Until recently, Google was the poster child for online document sharing. Unfortunately, it gave small businesses a tough choice: get the ad-supported service for free or pay $50 per user per year for the ad-free, business-friendly version. Now Zoho Docs offers an intuitive, ad-free interface to business users for free--and a complete feature set to match.
Users get 1GB of space with their free account, which might be too small for some business customers (Acrobat.com, also free, includes 2GB of storage). We appreciated the easy setup; you can avoid creating an account by signing in with your Gmail or Yahoo Mail username and password. Singing in with your Gmail account does not mean you get access to your Google Docs, though; when we signed in with our Google account we had access to only the files we had uploaded to Zoho Docs.
Zoho Docs' home screen is called the Desktop. Here, users can upload files and edit them in neat tabs within the screen. In the left-hand pane, you'll see a menu tree, which distinguishes between files you've shared with others, and those that others have shared with you. You can also whittle the results down to show just word documents, spreadsheets, or presentations.
Stretching across the top of the screen are links for creating a new document; uploading files; sharing, moving, copying, or deleting them; or taking action on a document, such as renaming, mailing, or zipping it. An icon next to each file indicates, at a glance, the file type. Conveniently, when you create new folders you can drag and drop files from the main list to a folder in the left-hand pane.
We love that you don't have to open additional tabs or windows within the browser to use the various programs, as you have to do with Google Docs and Google Apps. For instance, we were able to format text easily from within the Zoho Docs tab. However, to access the full range of formatting and editing tools, such as endnotes and footnotes, you'll have to click Switch To, select an app (say, Zoho Writer), and open a new browser tab. Also, Zoho Docs only allows you to import docs from your PC, whereas Google Docs additionally supports importing from a Web site.
Throughout the various document editors are small, colorful icons representing editing options; rolling over them with your cursor pops up a text label indicating their function. We like this feature, but we thought the labels were too slow to appear.
Zoho Writer offers all the usual formatting options: spell check, fonts, letter sizes, background and text colors, and alignment and indentation options. Users can also add footnotes, images, hyperlinks, and tables. Zoho Docs even has some features Google Docs doesn't: emoticon and symbols menus, and 24 fonts (versus Google's eleven).
You can also upload music and photos, something you can't do in Google Docs. You can then share these files and embed the photos into other documents. That means users have not just 1GB for document collaboration, but also general backup, if they like.
Our gripe with the rollover labels aside, the kitchen-sink approach to listing icons reminds us of the desktop word processors (and spreadsheet and presentation programs) we're used to. To get a word and character count you have to save the document, at which point the count will briefly pop up in the lower right corner of the screen. Zoho has said it plans to add a word-count button in the future.
From the top nav in Zoho Sheet, users can insert columns and rows, delete the contents of cells, sort in ascending or descending order, format dollar amounts and percentages, tally sums, add charts, and format the text itself.
As with Microsoft Excel, users can right-click on a cell to do things such as clear its contents--a nice feature. You can also format cells this way, as you can with Excel.
When it comes to programming functions, users can click on a blank cell and then click the function button and choose their function from a drop-down menu. We wish the bar at the top had an autocompleting feature so that you could type in, for example, "=AVERAGE" instead of clicking twice and then finding it on a menu.
Zoho Show includes a wide-ranging 56 themes for presentations in six categories; however, when adding a new slide you have only six options. Formatting options include altering the text size, color, and font, as well as inserting images and other objects.
Users have the choice of exporting their finished presentations (or word documents, or spreadsheets) as PDFs, PowerPoint files, or in HTML format (Google Docs, too, lets users download documents as PDFs, Office documents, OpenOffice files, RTF, HTML, or text).
Oddly, Zoho Show doesn't allow users to edit using Safari, so we had to switch browsers when we wanted to create a presentation (however, users can view presentations in slideshow mode using Safari).
Zoho Docs users can share multiple documents at once with an unlimited number of people. They can share either privately, which requires entering e-mail addresses manually, or with a preformed group. In either case, the sender can assign either read-only or read-and-edit privileges to the recipients. Although you can share documents with anyone, to edit them recipients must have Google or Yahoo e-mail addresses.
In terms of ease of use and features, Zoho Docs rivals Google Apps. We like that it takes up just one tab inside the browser; that users can upload music and photos in addition to word documents, presentations, and spreadsheets; and that the overall layout closely resembles those of popular desktop programs. For business users, Google Apps costs $50 per person per year, and the free service, Google Docs, is ad-supported and requires a Gmail account. That makes Zoho Docs the most comprehensive free, Web-based document creator and collaborator--not to mention the most hassle-free.