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Optimizing Google Spreadsheets

January 21st, 2010 by Multimedia Mike

It happens on occasion that everyone gushes about a technology that leaves me utterly bewildered– not because I don’t understand what the tech does but because I can’t get it to work at all. It happened the first time I tried out xine and the first time I tried to use x264 for anything serious. But I eventually solved those situations.

Here’s a new problem that has been bugging me: Google Docs, specifically their spreadsheets. They’re so bold as to launch a daily-updated ad campaign of billboards declaring that it’s perfectly plausible to switch an entire office from Microsoft Office software to Google software. For the last few months, I have been using Google Spreadsheets to track a fairly meager amount of data. It hasn’t been going that swell. So whenever I see a fawning article about how Google is totally going to dominate Microsoft using these online apps, I’m left scratching my head and wondering if I’m missing something.

This is my tracking spreadsheet for all my video games. You’re likely to notice that it’s quite taxing on your browser just to load the DOS/Windows sheet which only consists of about 600 rows. This data started life on an OpenOffice Calc spreadsheet before eventually being imported to Google Docs. I should state that I have never been very proficient with spreadsheets. Obviously, all I’m doing here is organizing tables of information with a little coloring. So, no complicated (or even simple) formulas. Maybe it’s all the coloring that throws the system for a loop. Or something about its OOo origins.

For a current test, I downloaded the very latest versions of Firefox (3.6, as of today), Safari, and Chrome on my Atom-based nettop running Windows XP. This is a basic visualization describing how each handles opening my games spreadsheet in Google Docs:

Firefox
Safari
Chrome

Firefox takes awhile to load the spreadsheet (up to 30s) and pegs one CPU the entire time. But once the spreadsheet loads, the browser chills until there is some more interaction. Safari seems to load a bit quicker but never takes the load off that 1 CPU. The spreadsheet is still a little usable.

Most surprising, however, is that Google’s Chrome, for all intents and purposes, completely falls over on the games spreadsheet. This is using the very latest version on Windows, which I assume is the version that receives the lion’s share of Chrome’s dev resources. Chrome eventually loads the spreadsheet (older versions had trouble even doing that), but can’t seem to scroll through it.

Given all the hype — both within and outside of Google — that I see surrounding Google Docs, I can’t help but wonder if I’m doing something wrong. Am I throwing too much data its way? I’m anything but a typical spreadsheet user so it could very well be that most spreadsheets contain well fewer than 600 lines of data. Somehow, I think it has something to do with having imported the data for an OpenOffice Calc spreadsheet. My data point for this is that another Google spreadsheet that I have maintained from scratch but has grown to a similar size has much less trouble. Further, I generated a 13,000-line CSV file, imported that, and see little difficulty (relative to the games spreadsheet) navigating around. Pro tip: Don’t try to sort 13,000 rows of data in a Google spreadsheet:


Google Spreadsheet tells me where I can stick my data

Perhaps it’s an unreasonable request. I do know that OpenOffice is able to process the same request in about 2 seconds.

But I digress. I was wondering how Google could possibly claim this is ready for prime-time. Then I realized that Excel spreadsheets are more likely to be thrown at the system. I decided to try exporting the spreadsheet as an Excel spreadsheet (loading the Google spreadsheet in Firefox since that’s the most responsive), then uploading the new Excel spreadsheet.

Success! Firefox browses the spreadsheet much faster and Google Chrome is able to navigate it at all. It’s still a bit sluggish in Chrome but it’s at least a little usable. You know, pursuant to today’s Firefox 3.6 release, I have been reading comments that Chrome still beats Firefox in some artificial JavaScript benchmarks. After this episode, I think this would make a much more useful, real-world JS benchmark.

Through it all, I really want to be able to make use of Google Docs. So far, it has proven very useful as a means of coordination between myself and a bunch of other video game historians. But I was befuddled to no end that I couldn’t get my favorite spreadsheet to work in Google’s own browser.

For reference, here are the old and new spreadsheets for comparison in your browser:

Posted in General | 4 Comments »

4 Responses

  1. J Says:

    You should try a nightly build of the bleeding edge of Firefox from http://nightly.mozilla.org/. On my machine it was even faster than 3.6.

  2. Peter Says:

    Confirmed. Your spreadsheet is totally unusable on chrome x86 p4/1.6 :D

  3. Alex Says:

    There is an open bug on spreadsheet performance: http://crbug.com/3066

  4. Multimedia Mike Says:

    @Alex: Yeah, looks like the very same bug (import from ODS). I did a little searching to see if this was a known issue but didn’t come up with anything.