iPad Office app showdown: Four apps to help you get work done

The Apple iPad is an extremely powerful device and there are now some excellent Office-compatible applications available. In this showdown we take a look at the four top apps for working on the road and ask you which is your favorite.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer

Some of the first apps I purchased for my Apple iPad were the three iWork apps since they were the only Office apps available at launch. We have since seen the rollout of more applications that were previously on the iPhone and today we have a wide selection of Office apps for the iPad. I recently wrote an article on a few of these apps for the upcoming fall edition of iPhone Life Magazine and wanted to also present you readers with a comparison of these apps to help you make an informed purchase decision since there are no trials of these apps available. In this article you will see information on the iWork apps (Pages, Numbers, and Keynote), Documents To Go, Quickoffice HD, and Office2 HD. You can check out several screenshots the apps in my image gallery, a more thorough walk through each application in my video, and written thoughts found below.

Image Gallery: Check out some key screenshots of Office applications for the Apple iPad.
Image Gallery: Keynote on the iPad
Image Gallery: Quickoffice HD spreadsheet work

I have been using my iPhone and other smartphones for Office Word and Excel work, but the Apple iPad provides me with a MUCH better platform for working with these documents thanks to the large display and long battery life. My iPad has traveled with me on a few recent business trips as my only computer thanks in large part to having applications that allow me to work on the go. Documents To Go and Quickoffice have been on the iPhone for quite some time and I have covered them extensively on my Smartphones & Cell Phones blog. As we have seen on the iPhone developers have worked hard to improve both of these applications and now we are seeing this kind of competitive atmosphere on the iPad.

iWork suite

Apple released their iWork suite for the iPad as three separate applications, each available for $9.99. I have to honestly say that Apple has made working with Office documents more fun than I ever thought work could be and I do enjoy using the applications. There are a couple of fairly major limits with the apps, but being that they are made and promoted by Apple they are some of the top selling applications for the iPad.

Pages (iTunes link) is the word processing application and Apple has a slick video showing off the main features. You can view and edit Pages and Word documents and export documents in Pages, Word, and PDF formats to share your document with others. Joel mentioned that there are issues with round tripping documents so if you need to keep document formats intact then you may want to try out another application. When you launch Pages you will see any existing documents you have on your iPad in large preview mode or you can tap the + icon to create a new document or duplicate an existing document. One very cool feature when you select to add a new document is the 16 templates that Apple provides. You can select one of the templates and then simply tap on the elements in the document to edit and customize the document for your needs.

You will find document editing and formatting controls on the top of the display with main editing features having buttons (bold, italic, underline, justification, tab, etc.). Tapping the "i" icon in the very top bar gives you quick access to text style (including font type and size), list, and layout options. Tapping the picture icon lets you insert media, tables, charts, and shapes. Tapping the wrench icon gives you access to document setup, find, help, and edge guide/spelling toggles. It is easy to access all of these formatting tools and the part of the application that makes editing and creation fun is that you can tap and drag tables, photos, etc. around the document for placement and design of your document.

Numbers (iTunes link) is the spreadsheet application associated with the iWork suite and as an engineer I find this application to be even more user friendly than Pages. Apple has a video of Numbers in action as well. Similar to Pages you start in a preview browser view of loaded spreadsheets with options to share or export spreadsheets, create a new spreadsheet, or delete a spreadsheet. Unfortunately, one of the major limitations for me is that you can only export Numbers spreadsheets as Numbers or PDF files with no support for Exporting as an Excel spreadsheet. This fact alone makes Numbers pretty worthless to me as I need to edit Excel files and then send them along as Excel workbooks. I have never seen spreadsheets this intuitive to work with though as you can move elements around as flawlessly as a drag and drop on the display.

Apple does a good job of keeping the user interface similar across their three iWork applications with the main formatting and editing controls positioned in the upper right of the display. The "i" icon gives you access to formatting cells (color, positioning, borders, number, currency, etc.), tables, header editing, and more. Media, tables, charts, and shapes can be inserted into your spreadsheet. The real meat of working with spreadsheets is creating and editing cells. You simply double tap a cell to have a new keyboard appear with quick options to cell functions, simple math functions, date/time, and text keyboard input options. Multiple sheets are supported and Apple makes it easy to navigate around your workbook.

Keynote (iTunes link) is Apple's presentation software and again they have a slick video showing you the software. Keynote works only in landscape mode and again has the same controls in the upper right corner. Also similar to Numbers you can export only in Keynote or PDF formats so there is now PowerPoint export or sharing in Keynote. It is just as intuitive to move elements around your presentations too with drag and drop support. You can move, scale, and rotate objects in your presentation and it really is a slick user interface to work with on the iPad.

