Google Docs App for Android Tablets: The Ugly Truth

The Google Docs for Android app provides a potentially useful tool for mobile users. However, its lack of presentation creation tools, weak spreadsheet experience, and general instability reduces its potential. But wait, there's more: It's also slow.

Using OCR to Convert Text in Photos

The Google Docs for Android app can create Document and Spreadsheet types. It also provides Optical Character Recognition (OCR) for photos captured with the app or an existing photo from the Android tablet's photo gallery.

If you choose to create a Document, the app presents a dialog box to let you give it a name.

If you choose to create a Document from a photo, the app provides three conversion options: None, use OCR to convert text in the photo to editable text, or send the photo to a clipboard for use in an existing document.

If you choose the OCR option, the original image is placed at the top of the Document. The converted text flows below it. I used the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1's 3 megapixel camera to take a photo of page from a recent issue of The Economist for my test. My rough estimate is that it converted about 60 to 70 percent of the text correctly.

Speech Recognition

One potentially unique and useful Android feature available in the Google Docs app is speech recognition. However, while speech recognition is reasonably good for short phrases, the recognition process tends to become less reliable for longer speaking periods. It did quite well for the three one sentence nursery rhymes below.

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
She sells seashells by the seashore.
Jack be nimble jack be quick jack jumped over the candlestick.

However, it had problem with the way I said the first two verses of Mary Had a Little Lamb.

Mary had a little lamb his fleece was white as snow. Everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go. Photo to school monday it was against the rules. It made of children lesson plan, to see delivered school.

Presumably, the errors were caused because my pronunciation became sloppier and more difficult to interpret as time went on. So, unless your diction and pronunciation are consistently clear, speech recognition is only useful for short phrases and sentences.

The Google Docs for Android app's spreadsheet experience can be charitably described as primitive. The user needs to select a row for editing. Then, cells in the row become editable objects. There really is nothing to compare to this awful experience. Even character based mainframe terminal screens in the 1980s provided a better user experience. To be fair, this is how Google itself describes the spreadsheet on the Google Play product page: Make quick changes to spreadsheets. It is literally not designed for even moderate spreadsheet work.

One last argument in favor of the spreadsheet app, and the only reason many people use it, is the same "killer feature" in the document app: Multiple users can work on the spreadsheet at the same time and see changes as they are made.

The Really Ugly

While the Google Docs for Android app is a useful mobile tool for Google Docs users, it presents an ugly experience on several fronts. I've already mentioned the slow load and save times for documents as well as the awful spreadsheet editing experience. The ugliness does not end there, however. As a web-based product with user authentication required, the app sometimes to become unresponsive. Forcing it to close and then relaunching the app may reveal that your Google login simpley expired and you need to re-enter your password. Google really needs to fix this experience.

The other problem appears to be endemic to Android (Honeycomb for the tablet I use) and its apps: The operating system and apps crash frequently. The screenshot below shows an error message after the Google Docs for Android app crashed on my tablet.

Don't Forget the Widget!

The app includes a widget for Android's home screen. The widget provides the following functions: Open the app (tap the Docs icon on the left), go directly to starred documents in the app, take a photo for use by the app, and create a new document. You can learn more about Android tablet widgets in this BYTE article: How To Create Personalized Dashboards With Android Tablet Widgets.

You can learn more about Google Docs for Android at this Google help landing page. Google Docs on Android phones and tablets

Name: Google Docs for Android

The Google Docs for Android app provides a potentially useful tool for mobile users. However, its lack of presentation creation tools, weak spreadsheet experience, and general instability reduces its potential. Unless it receives significant enhancements soon, it will never compete with Apple's iWorks components for the iPad or a reasonable Microsoft Office 15 experience on Windows 8 tablets.
Price: Free
  • Multiple users can edit at once and see live changes
  • Free
  • Difficult, obscure user interface
  • No support for Google Presentation, Form, Drawing, or Tables
  • Spreadsheet UI is atrocious
  • OCR and speech recognition are limited
  • Very slow load and save times
  • Unstable