There was a time when you had to have Microsoft Office installed to create, edit, or even view a Microsoft Word document.
Fortunately, that is no longer the case. There are a number of free alternatives for working with the Word documents people occasionally send.
Word Online is Microsoft’s own cloud-based solution for working with Word files. It’s part of the Microsoft Office Online suite, and you can access it without a subscription. Just sign in with a free Microsoft account.
Word Online’s interface is similar to the desktop version of Microsoft Word, so if you’re familiar with Word, you’ll feel right at home.
Documents you create with Word Online are automatically saved to your OneDrive folders. Word Online also integrates with the Microsoft desktop version. You can seamlessly switch to the desktop app with the click of a button. Any changes you make to one version will be automatically synced to the other. However, you cannot work on the web app and the desktop app simultaneously.
Word Online also features real-time collaboration that allows multiple people to work on the same document at the same time. This feature works with Word Online, the Windows and Mac desktop apps, and the mobile apps. The iOS and Android app are also free. They allow you to view and edit documents on the go.
Word Online is probably the best option for working with Word documents. As well as using the desktop app, because it does a good job of maintaining the original formatting of Word documents. For viewing and editing documents, it’s a great solution.
That being said, there are some downsides. You have to be online for it to work. There is no way to edit a local file offline. Not all features of the desktop version of Word are present. All the basics are there. But you won’t be able to do some of the more advanced things like create subheadings and bibliographies, create or apply styles, or use advanced proofing tools. You can see all those things if they are already present in the document; you just can’t work with them.
Word Online also has some restrictions on printing. You may not be able to adjust your prints like you would on the desktop app.
Like Word Online, Google Docs works in your browser. You can use it to create new document files and collaborate with other users. By default, you can’t work directly with a Word file in Google Docs. Instead, you must upload the file to Google Drive and then open it in Google Docs. A process that converts it into a Google Docs file.
For simple, mostly text documents, that might be fine. Especially if the document is something you are going to use yourself. However, Google Docs don’t do a great job of preserving most of the formatting that can accompany a Word document. And, if it’s a document that you need to edit and return to someone else using Word, converting it and then reconverting it isn’t ideal.
The good news is that if you use the Chrome browser, Google makes an extension that allows you to open Microsoft Office files (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint) directly in their Google counterparts (Docs, Sheets, and Slides) without converting them. The extension is called Office Edition for Docs, Sheets, and Slides.
Unfortunately, that leaves users of other browsers out in the open, unless they can install Chrome extensions. If you need to edit Word documents on a semi-regular basis and want to use Google Docs to do so, it might be worth installing Chrome just for that purpose.
On the features front, Google Docs lags a bit behind Word Online. But only advanced users will feel the pressure.
By default, Google Docs only works when you’re online. If you want to access it offline, you’ll need to install a Chrome extension that allows you to view and edit files offline. For mobile access, Google offers apps for iOS and Android devices. Apps on both platforms also support offline file access with editing features.
Zoho Writer for Word
If you don’t like using Word Online or Google Docs, but still want an online solution, Zoho Writer is a free online word processor that allows you to import Word documents without converting them. The only real catch with Zoho Writer is that you can only upload Word documents up to 10MB in size. That’s big enough to accommodate most documents. But if you have something bigger than that, you’ll need another solution.
Zoho Writer supports all recent Word file formats, and does a good job of keeping the original Word file layout. You can also save and export the document to many other formats such as ODT, RTF, txt, HTML, ePub, and PDF.
In addition to the web app, Zoho also offers mobile apps for Writer, which are available for Android and iOS. Both apps also support offline editing and collaboration features.
So far, we have discussed several free online services for working with Word documents. LibreOffice is a complete desktop application suite that claims to be a free and open source replacement for Microsoft Office. And it’s a capable app. It’s not as comprehensive as Word itself, but it easily beats all the online solutions we’ve talked about. It is available for Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems.
Although LibreOffice is primarily designed to work with local documents, it also supports services that you can use to edit remote documents.
Unless you’re a real Word user (in which case you probably have Word anyway) or if you have very specific needs, you should find that LibreOffice can do just about anything you need when editing a Word document. It even preserves formatting quite well and supports native Word formats, so no conversion is necessary.