Microsoft Office for iPad review: Finally! True productivity on your tablet

Microsoft Office for iPad review: Finally! True productivity on your tablet

Microsoft's Office for Apple's iPad tablet is a beautiful hybrid of form and function, competing with and even outdoing Apple's iWork suite.

When Apple announced that its iWork suite would be bundled, free of charge, with new iOS and Mac devices, it seemingly slammed the door on Microsoft's Office ambitions for the iPad. How could Microsoft bring its pricey Office suite into a world of free (and almost free) apps?

The answer: Outdo iWork in both form and function. Apple claims that products like its Pages are the most beautiful office software for iPad and other Apple devices. With Office for iPad, Microsoft has stolen that crown.

Microsoft's Office for iPad is a collection of three apps: Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. (OneNote for the iPad has been available since 2011, and Microsoft's Lync, Skype, and Yammer are also available.) Users can download each, free of charge, from Apple's iTunes on an iPad running iOS 7.0 or above. And each is free to use to view documents that have been created elsewhere.

But Office 365 also includes a subscription to OneDrive, Microsoft's cloud storage solution, a central repository from which one can withdraw and store documents. In a nice twist, you can connect both your personal OneDrive and OneDrive for Business accounts and connect to SharePoint as well. However, to create or edit  documents, you must subscribe to Office 365: either Office 365 Home Premium ($9.99 per month), the upcoming Office 365 Personal ($6.99 per month), or one of several business options. Each Office 365 subscription includes at least one tablet subscription, which covers Office for iPad.

What makes Office for iPad so important, naturally, is that one can actually do something with the document, rather than hunt and peck at it, as one must in Office Mobile on a smartphone.

Built for touch from the ground up

According to Michael Atalla, director of product management for Office, Office for iPad represents neither a "blown-up" Office Mobile for iPhone nor a stripped-down Office for Windows, but rather a custom version of Office designed expressly for the iPad.

I completely agree. Office for iPad represents the distilled Office experience, poured into an iOS glass. Quite frankly, I prefer it to working in Office 2013, if only because Microsoft organizes the most commonly-used functions so intuitively, using an icon-driven ribbon at the top of the screen. In Word, for example, Office for iPad preserves the footnoting capability but cuts out the "Mailings" and "References" headings. Chances are you won't miss them.

Working with text in Office for iPad should be intuitive to anyone who has used iOS: Tapping once on a word moves the cursor to that location; tapping twice creates a series of slider bars to highlight a block of text. Pressing and releasing brings up a set of options to select or insert text. Holding down your finger brings up the zoom or spyglass icon. Atalla said that Microsoft developed an elongated, widened zoom that highlighted a word. All I saw was the default circular view, however.

For most of my testing, I paired Microsoft's preloaded iPad Air with a Pi Dock-It Pro keyboard case from Parle Innovation, but I also found myself banging away on the tablet itself. Touch is simply so intuitive for moving images around and resizing PowerPoint slide headings, especially as the text realigns itself to flow around the newly-sized art. It's not perfect: I ran into situations where I almost had to tap randomly to select a field, then edit the text within it. But eventually I was able to accomplish what I set out to do.

Functionality preserved, mostly

Occasionally Microsoft will get too cute, however. Take find-and-replace, a fairly common function. In Word 2013, typing CTRL-F automatically brings up the Find and Replace menu. In Office for iPad, however, there are no keyboard shortcuts. And to find a word, you'll need to tap the magnifying-glass "search" icon at the top right, then tap the settings gear to the far left. Only then will you find the replace function you were looking for. It's not totally unintuitive, but a bit awkward nevertheless.

In general, Office for iPad retains some of the value-added features that have become associated with Office, including the ability to track changes and to co-author documents. Tracking changes, for its part, takes up the bulk of the "Review" menu in Word for iPad and seems especially well implemented. Coauthoring is supported, so that many people can work on a document at the same time.

And in Excel Online, the default options for "Home" appear to exceed what Microsoft has built into Excel for iPad, including the "tell me what you want to do" search box. In fact, there's no obvious help functionality in Office for iPad at all. (It's there, though: Click the autosave "button" in the top left corner to see a Help and Support option.)

But from a feature perspective, comparing Microsoft's Office Web Apps and Office for iPad reveals that the tablet app is just a few steps up from the Web-based app. In Word, for example, you have the ability to add a shape or a footnote to a selected piece of text. This function isn't available in the iPad version, but everything else remains the same between the two. Like Word Online, there's spell-checking, but no grammar checker or thesaurus. Power users will find that some of the more sophisticated section formatting options aren't available.

On the other hand, some lovely little touches help ameliorate any angst those omissions cause. For example, Microsoft built a custom keypad into Excel to smooth data entry and speed the entry of formulas. For that matter, the formulas (not functions, as Excel Online calls them) are neatly organized by category, similar to how Excel 2013 organizes them. Again, the templates (16 in Excel for iPad, versus 9 for Excel Online, and 26 default templates for Excel 2013) prove exceedingly useful, as do the default options for charts and graphs.

A solid tablet tool

One feature that Microsoft has excluded--for now--is the "live data" functionality, such as PowerMap, built into the PowerBI functionality for Office 2013. When I asked about this, Atalla gave a very Google-like response: Office 365 is "moving fast" and will add new features in the future.

Traditionally, Office Web Apps (now Office Online) felt a bit like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football: Just when a particular feature was desperately needed, Microsoft would try to upsell you to its full-fledged Office suite. I never ran into that in Office for iPad, nor did I run into too many situations where it simply couldn't perform a basic but vital task.

At present, I haven't spent enough time with Office for iPad alongside the Apple iWork suite (Pages, Numbers, Keynote) to definitively give one suite the edge over the other. My thinking, however, is that you'll prefer Word for iPad over Pages, with perhaps a slight edge to Excel, as well. I've always been very impressed with Keynote, however, and I suspect that most iPad users will prefer to stick with it.

Nevertheless, kudos to the Office for iPad team. They've created a suite of "free" apps as good or better than anything Apple has created. My only remaining question is this: What will the new version of Office for the Mac look like? If Microsoft can make lightning strike twice, Apple's iWork team will have its work cut out for it.

Correction:  An Office 365 subscription is required to edit as well as create documents.

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