The Pros and Cons of Microsoft Office for iPad

Thursday Apr 17th 2014 by James A. Martin
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In late March, Microsoft finally released native Office apps for iPad. But do the benefits outweigh the drawbacks?

Microsoft's native Office apps for iPad, long rumored, finally debuted in late March. But are they too little, too late?

No, according to many reviewers; the trio of Word, Excel and PowerPoint on the iPad "isn't at all what we expected," said Engadget. "In fact, it's a lot better." Microsoft "built a software suite that takes advantage of the iPad's extra screen real estate," among other highlights.

ZDNet's reviewer said: "These three apps are feature-rich, powerful tools for creating and editing Office documents. They look and act like their Office 2013 counterparts on Windows. And although these iPad apps obviously can't replicate every feature of the full desktop programs, they deliver an impressive subset of those features. Anyone who was expecting Office Lite or a rehash of the underwhelming Office for iPhone will be pleasantly surprised."

Though also acknowledging that the apps lack some features, Mashable noted: "Microsoft has done a more than admirable job of finding the middle ground between Office Suite familiarity and the iPad's native, touch-and-gesture responsiveness."

For small businesses, native Office apps on an iPad provide the flexibility to take an iPad instead of a laptop when you work on the go. Because iPad batteries last about 10 hours on a charge and the tablets are often lighter than laptops, this can be a compelling reason to use Office iPad apps. But there are downsides, of course. Let's take a look at the pros and cons.

Microsoft Office for iPad: The Pros

  • A similar look and feel to desktop Office. Microsoft did a good job making desktop Office users feel at home in the iPad apps. For example, Word for iPad's menu ribbon uses the color blue; Excel, green; and PowerPoint, that reddish-orange color, just as their desktop counterparts.

    The iPad apps menu tabs correspond to the desktop Office programs' menu tabs, at least partially. In Excel 2011 for Mac, for instance, you'll find tabs for Home, Layout, Tables, Charts, SmartArt, Formulas, Data, and Review. In Excel for iPad, the tabs are Home, Insert, Formulas, Review, and View. The downside: You can tell right away that it's only a subset of the features you'd have in desktop Office programs.
  • A solid set of mobile features. In most cases, you get what you need to create and edit Office files on your iPad. Example: Word on the iPad supports Track Changes; comments (as long as someone added them in a desktop Office app; you can only view comments in the iPad version), headers and footers; tables; footnotes; word count; spell check; support for styles; find and replace; the capability to flow content into columns; and more.
  • You get plenty of templates. Just as with desktop Office programs, each iPad app provides an assortment of templates to get you started. Or you can just create a new blank document, workbook, or presentation.
  • Formatting fidelity. Unlike other options for working with Office docs on an iPad, Microsoft's apps maintain file formatting across platforms. The Word file you created on your Windows PC will look the same when you open it in Word for iPad, for example.
  • You can dictate text. The Office apps support the iPad's voice-to-text feature, which means you could dictate an entire Word document. Just say "new paragraph" when you want a paragraph break; "period" when you want to end a sentence; and so on. You'll most likely need to use the iPad's onscreen keyboard, as most Bluetooth keyboards don't include a microphone icon for voice input.
  • Office apps automatically save a copy of the files you're working on to the iPad. If your Internet connection disappears, you can still keep working. The file will automatically be saved to your Microsoft OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive) account when you're back online.

Microsoft Office for iPad: The Cons

  • You can use all three apps for free. But unless you subscribe to Office 365, you can't edit or create new files using Office iPad apps.
  • An Office 365 subscription costs $100 a year for the Home Premium version, versus a one-time licensing fee of $140 for Office Home and Student 2013 for one PC or Office for Mac Home and Student 2011 for one Mac.

    But there are some benefits to Office 365 subscriptions. In addition to gaining full editing and creation tools in Office apps for up to five iPad or Windows tablets, you can install the Office suite on up to five different Windows or Mac computers. You also get 20GB of Microsoft OneDrive storage for up to five years, plus 60 minutes of Skype phone calls each month.

    The Office 365 Small Business Premium plan costs $150 a year for up to five users, and it offers additional benefits, such as 25GB email storage with anti-virus and anti-spam.
  • No printer support. Office apps for iPad currently lack the capability to send your files to a printer. Microsoft says it will add printing to the iPad apps soon, however.
  • There's no Save button, which can be a difficult adjustment for people who frequently save their work in Office desktop programs. But on the iPad, each app auto-saves files.
  • If you use Dropbox or other OneDrive competitor, things can get tricky. Microsoft really, really wants you to use its cloud storage/file sync/file sharing service. The free 20GB of storage space for Office 365 subscribers is a strong incentive.

    But what if you're wedded to Dropbox or another OneDrive competitor? None of the Office iPad apps let you directly access files from any cloud service other than OneDrive, OneDrive for Business, or a SharePoint site.

    If you're a loyal Dropbox user, for example, you'll need to open the Dropbox iPad app; find the file you want to change; and open it. Once you make edits, to save the file back to Dropbox, you'd email the file to yourself as an attachment; open the email on your iPad; tap to open the attachment; click the "Open in Dropbox" icon; choose the Dropbox folder you want to save it in; and click "Save." That's a lot of extra work.
  • You can't search for files. None of the Office iPad apps let you search for your files. Instead, there is a "Recent" tab, which displays the files you most recently created or edited. And you can tap a thumbtack icon next to a file, which keeps the file at the top of the list to make it easier to find.
  •  You can't access the Camera to take pictures in any of the apps. Also, you can't add a video to a PowerPoint presentation on your iPad, unlike Apple's Keynote presentation app.
  • PowerPoint lacks a button for AirPlay, to project your presentation directly on an Apple TV. You can work around this using the iOS 7's screen mirroring feature, however.
  • No scroll bars. The lack of scroll bars can be disorienting, especially if you're working with large Excel spreadsheets.
  • You can only have one document open at a time. If you're used to cutting and pasting between, say, multiple Word docs with ease, you'll be disappointed. This is more a limitation of iOS than it is a Microsoft failing, but it's something to be aware of nonetheless.
  • You can't save files to other formats. Unlike Apple's iWork suite, you can't save text files to PDF, spreadsheet files to CSV, and so on.
  • As mentioned earlier, you can't insert comments into Office files on your iPad. You can read comments added to the file by desktop Office users, though.
  • Most reviewers agree that PowerPoint is the weakest of the three Office apps. Says InfoWorld: "PowerPoint for iPad is more than a viewer but less than a creator. It's fine for basic editing and simple presentations. But road warriors can do so much more in (Apple's) Keynote."

The Bottom Line

Microsoft Office junkies will most likely welcome the iPad versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Office agnostics should consider Apple's own iWork suite of productivity apps: Pages (for text), Numbers (for spreadsheets), and Keynote (for presentations), which also have Mac OS counterparts.

You don’t need an annual subscription for iWork. The apps automatically sync your files across iOS and Mac OS devices. Also, iWork apps offer attractive features that the Office for iPad apps don't. For example, Pages is much more adept at page layout than Word for iPad.

If that still doesn't do it for you, you can try third-party Office-compatible suites for iPad, such as DataViz's Documents to Go Premium ($17) and Infraware's Polaris Office 5 (currently discounted from $20 to $13).

James A. Martin is a marketing consultant specializing in SEO, social media, mobile apps, and business blogging. Follow him on Twitter and Pinterest.

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