Microsoft has finally released native Office applications for iOS that run on both the iPhone and iPad. So how good are they?
Microsoft has finally released native Office applications – Word, PowerPoint and Excel – for use on Apple iDevices, the iPhone and iPad. We installed them to see how they compare with Apple’s own version, iWorks – Pages, KeyNote and Numbers.
The first hurdle is opening the applications. They are free to use on a read-only basis. But if you want to create or edit documents, spreadsheets and presentations, you have to activate or purchase a subscription:
Tapping on the ‘Activate by Signing in’ link led to the next screen:
Enter an Office 365 email login, and we’re up and running with active links to OneDrive and SharePoint for storing documents.
So what does it actually look like?
Not bad. The menus for editing have been kept as minimal as possible along the top of the page. Just like the full client versions, they are context sensitive. If I tap inside the table, the Table formatting menu will be displayed across the top. This approach is different to iWorks that keeps all menus hidden behind a set of icons in the top-right corner.
In the image above for iWorks Pages (the Office Word equivalent), you can see a Paintbrush icon, Plus icon and Spanner icon. You tap an icon to bring up the settings menus. The Paint Brush brings up the menu for adjusting the current selected item. The + sign is for inserting stuff (equivalent to tapping the Insert tab in the Word menu) and the Spanner brings up general document settings like Track Changes and Print (we’ll be coming back to that shortly…)
Which is best? It’s personal preference really. The iWorks approach takes up a lot less screen space but then presents the menus in a large dialogue which is helpful for touch-based interactions. The Office approach makes it easy and obvious to see what options are available and you can do a lot with a single tap instead of the two required for iWorks. But it takes up more screen space and the pop-up dialogues are a bit smaller and more fiddly to work with.
Tinkering about with Office, it is mostly comparable with iWorks. And both suites are simplified versions as is typical for tablet apps. I would think most people would be comfortable using either one. Which gives Office a lead for the obvious reason that most people are already familiar with it.
There are two gotchas I don’t particularly like with Office. Neither are huge or insurmountable. And if Microsoft had released the damn apps a year ago, I’m sure they’d already be superior by now. But here we go…
You can’t. ‘Nuff said. You can argue that the whole point of tablets is to minimise the use of paper. But when I’m writing reports for clients, I still like to print out for a final review before sending. There’s just something about reviewing on paper that makes it easier to spot errors that my eyes skim past on screen. Having started using my iPad more for content creation, I now have a laser printer with AirPrint enabled and love the convenience of it. (This is quite a recent novelty).
— update — Microsoft have since updated the apps to include printing support using AirPrint
This is my biggest bugbear so far. Office has been designed for ‘always on’ connectivity. You absolutely can use it without being connected to the Internet. But the tie-in with an Office 365 subscription carries the assumption that most of the time you will be online. The beauty of a mobile device is taking it out of the home and office. There may be pervasive connectivity in many populated areas of the world. But it’s not always free and I don’t want to have to pay for wi-fi just to download a document I would expect to be available locally on my iPad.
Here’s the rub. If you create a new document whilst offline, you cannot store it in Office 365. Not even in the OneDrive app that is supposed to be for file sync-n-share scenarios. You have to store it locally on the iPad and then remember to manually upload it to OneDrive (or SharePoint) when you are next online. It’s a one-tap process but still a bit annoying. You can’t even select one of the other cloud services that you may have configured – such as iCloud, DropBox and Box – that do let you save locally and then automatically sync in the background when you are next online.
Once a file is stored online, it will sync locally for offline editing. However, you cannot ‘Open’ it. Which is a bit weird.
In the image above, I have just tapped on the ‘Open button and get an error message that I cannot connect to the server (I popped the iPad into Airplane mode to test). This means I cannot open any files stored in my OneDrive account or on a SharePoint site from within the app.
Except, actually you can. If I tap on the ‘Recent’ button just above ‘Open’ (you can see it in the image above, on the left side of the screen), Office lets me open any recently edited files regardless of their location. I can save the changes and it will show a little ‘Pending upload’ icon. As soon as the iPad reconnects to the Internet, the updated document is automatically uploaded. But I’m not sure how long the presumably locally cached copies are stored for accessing this way. Meaning you wouldn’t want to rely on it as a method to retrieve an older document when offline.
The alternative ought to be to open the files via the OneDrive app instead. But I’m getting odd behaviour there – it opens using the built-in preview. You have to select to open in another app, then select Word. And then Word opened a read-only copy and insisted I save a second copy in order to edit it. All a bit messy.
But that all said, none of the issues discovered so far should take much effort to improve upon. Overall, I think Microsoft has done a good job bringing Office to the iPad. You can watch a more comprehensive tour in Microsoft’s video introducing the new apps:
There is still the small matter of pricing that is upsetting quite a few people. Apple’s iWorks is free. Free in that you have to buy Apple hardware to get the software included for free. Microsoft’s Office for iPad requires a monthly/annual subscription. In the UK it is £80 per year for the Office 365 Home version and from £180 per year for the Office 365 Enterprise version (E3 plan). Government and Educational accounts get the usual discounts. I do think it would help to also sell a simple paid app version for people who don’t want to be tied into an Office 365 subscription. But the numbers over time will prove Microsoft right or wrong on this one.
So the big question to close. Will I switch from using iWorks on my iPad?
Not yet at least. I get hugely frustrated with not being able to navigate my files stored in iCloud using a folder-based view. Drives me nuts that I can’t mail multiple attachments because you have to start a mail from within the app (Pages, Numbers or Keynote) to add the file as an attachment. And there’s the small matter of converting the files to PDF or Office formats for emailing out to clients who I tend to assume are not using iWorks. But the easy work around is exporting the files to DropBox and then creating a mail when multiple attachments are to be included.
But the most important requirement for me is being able to easily access files when both online and offline and being able to trust the service to keep everything sync’d automatically in the background across all devices. iWorks has only failed me once on that count. Pages burped when I was testing co-authoring across two iPads and two Macs. Microsoft has to earn that trust and there are a few wrinkles to iron out of the Office 365 service first.
Final note: This has been a very brief review based on my personal initial impressions. Others have posted far more detailed reviews. A good Internet search engine should be able to find them if you want a more in-depth analysis.
This is an edited version of two articles published on www.joiningdots.com