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Free with Office 365 subscription ($70-$99.99 a year to create and edit documents)
Microsoft productivity apps optimized for the iPad.
Nearly four years ago Apple introduced the iPad, forever changing the mobile device landscape. Currently there are roughly 500,000 apps native to iPad available from the Apple App Store, but until recently, there wasn’t a native app, or suite of apps, to complement Microsoft’s Office productivity suite for the iPad. iPhone and Android phone users had apps to navigate and create Office apps, but they were scaled-back versions of the desktop-based applications. That all changed when Microsoft, deviating from its long-standing “Windows-First” model, released apps for Excel, PowerPoint and Word. Having used Microsoft Office my entire professional career, I was never able to embrace Google’s productivity apps or Apple’s iWork, each with their own word processing, presentation and spreadsheet utilities. So when I heard that Microsoft was releasing native iPad apps for the software I use almost every day, I was thrilled. Here is my review of the three apps.
Office for iPad
Before I get into the individual apps, there are a few things worth pointing out. First, unlike the Office iPhone app, which housed all the different “programs” under the same roof, there is a separate iPad app for each. In a way this makes sense, because these are full-fledged programs, each over 200MB. Instead of taking up storage space on your iPad with apps you aren’t using, you have the option to pick and choose which ones you want to install.
Second (and this is where a lot of people get angry), is that the apps are free if you want to view your Office documents, but if you want to create or edit a Word, Excel or PowerPoint document, you need to have an Office 365 subscription. Last year, Microsoft moved to a subscription model for the latest desktop version of Office. Office 365 Home Premium (which I reviewed in the Fourth Quarter 2013 issue) costs $9.99 a month or $99.99 a year, which gives you unlimited updates and the right to install the suite on up to five PCs or Macs simultaneously. Microsoft also recently launched a personal version of Office 365 that costs $70 a year and can be installed on a single PC or Mac. Microsoft offers a 30-day free trial of Office 365 Home Premium.
Some people are turned off by the subscription model; once you stop renewing, the software reverts to the free “read-only” version that only allows you to view your Office docs, but not create new ones or edit existing ones. However, while I may be the exception, I like being able to install Office 365 on multiple PCs without having to buy a new license. The subscription also entitles me to program updates and upgrades for as long as I pay, so I’ll always have the latest versions of the Office desktop apps. I have Office 365 installed on my office desktop and my office laptop, my home laptop and my Microsoft Surface tablet.
If you are already an Office 365 subscriber, installing these apps on your iPad is really a no-brainer. Microsoft, in my opinion, really has come up with the best native iPad productivity available today. If you are using an older version of Office, however, the question becomes a bit muddied. If you are a “power” user of Office and are looking for an alternative to the available competitors or the existing Office Online apps (formerly Office Web Apps), an Office 365 subscription may be something to consider. Prior to the release of the native iPad apps, I used the Word web app when I was writing articles on my iPad. However, I still preferred the desktop versions for creating and editing spreadsheets and presentations. If you are a more casual user of Office, I’m not sure that native iPad apps make the annual subscription fee worthwhile.
Office 365 also includes a subscription to OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive), Microsoft’s cloud storage solution. From this central location, you can access your Office docs from any PC or mobile device. Another point of contention with some users is that Microsoft didn’t offer integration with Google Drive or Dropbox, which was undoubtedly a move to protect its proprietary cloud turf.
The Office for iPad apps have been built from the ground up as a custom version of Office designed natively for iPad, meaning they are specifically designed to make the most of the iPad’s larger screen. The apps are designed for a touch-friendly environment and Microsoft, surprisingly, has created a clean, uncluttered work environment unlike anything I’ve seen from its desktop applications. Furthermore, Microsoft has integrated many of the touch features that have become automatic to iOS users, such as tapping once on a location to move the cursor there and double-tapping to bring up slider bars for highlighting text for cutting or copying. While capitalizing on iPad’s touch capability, Microsoft has also been cognizant of replicating key functionality found in Office 365, such as the arrow at the top left corner of each app that, when tapped, will display a File menu where you can create a new document, reopen a recently used file or browse your local and cloud storage to find a particular file. As with Office 365, commands for each app are accessed via a ribbon at the top of each app, although the features and number of options is limited compared to the desktop versions.
While Microsoft has done an excellent job making its Office for iPad apps touch-friendly, the true power of these apps, and the iPad itself, is only fully unlocked when you pair the iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard. This is true if you are using Google Docs or iWork on an iPad as well.
