The Right Office Apps For the iPad at Work

Users and business managers alike are loving the iPad as a potential laptop replacement, for at least part of the time. And more and more companies are providing employees iPads or letting employees use their own. So, just as companies typically install a suite of desktop productivity apps (nearly always Microsoft Office), what should the iPad equivalent be?

The answer can't be Office, because Microsoft has no iPad-compatible suite. Microsoft's Office Web Apps cloud-based suite doesn't work on an iPad either. Google Docs is also not usable on an iPad.

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InfoWorld.com investigated the available programs and put together a recommended business apps suite that should be the standard install on corporate iPads. I was surprised to find that none of the iPad productivity suites is ideal, though one comes close. (I've added U.S. iTunes links for each app covered.)

Of course, beyond the productivity apps that nearly everyone uses, iPadders have further needs, so I've also put together a collection of additional business apps that you might make available to employees or point them to for more specialized work.

The office suite candidates are Apple's iWork suite -- Pages ($10), Numbers ($10), and Keynote ($10) -- plus Quickoffice's Quickoffice Mobile Connect Suite ($20, but its price changes frequently) and DavaViz's Documents to Go Premium ($17). Quickoffice has a word processor and spreadsheet editor; DocsToGo (as it's labeled on the iPad) has a word processor, a spreadsheet editor, and a tool to edit text and add notes to a presentation. All the programs read and write to the Microsoft Office file formats.

I first pick out the best individual productivity apps, then pull together a recommended suite that includes utilities that should be in your standard installation as well.

The best word processor for the iPad Choosing the word processor was the toughest call. Note that none of the options support revision tracking; if that's essential to your workflow, you're out of luck.

Pages. Apple's Pages is by far the most capable word processor for the iPad, with real layout controls such as the ability to designate page margins, set tabs, and add footers, headers, and images. It also has the most extensive text-formatting capabilities available, such as fonts, text size, lists, text color, line spacing, and paragraph alignment. It even spell-checks your document, highlighting potentially misspelled words; you can then have it suggest corrections by selecting the word and tapping Dictionary from the contextual menu. The search-and-replace feature even lets you constrain your actions to whole words or text with matching case, as you'd expect on the desktop. One note: If you open the Find capability from the Tools menu and don't see a field for replacement text, tap the Settings button (the gear icon) to change the mode to Find and Replace.

[ Which iPad 2 rumors are plausible? InfoWorld's Galen Gruman gives them a reality a check. ]

You can create rich, stunning documents on the iPad with Pages -- not with all the bells and whistles available on a Mac or PC in Microsoft Word, but much more than in any other mobile word processor. It's also easy to use. But Pages has two major flaws that could kill it as an option for many companies and a third flaw you should know of in order to avoid it.

The first flaw is that it doesn't retain style sheets in the documents it saves. That's significant damage to the original file and will cause major issues if the document goes through any publishing workflow, such as for eventual HTML conversion or use in Adobe InDesign. The styles' text formatting is retained, but as local formatting only. Pages does have a styles capability that applies predefined formatting to text, but it does not apply a style sheet that is editable by Pages or Word; the Pages "styles" are just local formatting groups.

The second flaw is not so fatal: It doesn't work with cloud storage services such as Google Docs, Dropbox, and Box.net. If you want to share files with others, your options are limited to email, syncing to your computer via iTunes and sharing from there, or Apple's MobileMe service.

The third flaw is a design foible: Any changes you make to a document are saved immediately in the original. You can't save the changed file later and retain the original file as is. The work-around is to make a duplicate of the file within Pages before you open it.

Next page: More word processors, plus spreadsheets, PDF tools, and more

Quickoffice. Quickoffice's word processor is simple, with straightforward controls for basic formatting, such as font, text size, paragraph alignment, and lists. There are no layout controls, so you can use Quickoffice only to work on text. But Quickoffice retains the style sheets in your imported documents, so they're intact when you later export a document, even though it doesn't let you create, edit, or apply styles.

Quickoffice can connect to Box.net, Dropbox, Google Docs, and MobileMe cloud storage, as well as to a computer directly over Wi-Fi. It also of course can email documents, and it provides a Save As option, as well as an internal folder structure so that you can organize your documents.

But Quickoffice has no search-and-replace or even search-only capability, nor a word counter.

