Google Sheets Is Finally a Serious Spreadsheet

A very, very long-awaited feature -- at least by me -- is here.

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How long have I been waiting for Sheets — Google’s browser-based spreadsheet — to allow me to edit spreadsheets when I’m not connected to the Internet? I can tell you to the day: Since May 30, 2007, when Google announced Gears, a technology for making web apps work in offline mode. Here I am back in 2008, already antsy about the fact that Sheets isn’t yet offline-friendly.

But the wait is over: Today, Google is announcing an update to Sheets that allows for both offline viewing and editing. It has nothing to do with Gears, which Google abandoned years ago, and the offline mode requires that you use Google’s Chrome web browser or a Chromebook. But it’s finally here, and it makes the notion of using Sheets for meaningful number-crunching a lot more plausible.

So do some other changes in the new version. Spreadsheets are no longer limited to 256 columns and 400,000 cells: They can have up to two million cells, with no specific column or row limit. And you can scroll through vast quantities of data at breakneck speed — not just faster than in previous versions of Sheets, but also than in Microsoft’s Excel Web App. In general, performance is noticeably snappier; it feels less like your data is stored on some far-off server, and more like it’s right there.

A new Filter View feature lets you create your own peeks at a spreadsheet for your personal use only, even if the spreadsheet is shared. Google has made the way Sheets gives you on-the-fly help as you type formulas smarter — although it does so in a font size that’s a tad small for my eyeballs — and there are other minor changes such as the ability to add colored bars to sheet tabs so you can group related ones.

One decision Google made about this new version is unexpected: It only affects new spreadsheets you create. Old ones still show up in the old format, and can’t take advantage of new features like offline editing. (For now, you opt into the upgrade in your Google Drive settings.)

The fact that Sheets now involves two different file variants will take some getting used to. Normally, one of the advantages of working with a web-based productivity tool such as this one is that you don’t need to worry about file formats. For now, in Sheets, you will. But maybe Google will enable existing spreadsheets to support the new features before it flips the switch and puts everyone on the updated version.

In any event, I’m glad that it’s now available for those who’d like to give it a spin. And Microsoft will need to update its anti-Chromebook campaign: One of the arguments it makes against using a Chromebook is that you can’t edit spreadsheets unless you’re connected to the Internet.