Office Suites for iPad: The Roundup
Product mentioned in this article
Apple iPad 2 family
The iPad 2 remains a solid choice, thanks to its lower price and strong app choices.
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.
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.