Lastly, the Office for iPad apps lack printing capability, which is a bit of a head-scratcher. However, I never print from my iPad, so this doesn’t impact me all that much. I use Office across multiple platforms, including desktop and laptop PCs with networked printing, so I am rarely inconvenienced by this omission. It’s worth pointing out, however, that Microsoft has implied that printing should be coming in the near future.
Word for iPad
With the Word app, you have 14 predefined document templates from which to choose when creating a new document, or you can opt for a blank document. The toolbar consists of five tabs—Home, Insert, Layout, Review and View. The Home tab is where you assign styles, modify character formatting, adjust line spacing and indents, and apply bullets and numbers to lists. Compared to the Office 365 desktop app, you can’t define custom bullets or numbering formats, nor can you define styles on the iPad app.
With the app you can add a variety of items to your Word doc, including photos, tables, shapes, text boxes, footnotes and hyperlinks. You can also add and modify headers and footers, adjust margins, add page numbers and modify the page size and orientation.
Since you are able to share documents with others via Microsoft’s OneDrive cloud storage, all of the Office for iPad apps offer extensive collaboration functionality. There is full support for revision marks and comments, including being able to see who made specific changes or comments. You can also see if a document you are reviewing or editing is currently being viewed or edited by someone else. To prevent others from modifying portions of a shared document, the app provides a “block authors” feature.
One missing feature that I personally hope Microsoft adds soon is a grammar check. Since I plan on using the Word app for writing when I am traveling, having this functionality will be a blessing to my editorial department. As it is, the app currently only offers spell check.
Excel for iPad
When creating a new document in Excel for iPad, you have 15 custom templates to choose from, or a new blank workbook. Again, the toolbar ribbon is condensed to five tabs: Home, Insert, Formulas, Review and View.
The Excel for iPad app is definitely a step up from the iPhone app, which didn’t even let you add columns to a worksheet. With the iPad version, you can add columns and rows along with pictures, text boxes and a variety of charts and graphs. One feature that is not supported with Excel for iPad is pivot tables.
One handy feature the developers added is a custom keypad that you can toggle to from the default virtual on-screen keyboard.
Working with formulas in the app was surprisingly easy. The Formulas ribbon menu arranges formulas by category, including logical, text, lookup & reference and math & trigonometry. As a “power” Excel user who writes the majority of the articles for CI’s Spreadsheet Corner column, I was interested to see whether the complex formulas I often use when creating spreadsheets carried over to the iPad app. I was pleasantly surprised to see that most, if not all, did.
PowerPoint for iPad
Compared to the Word, and to a lesser extent the Excel, iPad apps, I feel that the PowerPoint app is more about presenting than creating presentations. That mainly has to do with the fact that creating a presentation on a tablet-sized screen is a bit of a challenge. I’m normally inserting spreadsheet worksheets, pulling images from a variety of locations or referring to other documents or websites when creating a presentation, and the limited real estate of a tablet makes this nearly impossible. You have 19 custom themes to choose from if you are creating a new presentation, but the app doesn’t allow you to customize them. However, you can add transitions between slides (38 in all) and rearrange the slide order of a presentation.
As someone who gives presentations to AAII Local Chapters, I am curious to see how the iPad performs when connected to a projector. With the app you have the option of displaying a virtual laser pointer, pen or highlighter to highlight, point out or annotate items on the screen to display to your audience. There is also a “whiteboard mode”—a black screen where you can write comments and diagrams.
Overall, as a current Office 365 subscriber, the new Office iPad apps will undoubtedly become some of my most-used apps. Much of this comes down to personal preference. I haven’t spent a lot of time with the Apple iWork suite, but my first inclination, based on other reviews I’ve read, is that the Word and Excel apps are more robust than Apple’s Pages (desktop publishing) and Numbers (spreadsheet) programs.
These apps are not merely a watered down version of Office 2013 for use on an iPad. Microsoft has taken the time (nearly four years, to be exact) to create apps that are sleek and intuitive. Do they offer everything you can get with the desktop version of Office 2013? Definitely not. But they are absolutely a step up from the iPhone and Android apps.
These apps can do almost everything an average user would want to do. There are some annoying feature lapses to be sure, such as a lack of grammar check in Word, lack of integration with Google Drive or Dropbox, and missing print capability. However, it doesn’t sound like Microsoft is going to rest on its laurels, as enhancements to the apps are already in the works.
The bottom line, if you are looking for a productivity suite that you can use across your PC or Mac, iPhone and iPad, Office 365 and its corresponding apps are worth a look. The 30-day free trial of Office 365 is also a nice enticement.
Free with Office 365 subscription ($70-$99.99 a year to create and edit documents)