ThinkFree Online Office

ThinkFree is a Java-based office suite, which makes it the only one in this test that has to be installed - albeit in a web browser. It's amazing how irritating those few minutes can be when you're dealing with a website and are used to everything simply appearing ready to go.

There are advantages, though. When it finally appears, ThinkFree does by far the best job of looking like a 'real' application, because that's exactly what it is.

Thinkfree online office

The document editor is a dead ringer for Word 2003, right down to the blue gradient background, and it's amazing how impressive something as simple as being able to modify a style feels next to many other suites that simply decide that for your main header you're going to get this font at this size in this colour and like it.

Being a Java app, it's not the speediest - and you don't get to use it offline just because you've installed it. If you want to do that, you have to buy the slightly misnamed ThinkFree Office, which costs £35. Not a huge amount compared to a copy of Microsoft Office, but still...

There is, however, a dedicated syncing tool that you can download, so that you can at least fire up another tool and continue working until your internet connection resumes, and there are mobile apps available to access and share files.

Against Office proper, ThinkFree Office loses out, but online it's a very different battlefield. If you don't mind using a Java app instead of pure HTML, ThinkFree is as close as you can get to replicating the offline experience in your browser, and is an excellent contender for your online office suite.

Verdict: 4/5

Acrobat.com

Unsurprisingly, Adobe's take on the online office suite is very attractive and Flash-based. The former helps to hide the fact that it doesn't do a vast amount compared to the others, while the latter means that it's much slower than the competition.

But while it's flawed, and expensive if you upgrade, it's not without its charms. Built primarily as a collaboration tool rather than a replacement for Office, Acrobat.com offers three key features: a document-editing tool called Buzzwords, which works rather well, and a presentation maker and spreadsheet tool flagged up as 'Labs' and 'Beta' respectively.

Acrobat.com

These two are so simple it's almost surprising that Beta can handle formulae, and they're only available in US English. They're barely worth mentioning, never mind using.

Buzzword, on the other hand, is surprisingly good - to a point. It offers by far the best paper-view of your documents and includes all the standard features, even if it is let down in the strangest ways.

Fonts, for instance. Buzzword gives you just seven, and none are the standards like Ariel and Times New Roman. Buzzword's offerings include Myriad, Minion Pro and Garamond Pro.

Getting your documents out of the service is a pain, because you have to convert them to PDF format, which you can only do five times before you have to upgrade your account to Premium. This costs at least $14.99 a month. Were it free, Acrobat.com would win a few points for style and some of its PDF features, like combining multiple documents. As it is, it's hard to recommend to anyone.

Verdict: 2/5

Live Documents

Live Documents is another Flash-based office suite, but one with rather more pizzazz than Adobe's attempt.

Instead of the classic menu screens, it gives you a full-on virtual desktop complete with folders, Google Docs imports and an OS X style dock. It also includes alerts, a list of tasks and three editors - word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations.

Live documents

Oddly though, whichever of the icons you click, it immediately asks you what type of document you want to make anyway. Entering the document editor, the first things that jump out are the huge editing window - which includes margins and pagination, unlike many others - and the unusual range of style tools.

You can alter the kerning of the text, but not create a headline style. You can add a footnote or a comment, but there's no apparent way to set a standard header or footer. It's a strange editor, advanced in some ways but primitive in others, using the Flash gloss to make it look much sleeker and more powerful than it actually is.

The Spreadsheet tool fares better, partly by having a much more comprehensive view of what the user will need, and partly by presenting it in a far better way. A simple strip along the top of the screen activates all its features instead of bits popping in and out as you move the mouse cursor around the screen.

As with the other online spreadsheets, data junkies aren't going to move from tools like Excel unless you prise them away with a crowbar, but it's fine for the basics. Live Documents is flashy, in more ways than one.

Verdict: 3/5

The best online office suite is...

The simple truth is that right now, cloud-based office suites aren't at the level where they can seriously challenge a good offline client like Microsoft Word or even OpenOffice.org. They can handle the basics, and for many, the basics are all that matter, but if you spend great chunks of your life in front of an editing screen, you'll soon realise how far these suites still have to go.

For the time being, at least until internet connections become guaranteed or we start seeing better offline modes available, they're really best used as a complement to your existing tools rather than an outright replacement - although with the increasing power of technologies like HTML5, that probably won't be the case for much longer.

Editor's choice - Google Docs

Google docs 2

Even with its weaknesses and lack of offline editing, Google Docs would be our desert island office suite. Assuming the island had a reliable internet connection.

It's one of the easiest to use, the fastest and the sleekest, and the weaknesses of the early versions have mostly been eliminated. It has a long way to go before it can compete with Office though, no matter how many people sign up.

Performance award - Zoho office

Zoho office 2

Want the office suite that does everything? Zoho is the obvious choice. It doesn't always do things as sleekly or consistently as you might like, but you can't complain that it doesn't do enough.

It's the online office that lets you do anything from write a note to run a small business. For business use, you'll have to pay up - and finding out exactly how much can be a little confusing.

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First published in PC Plus Issue 306. Read PC Plus on PC, Mac and iPad

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