If you use iWork on your Mac then it is probably a natural fit for you to purchase the iWork apps, but if Excel and PowerPoint export are important then you will want to look at one of the other applications available for the iPad.

DataViz's Documents To Go is up next »

Documents To Go

I have been using DataViz's Documents To Go applications for years on my smartphones and iPhone and IMHO they took the lead from Quickoffice back in March with their added support for cloud storage solutions. DataViz released their iPad optimized version in early June and the update came in the form of a universal application so it was free to existing iPhone Documents To Go owners. The Documents To Go Premium version (iTunes link) is available now for $11.99 while the regular suite version (iTunes link) costs $7.99. The Premium version gives you support for PowerPoint, Microsoft Exchange, and online storage services. Documents To Go is currently the only other Office suite for the iPad I could find that supports PowerPoint editing and creation (Keynote being the other) so if PowerPoint on the go with your iPad is important then you need to check out Documents To Go.

After testing out the iWork suite and then Documents To Go, DTG became my favorite for the cloud file support, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint import and export support, and familiar user interface. You will see that Documents To Go is not near as flashy as the iWork suite and there is lots of work that can be done to improve the user interface on the iPad. DataViz brought their DTG version to the iPad as a larger iPhone version without much additional work on iPad/tablet interface elements. However, it is the most powerful in terms of connectivity, functionality, and Office document support.

Documents To Go version 3.3 starts up in the file browser page showing you folders for your local files (transferred to the iPad via iTunes or email attachments), desktop files (way to browse your desktop via the desktop application), and cloud files. Documents To Go supports Google Docs, Box.net, Dropbox, iDisk, and SugarSync online storage services and you can even add multiple accounts for each of these. New file formats can either be in MS Office 97-2004/XP or MS Office 2007-2008 formats. Your recent files appear on the lower half of the file browser display. In the upper left corner you will find an icon to access settings and add desktops and cloud accounts. In the upper right you will find an icon that lets you create a new Word, Excel, or PowerPoint document or an email with attachments.

When you launch the word processing module you will see a full row of icons along the bottom that are in white on a black background and actually look a bit old school. Tapping some of these icons pops up a subset of icons (for example the paragraph icon pops up 5 icons for justification options) and tapping these makes the action occur. There are icons for save, email, text formatting, paragraph alignment, bullets & numbering, indent and tabs, find, jump to top, middle, bottom, undo and redo, word count, document info, and full screen toggle. The icons are pretty self-explanatory, but I would like to have seen slightly larger icons with some color added. The traditional iOS tap and hold zoom functionality is supported, as well as the iPad keyboard.

The spreadsheet module has the same bottom row of icon design with slightly smaller icons and different functions that are made for spreadsheet functions. These include icons for common number formats, locking cells or spreadsheets, inserting rows and columns, and removing rows or columns. The functionality is great, but the user interface could be slightly improved. Double tapping a cell lets you get into the cell details where you can tap the fx icon to see all the available functions and enter them into the cell. You can also double tap and hold to select multiple cells. Chart creation is not supported in DTG.

Working with presentations is about the same as the other modules with a line of icons along the bottom, but these are quite different than in the word processing and spreadsheet modules. The icons represent the following functions; jump to page, change slide views, rotate left and right, save, document info, email the presentation, and full screen toggle. There is a slide sorter view as well. When you choose to create a new presentation you have three template options; casual, corporate, and simple. Creation is pretty basic and not something I would ever really do on my iPad, but at least the capability is present.

Is Office2 HD any good for $7.99? »

Office2 HD

After the iWork suite, the next Office application I discovered was Office2 HD (iTunes link) and it has come quite a long way since its release with some good updates. Similar to Documents To Go, Office2 HD is not the flashiest application, but it is available for only $7.99 so it is tough to complain at that low price. Office2 HD supports creation and editing of Word and Excel files, but does not yet support Office 2007 files so that may be a major limitation for those working with the latest Office format. It does support Word and Excel import and export though, unlike the iWork suite.

When you launch Office2 HD you will see the file explorer page with any files on your device in the left column and document that you tap on appearing on 2/3 of the right side. You can tap the double arrows on the top area to close the file explorer column. Along the bottom left are five icons to manage settings and files. The first gear icon is used to access the settings that include file sharing toggle, sleep toggle, viewing options, and regional options. There are then icons for creating new folders, moving or copying files, deleting files, and viewing the help file. Office2 HD supports accessing files from MobileMe, Google Docs, Dropbox, myDisk, iCloud, Box.net, and other WebDAV clients.

