, various alternatives invite you to use a combination of online and offline resources to keep tighter control over your data and applications. There are plenty of good reasons to use a hybrid approach. You may not be comfortable with the security risk of storing data online, or you may dislike the feature set, interface, or slow response times of some of the online app services. And since it just isn’t possible to remain connected to the Internet all the time, you need to have options that don’t depend on it.
5. Online Storage, Local Editing
One popular and easy way to take advantage of the Internet is to use it exclusively for raw data storage. When you store data online, it is always backed up automatically. And giving other users access to your files with these services is easy. You can send the files via e-mail, share folders with other users within the interface, or post the files to a public Web site that anyone working from a Web-connected computer can link to.
Unlike hosted application services, online storage services like Xdrive don’t care what kinds of files you store on their sites, giving you more freedom to stash whatever you want there. Xdrive’s Windows Explorer plug-in lets you access your online files from your desktop directly, without ever firing up a browser. The service provides 5GB of free storage, upgradable to 50GB for Rs.450 (US$11) a month. Microsoft is prepping its own service, Windows Live Folders, which should integrate seamlessly with Windows Vista; this service launched in late June in limited beta to a few thousand users; Microsoft says that it will soon extend the beta to more users.
For complicated scenarios–especially ones where you may need to share data with other users–consider three sites: Basecamp, WebOffice, and Central Desktop. All three sites provide advanced project management and collaboration systems designed to give users control over large scale projects, with features like checkout of hosted documents, to-do lists, calendars, internal chat systems, and discussion boards. Prices for these services depend on the number of users or projects, not on tiers of functionality. Prices can reach Rs. 31,000 a month for big operations (to get WebOffice’s 100- user license).
At the low end, Central Desktop’s free basic service plan (25MB of storage for five users) delivers all the functionality of more expensive plans. A similar five-user plan in Web Office costs Rs. 2,700 per month. Basecamp’s pricing is based on the number of projects: Managing five active projects with the service costs Rs. 1,080 per month.
6. Local Storage, Online Editing
Conversely you can keep all your documents on your hard drive but edit them using the online apps you need. That way you retain a safe local copy of your data and don’t need to rely on the apps loaded on whatever PC you have to use when you’re away from your home base. You can use this strategy with any of the hosted service sites mentioned back in the first section of this story, uploading documents as needed.
Alternatively, you can use services that specialize in single applications, such as word processing, like iNetWord and gOffice. Though it offers only a word processor, iNetWord is so feature-rich that even sophisticated users should find that it satisfies their needs. You also can easily add and edit tables, images, and special characters. The service’s unusual interface takes a little getting used to, but soon reveals itself to be quite useful.
In addition to the toolbar across the top, it has two Explorer-like file lists on the left side of the screen. Here you can open documents, insert and manage pictures, and share various folders with other registered iNetWord users. Though iNetWord isn’t immediately intuitive, it’s one of the few online editor services that offers a full, easy-to-manage folder hierarchy. You can upload files in Word format and export them as Word or PDF files. A killer feature for power users: FTP access to your directory lets you move files around freely. iNetWord also keeps track of old versions for you, automatically. The service’s storage capacity poses a chronic problem, however.Despite the absence of any listed file size limits, we had trouble getting anything larger than about 2MB into the system. The company has since raised the limit to 10MB, but total storage capacity re mains limited to a too-small 25MB. iNetWord is relatively lightweight and mostly bug-free–praise that we can’t bestow on many of the tools in this category. Another option, the venerable online word processor gOffice, is actually a Web version of the LaTeX typesetting tool, wrapped in a simple-to-use package.
If you want to create a PDF out of some text and then apply a custom letterhead to it, gOffice may be just right for you. The app fails to include one import feature, how ever: To get your data into gOffice, you have to copy it and then paste it into a browser window. A variety of more-specialized online ap ps have appeared in recent years. For photo editing, you can’t beat Picnik; and for online video editing, Jumpcut is worth checking out.
7. Remote Access to Data and Apps at Home
Yet another approach that remains viable is to leave all of your data on your system at home, and simply access that PC remotely when you need to. The best free service going is LogMeIn. Install the soft ware on the host PC (the system where your data resides), and leave the machine on when you’re away. To access that PC from any other computer, just visit the LogMeIn site, enter your user info, and select the system that you want to connect to.
An identical version of that computer’s desktop will appear in a window, giving you full control over the PC, as if you were sitting in front of it. LogMeIn offers various levels of service, including a Pro version that costs Rs. 3,150 per year per PC. GoToMyPC is a similar and perhaps better known alternative to LogMe In. We found the two services practically identical except in price. GoToMyPC sells a single level of service, with prices starting at Rs. 900 per month for access to one PC, graduating upward based on the number of additional computers you want to connect to. LogMeIn offers virtually the same capabilities in its free version.