DocsToGo. DataViz's app is similar to Quickoffice in terms of its capabilities -- they're simple text editors with basic formatting options. However, DocsToGo does offer search and replace, as well as word counting. But I can't recommend DocsToGo due to a really dumb UI design: All the controls are at the bottom of the screen, where they become hidden by the on-screen keyboard. This means hiding the keyboard to do any formatting each and every time -- a real productivity killer. (Pages and Quickoffice put the controls at the top of the screen.)

The verdict: It's a split decision. Pages is all around the better word processor, but its flaws make it unusable for many organizations. If your document workflow rests on style sheets or requires cloud storage services such as Google Docs, your best bet is Quickoffice.

The best spreadsheet editor for the iPad The capabilities of the candidate spreadsheet editors are much closer than for the word processors.

Numbers. Similar to Pages in its richness of functionality, Numbers is a full-on spreadsheet editor. You can enter complex formulas, create charts, and have multiple worksheets. The on-screen keyboard adapts to what you are entering, making special symbols and formulas very accessible. What takes a little getting used to is switching your entry mode for a cell, such as to text or to formula or to date, but that's how Numbers knows what controls to put in the on-screen keyboard.

Numbers, like its Mac OS X counterpart, takes an odd approach to spreadsheet creation if you're used to working in Excel: Adding a worksheet results in a blank page with no cells. Excel users will be mystified as to what to do next. What they need to do is add a table to the worksheet -- that's the grid of cells. In Numbers, a worksheet can have multiple tables, whereas Excel has just the one table automatically created. Once you know this, Numbers is easy to use.

Like Pages, Numbers has no Save As feature; you need to duplicate a document before opening to leave the original intact.

Quickoffice. Excel users will take to Quickoffice quickly, as it works very similarly. Quickoffice has a large set of functions available, and it's easy to work with cells, rows, and columns. The on-screen keyboard doesn't have the sophisticated contextual display that Numbers does, but Quickoffice's interface is nicely designed, so it works well without that ability.

Quickoffice has a Save As functionality, unlike Numbers. What it doesn't have is a set of charting tools, or the ability to sort columns or rows, both of which Numbers can do. Quickoffice also can't hide columns or rows -- but neither can Numbers.

DocsToGo. The spreadsheet capabilities in DocsToGo are similar to those in Quickoffice, but again its user interface is deficient. Switching among worksheets is more work than necessary, for example. But it can hide rows, sort columns, and freeze panes, none of which Quickoffice can do.

The fact that the formatting controls are on the bottom of the screen isn't as problematic as it is for text documents, since you use the keyboard less. Still, it remains a pain.

The verdict: Numbers is the most capable of the spreadsheet editors, and its quirks are ones you can adjust to pretty quickly. It's our choice for spreadsheet editor.

The best presentation software for the iPad Keynote. Apple's presentation app is simply amazing. You can create beautiful presentations with sophisticated transitions and animation effects, as well as draw on capable text and object formatting tools. There's also a presenter notes feature, and you can add graphics from the Photos app, as well as create charts, tables, and shapes. Chances are you won't miss PowerPoint if you're using Keynote. My only frustration with it (besides the lack of Save As across all iWork apps) is that it displays only in landscape orientation -- a real puzzler, given Apple's other iWork and native iPad apps are orientation-adjusting.

Quickoffice. The Quickoffice suite cannot view, edit, or create presentations.

DocsToGo. The DocsToGo suite lets you open PowerPoint presentations and add notes to them, such as to make comments or provide feedback to your spreadsheet jockey.

It also has basic editing capabilities. You can edit the text in your slides, though to do so you must switch to outline mode. Furthermore, you can do no formatting. You can also create blank slides and duplicate or delete existing ones. Note that if you're in outline mode, you have to go back to slide preview mode to insert a new slide. You can't delete or duplicate slides when in outline view.

The result is that DocsToGo is fine for touchup work on existing presentations or to create a basic text-only presentation that you might use as the starting point for a slideshow you add images and formatting to on the desktop -- but that's all.

The verdict: The only real choice is Keynote. It's easily the strongest of the three iWork apps, able to replace PowerPoint completely for many users.

The best PDF markup program for the iPad There are dozens of apps to open PDF documents on the iPad, but the built-in Preview app does that for mail attachments, and most Wi-Fi file-sharing apps preview PDF documents. What you really want is a program that can mark up PDF files, adding sticky notes and the like.

