Google Drive for iOS Hands-on: Worth the Download?

At last week's Google I/O conference, the company launched a native Google Drive app for iOS devices. In a related update, it also introduced offline editing for Google Docs -- certainly a long-awaited feature, but one you're only able to enjoy when you access Docs through Safari. Before the app showed up at the iTunes Store, iOS users could already work on their files within Google Drive this way -- signing in through Safari -- but others prefer working inside an actual app on the front end. Is this app worth the download?

Navigation and Interface

The left slide-out menu, popularized by Facebook's mobile app and appropriated by many others thereafter, is also present within Google Drive. As usual, on many screens, a button sits on the top left corner of the app which you tap in order to reveal the panel hiding on the left side. In Google Drive, however, the next panel takes up the entire screen.

The first screen upon launching the app shows you a menu which lists your drive, your shared files, starred files, recent files and files that you have marked for offline viewing. Tapping on each item brings you into the appropriate section, and you tap in the top left corner to go back to the previous screen. Navigation is pretty intuitive; there's essentially no learning curve.

Offline Access and Offline Editing

From the main screen that lists your files, you can tap to add a star or tap an arrow to go into the individual file's screen called Details. Tapping on the name of the file itself launches it. You're going to want to pay close attention to the Details screen, however, because it's buried inside this layer that Google hides one of its most-talked-about Drive features: offline access. Toggle the switch to On to activate it.

Apart from making changes to offline access, you can see when the file (or folder) was last modified, as well as the people with access to it, within Details.

Google Drive's default setting is online-only access to all your files. In order to avoid having to flip the switch for offline access on each file individually, we organized the specific files we needed in a folder and flipped the switch on that instead. This bulk offline action worked without a hitch.

Some folks may have be confused about Google's announcement that it would introduce offline editing to Google Docs. This feature unfortunately only exists on its web app and doesn't extend to its native app (at least, for now). We opened our Google Doc files and Spreadsheets in Safari, tapped on the Edit button on the upper right corner, and jumped into a similar-looking interface with one significant difference: if we tapped on any portion within the body of the document we were working on, a cursor and keyboard appeared to let us make changes to content.

Our edits occured in real-time, as fast as we could type. However, if there was any lag, the top right button labeled "Refresh," changed instead to "Save."

We had to make sure we had tapped the Edit button before Google Docs was available for offline editing, otherwise we were limited to read-only functionality. There didn't appear to be any way to exit Edit mode and go back into Read-only mode once we had activated it.

Offline Collaboration

To test the Collaboration feature, we enlisted the help of an officemate and opened up a text file within Google Docs. We typed in a new line ("This was written in ___ mode"), and we both switched to Airplane mode on our iPhones. We switched back into the Google Drive web app, and I filled in the blank in the phrase to say "This was written in offline mode," while my colleage wrote, "This was written in airplane mode." Then we took our iPhones off Airplane mode at the same time, switched back into Safari, and observed how Google Drive handled the changes. We did this several times to see if the same outcome happened every time.

Results varied. Sometimes Google Docs would only add in my word, at other times only our collegague's. It seemed as though any change that appeared depended on whose network connection retrieved the data from the document faster; the other person's account would receive a notification on a yellow bar that ran along the top of the screen: "Pending collaborator changes, tap 'Synchronize' to save." One time, both of us got the notification, without any visible updates to the doc itself. The button to sync appeared in the top right corner of our screens.

If we both accepted these changes, our Google Doc updated to say, "This was written in offline airplane mode." But one thing we appreciated was the fact that Google Drive never lost our data when we tried offline collaboration.


Search worked fairly well. We uploaded a PDF document that was created from word processing software, and the phrase we searched turned up the file almost instantaneously. But when we uploaded a scanned page from a magazine and tried to use the supposed OCR functionality on the text, our search didn't turn up the right result.

Finally, we tested Google's image search feature demonstrated onstage at Google I/O. We uploaded this picture of a pyramid and renamed it to "Egyptian.jpg." Interestingly, the image turned up in our app search for "pyramid," but the same result didn't turn up when we did the same Google Drive search on our desktop browser.

Bottom Line

Google has done a nice job improving Google Drive, especially with the addition of offline editing. However, given that the function works only on the web app, the native Google Drive for iOS app is still essentially just a simple document viewer, which is disappointing. Though image recognition works well, making edits on the go is the main reason to use Google Drive. If you have to stick to the web app to get anything accomplished, it's questionable whether you need to download this app for your smartphone.