Over a year ago, I compared two online services designed specifically for PowerPoint slideshows. Today, I want to review 4 free online document hosting services that take your document files and convert them to a format that can be embedded and shared on the Internet.
I’ll be giving scores based on these factors:
- Web site design / usability
- Converted appearance
I should give a warning for those on low bandwidth connections: this is a screenshot/media-heavy post.
First impressions really matter (see Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell), so I find the appearance of the home page of such a site very important. In addition to these first impressions, I want a site that is navigable on which I can do common actions (uploading, viewing, sharing) without hunting for those functions.
edocr has, to be honest, a rather ugly start page. It doesn’t have a modern, Web 2.0 feel, nor does it feel even minutely ‘slick’. If I didn’t know that it was a document publishing site, visiting the site doesn’t make it immediately obvious. Examples of documents are hidden below the fold. The home page seems, to be honest, very hideous.
At least the document viewing page is usable.
Scribd has a well designed and uncluttered site. The home page makes it clear what the service is all about, and the document viewing page is neatly laid out. The common actions I would want to take on a document (sharing, viewing, commenting) are easily accessible. The only concern I have is that the area allotted to the document file itself is too small.
Docstoc has a clean site that, although not as intuitive as Scribd’s, is still very navigable and usable. If Scribd is the YouTube of documents, then Docstoc would be blip.tv; it targets professionals and business documents as opposed to files from everyone (not that the common person can’t use it). Hence, there are links all over the site for “Premier Documents”, “Docstore”, and making money from documents.
What I love most about this site is the much larger reading area on any document viewing page. Docstoc seems to be less focused on user interaction (as in comments) and much more on the original content itself, but it is exactly this that makes it easy to download files and actually use the content.
Issuu takes a completely different approach, one that targets magazines and professional publications; its site reflects this niche. That’s why its site is so breathtakingly beautiful! I’ve been very impressed by Issuu’s clean, aesthetics-oriented look, and viewing a document is such an intuitive experience that this service deserves a 5/5 for its site.
Issuu deserves to win in this category.
I understand that you didn’t come here for a review of their respective Web sites, so let’s move on to document compatibility.
Each service here is at a different level of compatibility.
edocr, regrettably, supports only “.txt, .doc and .pdf formats”. This severely limits its scope. However, nearly everyone nowadays, even those without Adobe Acrobat, can make a PDF out of their documents. OpenOffice.org contains integrated PDF capabilities, as does Office 2007, and free tools like PrimoPDF exist. I suppose that if you have this capability of producing PDF documents, these limited file formats might not be an issue.
Scribd seems to be compatible with the most formats. Their support page says that the service supports PDFs, PostScript (wow, for all those publishers), Microsoft Office files (pre-2007 .doc/.xls/.ppt as well as the newer Office XML .docx/.xlsx/.pptx), all of the OpenDocument formats, in addition to plain text and RTF files. Just about any kind of file I would think of uploading is supported.
Docstoc, unfortunately, seems to be very Microsoft Office-centric. It supports “doc, xls, ppt, pps, pdf, rtf, txt, docx, xlsx, ppts”, but none of the OpenDocument formats. That’s not so great.
Issuu seems to support the common formats. PDF files, “DOC, PPT, ODT, WPD, SXW, RTF, ODP, and SXI” are allowed; these encompass the common word processing formats from Microsoft Office, OpenOffice.org, StarOffice and WordPerfect in addition to the slideshows. This is not much better than Docstoc, of course, but the 100 MB limit is simply awesome; it allows for professional magazines and publications that contain a lot of high quality images.
In any case, Scribd wins hands down in this category; no other service accepts as many formats for documents — not to mention the remarkable spreadsheet and slideshow support.
The only way to evaluate this is to upload the same file to all of the four sites and qualitatively rank the conversions. (To make this easier for you to compare, I’ve embedded a file from each service in the Embeds section following this one.) For diversity, I tried a Microsoft Word document and a PDF document with each service.
I thought that this document would convert well, but it seems fonts are an issue. The formula sheet is below.
The PDF (a formula sheet with equations) was converted nearly perfectly with every service. After all, that is what the format was designed to do: preserve appearance and reproducibility for converting to other media (i.e. print).
edocr apparently uses Macromedia/Adobe FlashPaper, which is a versatile format that preserves appearance in a portable Flash (.swf) file. (Actually, all of the sites use Flash, but only FlashPaper can be saved locally or relocated to your own server.) Since it’s generated usually by printing to the software, the appearance of a document is preserved just as it would be if one printed a file to a PDF driver.
The conversions from edocr preserve the original appearance to a reasonable extent.
Scribd uses its own iPaper format, and converted the PDF perfectly (as expected) but fumbled with the Word document. I suppose that this comes only from the fact that I used a non-standard font (Adobe Garamond) in the file; embedding it also didn’t help. Aside from the fact that the typeface was switched to what looks like Bitstream Vera (or DejaVu) Sans, the overall formatting was preserved. (Take a look here.) 5/5 for the PDF and 2.5/5 for the Word document makes…
Issuu took a long time to convert my files, but the results were beautiful. Although it didn’t use the embedded font in the Word document, it at least recognized that the font was a serif typeface, and substituted something that looks like Times. The result still stays on one page. The formula sheet was beautiful, too.
Docstoc took an unreasonable amount of time to do a little amount of work, and the result doesn’t look all that amazing. It’s okay for usual business documents (letters, contracts, and the sort) but I don’t recommend using it for anything that is more complex.
The winner, by a close call, is Issuu. It simply produces beautiful documents.
This isn’t an area in which I want to give ratings (for appearance), because the embedded player could change at any time. However, some are easier to embed than others (I have written a plugin for embedding Scribd documents, and WordPress 2.9 will support automatic embeds from some sources) and some make the process complicated. In any case, I’ll let you judge for yourself.
Edocr has a standard FlashPaper look. It looks like this:
[swfobj width=520 height=500 src=”http://www.edocr.com/embed/bd5a148ec75af891136adae5889eb32d44e05871″]
Docstoc has its own look, which seems professional enough.
[swfobj width=520 height=500 src=”http://viewer.docstoc.com/?doc_id=14613145&mem_id=593959&doc_type=doc&fullscreen=1&showrelated=0&showotherdocs=0&showstats=0″]
Scribd has changed their embedded player over the years; originally they used FlashPaper as well, but since then there have been at least two generations of new designs.
Issuu has to be my personal favourite because the player is so beautiful. There are also various styles of embeds, and the one below is a non-traditional, nearly chrome-less interface.
I personally prefer Issuu’s look, followed by Scribd, but this is a matter of personal opinion. If your main intention is use on a professional site, such as for a business organization, any of the embeds will do.
My top two favourites are Issuu and Scribd. For general business use, Scribd is likely the best choice, since a huge variety of formats are supported (don’t waste time converting to an intermediate format) for upload and the conversion process takes seconds.
Any comments or alternative sites that I haven’t explored?