Office for iPad. Will they? Won’t they? Should they? Could they? Why haven’t they? They’re stupid, they are. It’s been a topic with no shortage of opinions. Microsoft finally put all that to bed when it finally announced, and released, the three Office of iPad apps and Microsoft Office Mobile.
We’ll be publishing a full review of the apps once we’ve spent more time with them, but until then here are my first impressions based on a few hours of tinkering on an iPad Air.
Watch Microsoft's Office for iPad demo video:
First, however, a little housekeeping. Office for iPad isn’t a single app, but three separate apps for Word, Excel and PowerPoint. The Office Mobile app, meanwhile, is a far more limited offering purely for the iPhone. All are available for free, but what you can do with the free versions is severely limited.
Put simply, in the free versions you can only view and not edit documents. This makes them useful for checking documents you’ve been sent or shared with you, but not much more. To get more, you’ll need an Office 365 subscription.
Office 365 is effectively how Microsoft intends to sell Office in the future. Instead of paying a one-off price, you pay a month subscription based on your needs. For example, a Home Premium subscription costs £7.99 a month (£79.99 per year) and gives you five PC or Mac installs and supports up to 5 tablets as well – each account also gets an additional 20GB of SkyDrive support.
You can buy an Office 365 subscription as an in-app purchase, or get it online via Office 365 website.
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As a journalist, I've become very familiar with Word over the years, even if I only use a small percentage of the features it offers. Indeed, I’m sure I’m with the majority here that only ever use that small percentage. Office as a whole serves a broad church, from people writing articles to researchers and professionals. Everyone needs something slightly different.
Word on the iPad has pretty much everything that 95% of the Word using population needs, and on first inspection it does this extremely well.
It adopts the familiar Ribbon-style UI, albeit a slightly slimmed down version compared to the desktop apps. Some people are rather sniffy about the Ribbon, but I’ve always liked it and it works very well here.
All the basic formatting options are here, including pre-defined styles that you can apply. You can’t create your own as in for Word packages, but they’re useful all the same. Some more advanced formatting options are present, too, such as Text Effects. There’s enough here that you can make a document from scratch and not look too generic.
Particularly impressive are the picture insertion options, which are comprehensive. You can apply shadows, add borders, create reflections and plenty else besides. You can also add basic tables, shapes, separate text boxes and add heading and footers.
My personal favourite feature, however, (and I’m a little biased here given my day job) is the support for track changes. It works perfectly and is by far the best such implementation I’ve seen from an ‘Office compatible’ app.
Performance, meanwhile, is seamless. I’ve experience now annoying slow downs when writing, even when adding images and more complex items. I haven’t tried the collaboration features just yet, but Word on iPad supports this and it should prove very useful.
My only real criticism so far is that unlike a great many iPad writing apps, Word for iPad doesn’t have a ‘focus’ mode that ensures the section you’re working on remains at the centre of your view. Unless you consciously scroll the page up, you’ll end staring right at the bottom edge of the screen.
It’s a small convenience feature Microsoft would do well to copy, but on first inspection Word for iPad is a triumph.
I am, by no means, an Excel expert, but I work with a few people who are. You’re never going to perform serious spreadsheet wrangling on an iPad, but Excel for iPad appears to handle even quite complex spreadsheets very well and offers enough options to make amendments to make it useful.
I loaded up a selection of sheets chock full of numbers, charts and formulas and it barely missed a beat. The iPad version supports every conceivable (to my eyes) formula that Excel supports, and can handle complex graphics that have been created in the desktop version of Excel. All the basic functions you’d expect (adding and editing cells etc.) are there, too. You can also create charts and there are plenty of options to add styles, though some of the editing options here are more limited.
In comparison to Word, though, there are few interface gremlins worth noting. Excel for iPad does a fine job of supporting grouped cells, which you can expand and collapse as required, but the icons for enabling them are so small that you have to zoom in to access them. This is also true of changing the title of embedded charts.
With all this said, however, it’s very impressive how even very large spreadsheets with multiple sheets, graphics and formulas work fine and the performance is consistently fast and responsive. Clearly Apple’s A7 processor is doing the business here, though it would be interesting to see if older iPads cope as well – all the Office apps require iOS 7, but even the aged iPad 2 supports it.
PowerPoint gains one important free feature in that you can use it to present. I assume this works correctly using AirPlay or via a video-out cable, but I haven’t been able to test this properly yet. The presenting mode adds a few neat features, though, ones which I think will become firm favourites for anyone who presents often.
First is the laser pointer mode. Simply hold your finger on the slide you’re presenting and a virtual pointer appears on-screen, letting you draw attention to specific points. If this isn’t obvious enough you can also draw on the slide, or use a highlighter. These remain until they’re cleared off. It’s all very neat.
The basic formatting options are pretty much the same as in the Word app, so I won’t go over old ground there. The difference, of course, is it add options for editing and creating slides and transitions.
Like Word, the options are basically ‘just enough’ and appropriate for what you really want to do on an iPad. You can create new slides using templates, add photos and create transitions. One thing you can’t do, however, is create specific ‘reveals’ within each slide – i.e. add a secondary transition before moving to the next. It supports this in presentation mode for existing presentations, but you can’t create these in the app on the fly.
The first most people will notice about the Office apps is that they only support OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive). There’s no support for Dropbox, iCloud or any other non-Microsoft cloud service.
Disappointing as this is for many people, it’s hard to argue with the cold logic from Microsoft’s point of view. Moreover, if you’re committing to spending £7.99 a month on an Office 365 subscription, it makes a great deal of sense to use Microsoft’s OneDrive service. It’s a very good service, particularly if you use a Windows PC as your day-to-day PC.
The only more serious irritation, in my eyes, is there’s no option to open documents in another app. This is normally a useful way to save something in Dropbox (or any other service) from an app that doesn’t support it, but Microsoft has locked this out.
This also means, incidentally, that you can’t open a document in an Office for iPad app and then open it in another editing app. I imagine this is deliberate on Microsoft’s part to encourage people to pay for the subscription, and I can’t really blame it for that.
As noted elsewhere, performance on the iPad Air across all three apps is excellent. I will be firing up an iPad 2 at some point to see if it can handle things as smoothly, but recent iPad owners should have no concerns on this front.
One other neat point is the fact that, despite the iPad apps being three separate apps, once you sign-in to your Office 365 / OneDrive account in one you’re automatically signed-in for all three. It’s a small but appreciated point.
I haven’t used Office for iPad long enough to give it a final verdict, particularly in the context of how it compares to other options (free and paid-for) available right now. My first reaction, however, is that these are very polished and useful apps that make a very compelling case. Certainly any existing Office 365 subscriber should get hold of them right now: there’s no good reason not to. I’d even go so far as to say I prefer using these apps to using the ‘full’ version of Office supplied with the Surface 2. As a tablet experience, it's very pleasing indeed.
Next, see our pick of the best iPad games