Running It All Off The Web

Web-based Office-like suites do the job

So you've spent a couple grand on a laptop. The next purchase you'll probably consider is the student version of Microsoft (MSFT ) Office, at about $150. But if you have a fast Internet connection—and most colleges do—new Web-based Office-like suites let you do everything from your browser, usually free of charge.

The most fully developed of the three services I tried was Zoho (zoho.com), which offers Zoho Writer, Zoho Sheet (a spreadsheet tool), and Zoho Show (its take on PowerPoint). I spent a few days in Zoho Writer and found it to be an excellent replacement for Word. Once you're finished with a document, you can save it not only in the Microsoft-compatible .doc format but also in other file formats, including Adobe Systems' .pdf. You can also perform other, more advanced tasks such as inserting tables and graphics. Storing documents online is a great hedge against a sudden crash, and it also makes them accessible from any browser on any PC.

One other feature I liked was the ability to e-mail documents I was working on at the office to my Zoho account. Later, I logged in to Zoho from home and resumed editing. For now, storage space is unlimited, but the company says it will eventually be 1 gigabyte.

Google (GOOG ) Docs & Spreadsheets (google.com) has similar e-mail access features. So far it offers only a word processor and spreadsheet, but a presentation tool is in the works. Its interface is less cluttered than Zoho's and makes such tasks as inserting an image into a document a more straightforward process. Storage space is limited to 5,000 documents with a 500-kilobyte maximum on each. If there are embedded images, each document's size is limited to 2 megabytes.

The third Web-based office suite I tried was ThinkFree (thinkfree.com). Its free package includes the programs Write, Calc, and Show. You get 1 GB of online storage space. Having used the other two with no trouble on computers running both Windows and Mac OS X, I found ThinkFree worked best with Internet Explorer on a Windows PC and the Firefox browser on a Mac (AAPL ). If you'd rather use software that resides on your hard drive, ThinkFree offers a $50 desktop version for computers running Windows, Mac OS, and Linux. It's not free, but it beats what Microsoft charges.

By Arik Hesseldahl

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