Office for iPad, First Take: Recommended, if you have an Office 365 subscription
With Office for iPad, Microsoft has set a very high bar for the forthcoming touch-based Windows 8 version of Office. If you've got an iPad and access to Office 365, these tools have to be a recommended install.
Microsoft's suite of Office tools for iPad has finally arrived, with versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint (and a revamped OneNote as a bonus). It's a fresh take on Office, designed to be used in conjunction with Microsoft's cloud-based Office 365 and OneDrive services, with the intent of keeping your files in sync between smartphone, tablet, PC and cloud.
The apps themselves are free, but you'll only get access to the editing features if you're signed up to the right Office 365 subscription. It's a subscription-based take on the old freemium model, only here you'll need an active subscription to use all the editing tools in Office. It's possible to sign up for Office 365 inside the new iPad apps, but you're more likely to be using Office on an iPad if you've already got an Office 365 account (making the iPad one of your five devices if you're using a Home or Enterprise account, or one of two if you're using the low-cost Personal subscription).
One thing to note: when you're trying to connect the Office apps to an existing Office 365 account, don't use the option from the 'Buy Office 365' screen that asks if you want to use an existing account. This option only works if you're using the same mail address for Office 365 and the iTunes store. If you're using a separate Office 365 account, first open an Office app as a free file viewer and then choose the Activate option. This is where you can enter Office 365 account details to activate the apps. Once you've activated one app, the rest are automatically activated and ready to go.
Word on iPad is, well, Word. It might not have all the features of its desktop sibling, but it's got all you need to start editing and creating documents. Document layouts don't change from device to device, and the iPad version of Word renders pages just the way you'd expect (and there's even support for compatibility mode when you're working with older-format documents). The familiar Office fonts are all there, as are the layout tools and many of the Word document templates.
Although documents look the same as on the desktop, don't expect to find all the Word features in the compact Ribbon user interface. The resulting set of capabilities are more than you get in a smartphone version of Word — somewhere between Office Online and the desktop Office. Touch icons on the ribbon open up drop-down menus that resize to avoid conflicts with the iPad's touch keyboards, while a version of the backstage menu gives you access to files stored on both the consumer OneDrive and OneDrive for Business. You won't find sharing options there though, they're accessed from a new icon on the Word menu bar.
Word on iPad works in both portrait and landscape orientations, although we found the portrait options worked best on our test iPad Mini, giving you a thumb-keyboard for quick editing of existing documents. We'd be inclined to recommend a Bluetooth keyboard if you're doing a lot of editing, or using an iPad to create documents from scratch.
OneDrive is very much the heart of the iPad Office, and it's easy to make the two components part of an existing document workflow — especially as co-editing is built into Office and the iPad version will automatically jump to the last edited section of a document, keeping your edits in context. You can use Word offline with files that have been downloaded or emailed, but in practice you're going to want to work with Word online, using either wi-fi or LTE connections for the best possible speed.
Microsoft has done an excellent job on the iPad version of Word. It's a native iPad app through-and-through, with better touch support than the Windows Office (although perhaps not quite as good as the modern OneNote app on Windows 8 with its innovative radial touch menu). Touch-first Windows 8 versions of the core Office apps are due sometime in 2014, and with the iPad Office apps Microsoft has set itself a high bar for its upcoming Windows release.
On the desktop Excel is a powerhouse, a set of tools for analysing and displaying data, at the heart of Microsoft's cloud-powered analytics tooling. That's not the case with the iPad version: instead you get something that's more akin to the classic spreadsheet, where you can happily manage your expenses, or build profit-and-loss accounts, and even create and display graphs.
Microsoft has given the iPad version of Excel its own custom keyboard to help enter and edit formulae. It's a useful tool, and another sign that the iPad Office developers have thought carefully about the device they're building on, its capabilities, and how its users are likely to work with Excel on an iPad. We might miss the idea of Pivot Tables, but we're not entirely sure if an iPad (and certainly an iPad Mini) is the right place for deep business analytics — for one thing, there's not enough screen real estate (and not enough memory or processing power) to work with millions of rows of data.
Instead we expect the iPad version of Excel to be used with extracts of data, with conditional formatting and sparklines created on a PC, and an iPad used for data entry, for basic formatting, and for adding formulae and charts. A recommended chart view uses live data from your spreadsheet to show just what a chart will look like, so you can choose an appropriate look for your data.
We've grown used to a powerful Excel, but taking it back to its essentials isn't a bad thing: it's giving Microsoft a foundation on which it can build the type of Excel we want to use on our mobile devices. The result is graphically rich, and with a set of features we'd have been happy to have on the desktop just a few years ago. This, then, is an Excel for viewing and exploring subsets of the data we have on the desktop, rather than building complex mathematical models.
The iPad release of PowerPoint takes a similar approach to Word and Excel, delivering document fidelity with a broad, but not particularly deep, set of editing functions. That's not a bad thing, as you're more likely to be editing existing content quickly or adding content to an existing template. You can add pictures, shapes and transitions (with hardware acceleration for smooth animations), as well as formatting text content.
You'll have to work in landscape mode with PowerPoint as there's no portrait view. It's an approach that makes sense — you can see your complete deck of slides while editing the current slide, for instance. You'll also want to be in landscape mode when presenting slides, as projectors and monitors use standard landscape resolutions.
Presenting is easy. There's support for transitions, and if you tap and hold there's a virtual laser pointer you can use to highlight key points in a slide. Just tap the presentation icon in the top right of the screen, and swipe through the deck. You can display slides on TVs and projectors using the iOS AirPlay tools that mirror your tablet's display on an external device via Apple TV.
The iPad version of PowerPoint has more capabilities than Word or Excel, taking advantage of the latest Apple processors to deliver fast and smooth graphics. Once again, it doesn't have all the features of its desktop sibling, but the result is a powerful and easy-to-use presentation tool that you can take just about anywhere. Just remember to bring an Apple TV if you're planning on using a projector.
Today's Microsoft isn't the Windows-first giant of old. The company's move to a devices-and-services business model is key to its future, and it needs to be able to show committment to delivering those services in a cross-platform fashion. That's where an iPad release of Office comes in, delivering a new set of high-fidelity endpoints for the Office 365 services. The fact that Microsoft has done a good job isn't surprising — after all, it's still a software company at heart. But what is surprising is that it has set a very high bar for its touch-based Windows 8 version of Office. If you've got an iPad and access to Office 365, these tools have to be a recommended install.