That app is GoodReader ($2). You can do most of the markup you would in Adobe Reader, such as notes, highlights, and even free-form shapes (for example, to circle an item). Once you get the hang of using your finger like a mouse for such actions, it's an easy-to-handle app.

GoodReader is not just a PDF markup app. It can also view Office files, text files, and pictures, as well as play audio files. In addition, it comes with a Wi-Fi file-sharing capability to transfer documents to your computer.

The best iPad utilities most everyone should have The iPad can't open Zip files -- an amazing omission in the iPhone and iPod Touch as well. There are several apps that can unzip files, but the best is ZipThat ($1). Its clean interface makes it easy to use.

Although the iPhone comes with a calculator app, the iPad doesn't. There are several calculator apps for the iPad, but I prefer the simple, capable Calculator Pro ($1). If you do lots of calculations and want a tape function to capture all calculations (and email that history as a file), then get the less aesthetically pleasing Calculator HD ($1).

If you view Photoshop native files, such as for page layout, Web, or presentation projects, get the AirFilesHD app ($1), which also offers Wi-Fi file sharing and basic drawing capabilities. As you can see, Wi-Fi file sharing is built into lots of apps!

The iPad's own Notes app is fine for taking notes, and its Calendar app is perfectly suitable to manage your appointments. There are tons of alternative apps for both, but I don't see the point. There are two exceptions: The Notes Plus app ($4) lets you take handwritten notes with a stylus (such as Ten One Design's Pogo Stylus), then export them to PDF, though it doesn't convert the handwriting to text. You can also type in text and include audio recordings. If your notes include drawings, Notes Plus is the way to go. The Notability app ($5) is designed for people who take notes while recording lectures, presentations, and the like. Afterward, if you tap any text you entered, Notability will play back the audio recording from that point in time, so you can hear what was being said as you were typing.

Beyond these broadly useful utilities, chances are some workers will also need additional apps for more specialized tasks. So I've put together a collection of such additional business apps that you might make available to employees as part of an in-house catalog or point them to as recommendations.

Should you provide a keyboard and VGA connector? The iPad's on-screen keyboard is surprisingly easy to use, especially in landscape orientation, where it's a full-size keyboard. You don't get the tactile feedback of a key press, but I found I adjusted very quickly to touch tapping without that feedback.

Apple makes a very nice Bluetooth keyboard, the $69 Apple Wireless Keyboard; other Bluetooth keyboards work with the iPad as well. You would think they make typing faster, but they don't unless you're in stenographic mode, transcribing a meeting or call as opposed to writing and editing. The reason is that there are few keyboard shortcuts available for iPad apps, so you're constantly taking your hands off the keyboard and moving them to the iPad's screen. That kills any speed advantage of the physical keyboard.

There are keyboard shortcuts for copy, cut, and paste, and you can Shift-select ranges of text. There are also top-of-document and bottom-of-document shortcuts. Plus, you can enter accented characters and other special symbols using the same Option shortcuts as on a Mac. But there are no shortcuts (or keys) for Page Up and Page Down -- two extremely common editing keys -- or for formatting such as boldface, italics, underline, and paragraph alignment.

Apple also makes a VGA connector that plugs into the iPad's 30-pin connector, the $29 Apple Dock Connector to VGA Adapter. This is a worthwhile purchase if you're using Keynote to make presentations via a projector or TV. But note that most apps don't support this connector, and Apple prevents it from displaying commercial video purchased or rented from iTunes; you can't use it to hook up an iPad to a monitor as you would a laptop when you want a bigger screen for your routine work.

Putting it all together: The ideal office "suite" Given that no one suite does it all well enough, what is the ideal combination? That's a tough decision, but I've concluded the best overall productivity suite is Pages, Numbers, Keynote, GoodReader, and ZipThat.

If Pages' lack of style-sheet retention is a deal-breaker, your ideal iPad productivity suite is Quickoffice, Keynote, GoodReader, Calculator Pro, and ZipThat. (You might make Numbers available as well for those who need to create charts and do more sophisticated spreadsheet work than Quickoffice can accomplish.) DocsToGo's spreadsheet editor is better than Quickoffice's, but the bottom-of-the-screen placement of DocsToGo's controls makes it too hard to use for text editing.

Either way, toss in AirFilesHD if you need to view Photoshop files and either Notes Plus or Notability if you need more sophisticated note-taking capabilities.

This article, "The right office apps for the iPad at work," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com.

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