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Microsoft Office does its best to challenge the reigning Apple iWork.
The on-the-go business app toolkit for the iPad
Of the tens of thousands of apps available for the iPad, only a relative few are must-have tools for business use. Productivity apps have seen major change lately, with updates to iWork, the introduction of Microsoft Office, the removal of Office2HD as a generally available app, and Google's changes to Quickoffice.
Read on for our picks of the best native office editors, best cloud office editors, and best native companion productivity tools for the iPad. (And most also work on the iPhone, too!)
InfoWorld Test Center scorecards: Native office apps
In the wake of the iOS 7 redesign, Apple has significantly updated iWork for iOS, providing more capabilities and greater compatibility with the OS X and (new) Web versions of its office suite.
After years of neglect, a new version of Documents to Go became available earlier this fall. And Google made its (bad) mark on Quickoffice, which it acquired more than a year ago, by dropping cloud storage support and forcing the use of Google Drive in some circumstances. Then there's the new Microsoft Office taking them all on.
Best word processor: Apple Pages
Apple's iWork Pages is good at layout-oriented documents, and it offers revisions tracking, tables, spell checking, search and replace, text formatting, graphics insertion, commenting, password protection, AirPrint printing, and both ePub and PDF export. It also permits multiuser editing via the Web (but with no revisions tracking or file security).
It does have some limits: You can't work directly with documents in cloud storage services, just those in Apple's iCloud. You must copy a file before editing; there's no Save As feature once you begin editing. You can't create or apply character styles, and you can't create paragraph styles.
Runner-up word processor (tie): Microsoft Word
The new Word for iPad is equivalent in editing capabilities to Apple Pages, missing password protection and comment insertion but supporting hyperlink insertion and allowing you to choose the proofing language.
The reason Word doesn't tie with Pages is because of its inability to print, as well as its poor file-handling and file-sharing capabilities -- you can't send document to other apps, or rename files or manage file folders.
Runner-up word processor (tie): Infraware Polaris Office 5
Perhaps the best office suite for Android, Polaris Office provides the capabilities you need and is similar to what Pages and Word provide, without Word's file and sharing limitations. Plus it lets you directly access cloud services for opening and saving files, which lets you work more easily across platforms.
Where Office 5 falls down is that the user experience is basic and the app a bit slow; it lacks some of the sophistication of Pages and Word.
The rest of the iPad word processors
DataViz's $16.99 Documents to Go Premium offers the basics, but no more. A recent update made it run slower and added none of the key missing features: graphics insertion, paragraph styles, and revisions tracking. Its only advanced feature is its extensive support for cloud storage, including iCloud.
Google's Quickoffice (free with a Google account) remains a midlevel word processor if you edit local files, but its functionality is too limited for cloud-stored files.
Artifex's $9.99 Smart Office 2 is, in a word, unusable due to a very poor user interface and limited capabilities. And accessing cloud storage requires signing up for spam.
Best spreadsheet editor: Apple Numbers
Apple's iWork Numbers spreadsheet editor is great at data entry, especially numeric, date, and formula info. The keyboard even adjusts based on the type of data you're working with.
Cell formatting is less flexible than in Excel, and Excel users may dislike Numbers' approach to creating worksheets: Numbers allows several on a page. But the newest version better supports multisheet workbooks and adds CSV export, animated charts, and (unsecured) group editing via the Web.
Also, like all iWork apps, the only cloud storage service you can directly edit files in is Apple's own iCloud. But it does support AirPrint and PDF export.
Runner-up spreadsheet editor: Microsoft Excel
Although Excel for iPad has the same serious file, sharing, and printing flaws as Word, it works just like Excel jockeys would expect with oodles of functions and a few key features like pane freezing that Numbers lacks. However, Excel may frustrate even Excel jockeys when they discover they can't remove inserted charts.
Still, Excel's instant familiarity will likely trump its deficits for current desktop Excel users, even if Numbers technically offers more capability overall.
