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Office Suites for iPad: The Roundup

We put the top iPad office productivity apps to the test to see which one gives you the most document-editing power

Since the day the iPad launched, zealous mobilophiles have wondered whether it might signal a new dawn in mobile computing--namely, one in which we all use a tablet in lieu of a desktop or laptop PC. With the abundance of native iPad productivity apps in the App Store, the iPad has held a clear lead in the race to tablet-centricity. But the real measure of the platform's productivity power is not the number of apps in the App Store but the quality of its best productivity apps. So I downloaded six of the most noteworthy iPad office apps and spent a week using them for all my daily work.

Because you can't ignore Apple's iWork apps as a force to be reckoned with on the iPad, I made Pages, Numbers, and Keynote my first priority in testing. These three apps bear the distinction of selling separately, which represents a departure from the selection criteria I've been using for roundups. The other three products I tried--Office2 HD, Documents To Go, and Quickoffice--are all-in-one suites that include word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation tools (among other features) within a single app. Since it would have been a glaring omission had I not included Apple's offerings, I've modified the qualifications here in the interest of diligence.

As I did in my roundup of Android productivity apps, I tested each of these leading suites for three important qualities: interface and usability, compatibility with Microsoft Office, and support for cloud services. I also took into account additional features, such as PDF viewing and support for other formats, and I considered price in the final evaluation. For each app, I created documents from scratch, imported rich documents with images and complex formatting from Microsoft Word, and exported edited documents back to Word to check for fidelity. The winner of this roundup is the app (or set of apps) with the best overall performance across all of those considerations.

In the course of testing, two general facts emerged that are well worth noting. First, an external keyboard is an essential accessory if you plan on doing a significant amount of document editing on the iPad. It doesn't really matter which keyboard you use. I've spent a fair amount of time on both the Apple Wireless Keyboard and the iPad Keyboard Dock, and both are excellent. Less-expensive third-party keyboards mostly work well, too.

Second, Dropbox is a phenomenally valuable app for anyone who uses the iPad for frequent document editing, as it acts as a file manager on the device and includes integrated links to all of the apps in this roundup. This means that you can use Dropbox to browse for a document in your synced folders and then launch it in Pages, Documents To Go, Quickoffice, Office2 HD, or just about any other compatible app.

Byte Squared Office2 HD

Within the realm of all-in-one office apps for the iPad, Office2 HD has been a leader from the beginning. It's not nearly as robust or intuitive as Apple's iWork apps, but it packs far better cloud support.

Office2 HD creates and edits Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files, and treats Microsoft Office formats as native. You can set the app to use .docx or the older .doc format as its default. It also views iWork documents and PDFs.

Office2 HD's Microsoft Office compatibility is generally very good. Partly because the app itself lacks many of the editing capabilities of its Office counterparts, you'll find it fairly tough to create a document in this app that Word, Excel, or PowerPoint won't preserve pretty much perfectly. And in my tests of importing complex documents containing special formatting, tables, and charts from Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, the app did a good job of displaying formatting options that it couldn't create on its own.

Interface design is Office2 HD's great weakness. All of the app's navigation happens in a single-column drop-down menu, and the way to reach all of the app's features is not immediately obvious. Once you get the hang of it, you can find your way around, but everything seems to take three or four more taps than it should. Meanwhile, the menu ribbon at the top of the screen scrolls sideways to reveal additional formatting options that you may not immediately realize exist. A novice user could be forgiven for thinking that the app doesn't support image embedding (it does, on the second page of the menu). My sense is that Byte Squared is trying to be clever by packing all of the nav controls into two narrow menus, but the execution falls flat.

When it comes to cloud support, however, Office2 HD comes nicely equipped. The app supports Box, Dropbox, Google Docs, MobileMe, MyDisk, and generic WebDAV accounts.

At $8, Office2 HD is certainly the cheapest office app in this roundup, and it offers some of the best cloud support I found. Its fidelity to Microsoft Office formats is admirable, but the app's interface leaves a lot to be desired. Still, it provides more formatting options than its non-Apple competitors do.

DataViz Documents To Go Premium

Continuing its long tradition of mobile document editing, DataViz has brought Documents To Go to the iPad. The app has come a long way from humble beginnings, and it sports some of the most compelling connectivity and sharing features of the bunch.

At $17, Documents To Go Premium makes no bones about its purpose: This app is designed as an interim editing tool for those times when you can't get to your full-blown desktop or laptop. Its formatting options are pretty basic, but highly competent in preserving the integrity of whatever Word or Excel document you're working in.

Unfortunately, despite DataViz's claims to the contrary on the App Store listing, even this Premium version of Documents To Go doesn't actually edit PowerPoint files. Amusingly, if you create a new PowerPoint document within the app, you can add and rearrange slides on it, but you can't put in any text or pictures. If you tap the little triangle button in the bottom menu, however, the app will give you the option to open (and edit) your presentation in any other Office-compatible app that you have loaded. At first I thought I must have been doing something wrong, but the reviews on the Apple App Store are rife with criticism over this problem. It's almost certainly a bug, and I hope to see it rectified quickly. Otherwise I have to suggest that anyone looking for a way to edit presentations on the iPad should look elsewhere for that functionality (particularly given that even Documents To Go Premium looks elsewhere on your iPad for that functionality).

Where Documents To Go Premium stands out in a good way is in its cloud and sharing features. In addition to support for Box, Dropbox, Google Docs, iDisk, and SugarSync, it includes support for DataViz's Documents To Go Desktop App, which lets you sync files easily between the app and your desktop over a Wi-Fi connection.