When you create a new document you will see icons on the top bar that look similar to what you see in Documents To Go (white outline on black). There are actually two full strips of icons and you simply slide from left to right to access the second full row. The icons in the word processor module, from left to right include save, font type, font size, bold, italic, underline, font color, highlight color, alignment options, bulleted list, numbered list, left and right indent, insert table, insert photos, search, undo and redo. In the top right corner you will find a keyboard icon so you can toggle it on and off.

There are similar icons in the spreadsheet module that include save, font type and size, bold, italic, font and highlight/cell color, cell style/type/size/align, summation function, function selector, sorting options, cell alignment, and various cell border formats. To select multiple cells you tap and hold and then drag the cell selector controls around to the cells you wish to select. You can have multiple sheets with tabs along the bottom to jump between them and manage them. Like Documents To Go, there is no support for creating charts in the spreadsheet module.

In portrait mode, the file selector/explorer appears as a pop-up column on the left when you tap the Open button. I find that word processing works best in portrait while spreadsheets are easier to edit in landscape orientation.

Quickoffice is the newest Office application »

Quickoffice Connect Mobile Suite

Quickoffice Connect Mobile Suite was just recently released for the iPad and as I asked I wanted to know if Quickoffice was the new top dog in iPad Office apps. You can pickup this new application for $9.99 from the Apple App store (iTunes link). Unlike the Documents To Go application that brings the software from the iPhone to the big screen with very little iPad optimization, Quickoffice HD looks like it was created from the ground up to give you the best iPad Office experience with the capability of Documents To Go and the user interface of iWork so you get the best of both worlds in one application.

When you launch Quickoffice HD you will immediately see the difference with the new file manager that lets you drag and drop files between your local iPad storage repository and various online storage services. You can also drag and drop to email or delete files, including managing files on cloud servers. The file explorer takes advantage of the large screen too with folder and subfolder levels appearing to the right. Tapping the + icon in the bottom left lets you add cloud servers from Google Docs, Dropbox, Box.net, and MobileMe. Over in the bottom right you will find icons for creating new folders and for creating new documents. Tapping the new document icon lets you choose to create 2003 or 2007 formatted spreadsheets and documents or a text file.

After selecting to create a Word document you will see a blank document appear with minimal options in the top left (bold, italic, and underline) while in the top right you will find the Power Edit Mode controls that let you manage font types and sizes, paragraph alignment, bulleted lists, indent, font colors, and highlight colors. The cool thing about the paragraph alignment functionality is that you simply drag the text to align the paragraph (one of those iWork-like user interface elements). I could not find anyway to turn list into numbered lists though. One thing that Quickoffice does differently than the Apple system is zoom in on a large section of the page rather than just popping up a bubble around the area you want to see clearer.

The spreadsheet module is formatted similar to the word processing module with common functions in the top left corner; bold, italic, and number formatting. The Power Edit Mode controls over in the upper right include font types and sizes, number alignment (again with the drag to align function), font and cell color selector, and border formatting and alignment options (visual editor is slick). To the left of the Power Edit Mode control icon is an icon that lets you easily insert or delete rows and columns. To enter columns in the spreadsheet you simply tap the fx icon in the upper left and choose from the function categories. To select multiple cells you tap on a cell to see four blue dots on each side of the cell and then simply drag each dot over the cells to select them. You can also tap and hold on column and row dividers to resize column and row cells. Multiple sheets are easily managed with very Apple looking tabs at the bottom of the spreadsheet. Again, there is no capability to create charts within Quickoffice and the iWork suite stands alone with this capability.

Which is my favorite and why?

The Apple iWork suite is the most expensive and I honestly enjoy using the apps within this suite the most as they are optimized for the touch user experience on the Apple iPad. Pages is my favorite for word processing with the ability to export in Word format, but the lack of Excel and PowerPoint export limits me from recommending the iWork apps as the best. Documents To Go is very powerful and as a universal application is free for existing iPhone application owners, but it is not optimized for the iPad and the controls could be improved. Office2 HD is a decent low cost option, but I don't like to be limited by the formats I can work with. Quickoffice is my overall favorite application thanks to the iPad optimized user experience, Word and Excel import and export capability, easy file management, and reasonable $10 price.

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