The rest of the iPad spreadsheet editors
DataViz's $16.99 Documents to Go Premium offers the basics, but no more. It's languished for several years, so it's not a good investment choice (the recent update was trivial). It does not support printing or PDF export.
Google's Quickoffice (free with a Google account) is very Excel-like if you edit local files, but its functionality is too limited for cloud-stored files.
Infraware's $12.99 Polaris Office 5 has a competent if basic set of spreadsheet features, but its user interface is awkward.
Artifex's $9.99 Smart Office 2 is simply unusable due to a very poor user interface and limited capabilities.
Best presentation editor: Apple Keynote
Simply put, iWork Keynote is an amazing slideshow editor. We prefer it over PowerPoint even on the Mac. And on the iPad it works beautifully when creating complex slide transitions and element effects, which competing apps can't do. The newest version adds more animation capabilities and (unsecured) Web-based collaborative editing, plus the ability to remotely control a Keynote presentation on another Mac, iPad, or iPhone.
Keynote's big negative is its awkward requirement of copying documents to and from cloud storage services, rather than allowing direct access. But it supports AirPrint and PDF export.
The rest of the iPad presentation editors
DataViz's $16.99 Documents to Go Premium is less than basic when it comes to presentation editing, allowing just text touchup.
The free-with-Google-account Quickoffice's presentation editor is basic, really aimed at touching up presentations and not creating new slideshows.
Infraware's Polaris Office 5 runs slowly when working with slideshows, and offers just basic capabilities.
Microsoft PowerPoint (requires an Office 365 subscription) is neither basic nor sophisticated, with sufficient features for editing and basic spreadsheet creation.
Artifex's $9.99 Smart Office 2 is unusable due to a very poor user interface and limited capabilities.
InfoWorld Test Center scorecards: Cloud office apps
As Apple, Google, and Microsoft battle over in-the-cloud office editing on the desktop, the action on the iPad centers around native apps. Several cloud-based tools use iPad apps as the front end, doing the heavy lifting in the cloud.
Best Microsoft Office in-the-cloud service: CloudOn Pro
With a Pro subscription, the CloudOn app nicely accesses the 2010 versions of Excel, PowerPoint, and Word, as well as Adobe Reader, hosted on Windows Server. Plus, it supports the iPad's native keyboard and Share facility. It uses your Box, Dropbox, Google Drive, and SkyDrive cloud storage, so you don't have to worry about version control across devices.
It has a few flaws, but when you need the full desktop version of Microsoft Office, CloudOn is a handy option -- as long as you have a live Internet connection. The free CloudOn service remains available but lacks essential business features, such as revisions tracking.
The rest of the Microsoft Office in-the-cloud services for the iPad
Two services let you run Office 2010 as a hosted app over the Internet from a Windows Server, with the claimed benefit of giving you the actual Microsoft experience on your iPad.
The subscription-based Microsoft Office 365's hosted Office Web Apps works surprisingly well in the iPad's Safari browser but has little integration with the iPad, so accessing local files or printing requires labor-intensive workarounds. (Log in from office.microsoft.com.)
The free OnLive Desktop is a horrible Office hosting service. Ignore it.
Amazon Web Services offers its WorkSpaces Windows-in-a-cloud service for $35/month, which has an iPad app. However, it's clearly meant as a PC replacement, not an iPad adjunct, so we did not test it.
The rest of the alternative cloud-based office editors
An alternative to hosted Office services are Web-based document editors.
The free AstralPad provides moderate editing capabilities -- more than Google Drive, less than hosted Office. But it's very slow, allows only two open documents, can't print, requires manual keyboard activation and has a confusing interface. It does allow access to Dropbox and Google Drive files.
Google's Drive (free with a Google account) can only edit text and do rudimentary formatting -- and only for files saved in Google's own format in your desktop browser. The same is true for spreadsheets; there's no formula editor, for example. And it can only view presentations. It's not the editor Google promotes it as.