Frankly, I had expected Documents To Go Premium to offer a far more compelling blend of features and performance than what it's delivering on the iPad right now. DataViz has had a decade's head start over its competitors in the mobile arena, but between the app's apparent bugs and its outright lack of common editing features, Documents To Go Premium is a big disappointment. There's simply nothing "premium" about it.

Quickoffice Pro HD

After a disappointing experience with Documents To Go Premium, I was looking forward to spending a couple of days working in Quickoffice Pro HD. After all, the Android version of Quickoffice Pro HD took top honors in my roundup of Android tablet office apps. Surprisingly, while Quickoffice Pro HD's iPad interface is somewhat nicer than that of Documents To Go, I found its editing capabilities sorely lacking--particularly in comparison with its overachieving Android-based sibling.

The editing menus in Quickoffice Pro HD for iPad are frightfully sparse--not in a sleek way that belies hidden power, but in a lame way that reveals low ambition. For instance, you can embed and format images in the presentation app, but not in the word processor. You can't create or edit charts in spreadsheets. The most robust part of the app is the presentation editor, which at least offers basic image-formatting capabilities.

The good news is that Quickoffice Pro HD comes loaded with the best cloud support in this roundup. It works with Box, Dropbox, Google Docs, Huddle, MobileMe, and SugarSync. Adding new cloud services is as easy as tapping the plus sign in the lower menu, choosing your preference, and logging in.

Having used the Android version of this app pretty extensively, I hold out hope that Quickoffice will bring all of the missing features over to the iPad version in a near-future update, but for now I'd suggest holding off on the $20 download.

Apple Pages, Numbers, and Keynote (The Winner)

Apple's launch of the iWork suite on the iPad coincided with the debut of the device a year ago, and the company has continued to update the software since its introduction. Like their desktop counterparts, the three iPad editing apps strive for simplicity in their interface, and succeed handily. Unlike the other "suites" in this roundup, Pages, Numbers, and Keynote are three separate apps. Each one sells for $10 in the App Store.

Yes, there's some disparity in comparing three separate $10 apps against rival apps that perform word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation tasks all within a single interface for under $20. But with that said, the focus here is on finding the best way to edit Microsoft Office documents on the iPad, so it seems fair to include Apple's apps with the competition. Bear in mind that since any of these three apps can be had separately, it could be a compelling value proposition for someone who, for example, needs only a strong word processing app for the iPad and doesn't plan to do spreadsheets or presentations. The à la carte option is nice.

Of all the apps in this roundup, Apple's offerings--perhaps unsurprisingly--deliver the slickest, most intuitive iPad interface. The apps run smoothly, allowing you to swipe your way through documents, insert and resize images, render charts, and reposition design elements without noticeable lagging or choppy scrolling, even on a first-generation iPad. The simple menu bars offer intuitive buttons for managing fonts and formatting, and they strike a reasonable compromise between the full set of possible options in an office application and the minimalist interface you might hope for on a slate. And every change you make saves automatically as you work, so you don't have to worry about losing a change.

Unfortunately, Apple's approach to interoperability somewhat undermines the usefulness of these apps for those of us who need to share documents with Microsoft Office users most of the time. Although you can send files to colleagues in Office's (now outdated) .doc, .xls, and .ppt formats, Apple's apps handle the process in a weirdly disjointed way that forces you to save separate copies of your work in the Microsoft formats and prevents you from simply creating and working in a Microsoft Office-compatible file. All of that preserves a sense that you're not really working in an Office-compatible app. It forces you to create multiple copies of the same document, and it increases your chances of distributing outdated copies of important documents you're working on.

As for file compatibility, the three apps vary somewhat in the fidelity of their formatting when sharing with their Microsoft counterparts. Pages and Numbers manage to preserve most formatting reasonably well when opening an Office document or sharing a document with Word and Excel. Numbers tends to break the formatting of more-complex Excel charts, and I typically find myself having to massage the formatting a little whenever I move a chart from Numbers to Excel. Keynote, meanwhile, does not play well at all with Microsoft PowerPoint, and you can generally count on seeing dramatically different results depending on which presentation app you open the file in.

Despite offering several options for sharing files, Pages, Numbers, and Keynote provide paltry cloud integration. You can use iDisk (if you have a MobileMe account) or WebDAV (if you can figure out how to set it up). You can also share files on iWork.com, another of Apple's idiosyncratic attempts at cloud computing. As disappointing as the current cloud options for these three iPad apps are, however, I'm reasonably hopeful that this situation will improve once Apple launches iCloud in the fall.

Conclusion

In contrast to my roundup of Android office apps, which turned up three very strong options, in this group of iPad office apps it wasn't easy to find an all-around winner, because each of the available options is plagued by some pretty significant failings. Apple's apps are a joy to use in their own right, but they lack the level of Microsoft Office and cloud support that serious mobile workers require. The other products have cloud connectivity and Office compatibility to spare, yet they stumble in their interfaces and formatting options.

Still, we're here to find the best of the bunch, and--despite its many flaws--Apple's trio of office apps stands out as the best thing going for business productivity on the iPad right now. But if you're like most professionals and you work in an environment that requires Microsoft Office compatibility or the agility to grab documents from various cloud services, you'll likely find Apple's iPad office apps as frustrating as they are empowering. With that caveat out of the way, the apps' intuitive interfaces and relatively robust image-handling and formatting options make Pages, Numbers, and Keynote the hands-down leaders of this pack. At a distant second, Office2 HD offers better cloud support with a drastically inferior interface.


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