Editor's Choice: Must-have productivity iPad apps
Beyond the holy trinity of office productivity apps -- those for textual documents, spreadsheets, and presentations -- are lots of iPad specialty apps. Some are so broadly useful that they should be on nearly everyone's iPad. Our picks for those follow.
Best file manager: GoodReader
Many people really wish the iPad had a shared file system like a PC or Mac, but it doesn't. GoodReader can give you much of the file manager you want. It provides a central file repository for files you transfer via Wi-Fi, various storage services, iTunes, and the Open In facility used by many iOS apps (such as Mail).
GoodReader -- as its name implies -- also lets you read many file formats, including several not supported by iOS's naive QuickLook facility. Plus, it unzips file archives, so you don't need a separate utility for the task.
Best PDF markup: GoodReader
GoodReader didn't start as a PDF annotation tool, but it's evolved into a darned good one. You get the key markup and editing tools you expect from Acrobat Professional. The app is good at using touch gestures for highlighting portions of your PDF for markup.
Our only quibbles are getting the markup menu back can be tricky and you can't rotate individual pages, so sometimes you're marking up a page rotated 90 degrees from the orientation of the sticky note's text you're adding.
Best note-taker (tie): Notability
Taking notes is a very personal activity, and dozens of apps for the iPad reflect all those preferences. But three such apps work well for most people. One is the iPad's built-in Notes app, which is great for typing in text-only notes and syncing them to your computer and other devices.
If you want notes that include audio recordings and drawings, you should also get Notability. It's straightforward to use and associates your recordings to what you type as you type; to hear the portion of a recording made when you typed in specific text, just tap that text. It works with iCloud and on iPhones.
Best note-taker (tie): Evernote
Another note-taker you should consider is Evernote. It's a Web-based service that collects snippets of information -- more Post It-style notes than detailed meeting notes, though it can do those too -- and synchronizes all that info across your devices and computers.
You can create buckets and move items around them, and you won't be as likely to lose them as you do all those scraps on your desk. For collaborative note-taking, Evernote offers several paid subscription options.
Microsoft OneNote is similar in many respects, but it's too complex for our taste.
Best calculator: Calculator Original
Who doesn't need a calculator now and then? But unlike the iPhone, the iPad doesn't come with one built in. Fortunately, you can get an iPad version of that familiar iPhone calculator for free. There are fancier ones in the App Store, but Calculator Original's simplicity keeps us going back to it.
Best cloud storage: Dropbox
Apple's iCloud is a great service for keeping files and other data synced across iOS and OS X devices, but it's not (yet) a storage service where you can keep files in a central location accessible to all devices and other users.
Dropbox is such a service, and it's integrated with many iPad apps so it can fill in as a common file system in some cases. Dropbox also integrates nicely with OS X and Windows, appearing as another storage volume. It's available for Android as well. Note that using Dropbox with Apple's iWork apps requires a $5 monthly fee.
Other cloud storage tools for the iPad
We used to recommend Box, but its new CAPTCHA sign-in requirement does not really work on the iPad, making it impossible to log in if you forgot your password. Major fail.
Although Google Drive is supported by many apps natively, it's a good idea to also have the client app for direct access to your files.
Microsoft's OneDrive app is the default storage location for Office 365, Windows 8, Office for iPad, and Office Web Apps, so it's essential for Microsoft users. Few apps support OneDrive natively, so you'll need to transfer files.
Best task manager: OmniFocus
If you're a project manager who needs serious task management capabilities, such as timelines, multimedia annotations, multiple assignees, calendar integration, and hierarchical steps, OmniFocus is the gold standard for iOS and OS X. If all you need is a to-do list, the iPad's built-in Reminders app is primitive but serviceable.
Best FTP client: FTP on the Go Pro
Cloud storage services have made FTP utilities archaic for many users, but if you work on a website or in many file-management systems, you still need a client. For the iPad, that client should be FTP on the Go. It not only does the FTP uploading and downloading you'd expect, but also provides a basic HTML editor so that you can touch up your Web pages.
16 November 2023