The people in charge at Microsoft would make great wartime generals. In what is possibly one of the shrewdest moves in the history of conventional brand warfare, Microsoft has made its full suite of Office products — Word, Excel and PowerPoint — available on the competition’s flavor-of-the-decade platform, the Apple iPad.
It wasn’t unexpected. Last year, Microsoft rolled out Office for the iPhone, albeit with greatly-limited functionality. But what’s so shrewd about the Office release for iPad is that it pretty much ensures if Apple does win the battle for supremacy in the tablet market (as it is most assuredly doing), Microsoft will still have a dog in the fight via its universally-embraced productivity suites. A genius move, if the iPad apps pass muster.
To find out, we put the brand new Microsoft Office suites through the paces on an iPad and tested it out for ourselves.
One of the most important things to note about using Word for the iPad is that you can only make changes to a document if you’ve got an Office 365 subscription. The same goes for Excel and PowerPoint, a fact that has become a matter of contention among many early reviewers who’d prefer that Microsoft made its entire Office suite available for free. In a perfect world where profit margins don’t matter, this might have happened. But it’s not, they do, so it didn’t. You can’t exactly blame Microsoft for wanting to make money, so we’ll let that slide and focus instead on the technical aspects of how it works with the iPad.
The short answer to that question is: very well. In fact, for someone moving from the traditional desktop version of Word, the transition should be relatively seamless. Naturally, the shift comes with a bit of a learning curve. The lack of a mouse, for example, makes it impossible to hover over certain function buttons to preview what you’re about to make happen with a single tap of the screen. But the intuitive design behind those buttons is one of the most impressive aspects of Word for the iPad and it deserves to be pointed out.
As you’ll notice in the screenshot at right, the top ribbon toolbar — which normally hangs so far down on the desktop version that it’s almost intrusive — is slender and minimalistic without sacrificing any of the most frequently-utilized commands. The onscreen real estate of the iPad is already limited enough, and it’s clear Microsoft’s app designers took that fact into great consideration.
Click the images in this article for larger versions.
Another small but consequential detail of note is the incorporation of distinctly Apple-esque sliders for turning certain features on and off — such as Track Changes in the screenshot above (as if anyone should ever attempt to improve upon this classic work from Edgar Allan Poe).
Opening existing Word documents created elsewhere is a snap, as long as you’ve got said document uploaded to your iPad’s internal memory or the complementary OneDrive cloud space that comes with an Office 365 subscription. Rendering for both DOC and DOCX files is a pleasant, flawless surprise that almost makes you forget you’re using an iPad and not a native Windows device. Pinch and zoom also works incredibly well, adding an extra level of functionality for the tablet experience.
Tapping the File icon on the top left of the screen gives you a drop-down menu that enables you to turn off AutoSave — something that may come in handy for those who like to live life on the edge, but certainly not an option that will be considered by anyone who’s ever lost important information in the past. AutoSave is preset, and saves your document to OneDrive for safe cloud keeping.
Another of Word’s most appreciated features, Undo and Redo, are easily performed by tapping on the respective arrow icons in the toolbar.
For those who only occasionly use Excel to read the spreadsheet creations of others, the iPad version will likely reveal little missing. If, on the other hand, you’re the type of individual whose mastery of Excel is on a par with the wizardry of ages, you may be disappointed by the absence of some of the more complex capabilities of Excel — like the ability to create pivot tables and conditional formatting. Even track changes and the ability to insert comments are both conspicuously missing, neither of which are exactly considered “advanced” commands.
Naturally, it stands to reason that any program as densely functional as Excel would have to undergo significant modifications to adapt to a tablet environment. That said, this isn’t exactly a “dumbed down” version of Excel (with the exception of the above mentioned missing parts). The ability to create complex formulas is still there, as are other intermediate commands like charts, number formatting, and freeze panes.
To make the best of the iPad’s limited onscreen space, Microsoft developed a more highly functional keyboard for use with the Excel app. There are actually two keyboards you can toggle between. One of them is an alphanumeric keyboard that can be accessed by tapping the “Abc” option. This gives you a full range of alpha and numeric characters. The other keyboard (shown at right), which is accessed by tapping the “123” option, is reserved purely for symbols and numbers arranged in ten-key orientation. The layout of the second keyboard seems well thought out, until you notice one glaring omission: the all-important quotation mark symbol, which is essential when creating formulas. To access that, you’ll have to bounce back to the alphanumeric keyboard, which sort of defeats the purpose.
Naturally, Excel for iPad can be used in landscape mode, which effectively maximizes the size of the onscreen keyboard and provides less of a hunt-and-peck data entry platform than you might expect from a mobile-oriented suite.
As with Excel, beginner PowerPoint users who don’t use this software on a regular basis aren’t likely to encounter many limitations with respect to what can be accomplished on the iPad app versus the full desktop version. But if you’re a through-and-through expert, you may find your best efforts stymied.
PowerPoint seems to have the most missing when compared against the more robust capabilities of its Word and Excel counterparts. You can still do quite a bit, but you can’t do it all. You can’t access grid view, and there is no support for recording slideshow narrations. You also can’t make use of animated images, and there’s no spell check option anywhere to be found.
On the plus side, the app toolbar is clean and uncluttered, limiting the likelihood of fat-fingering on the significantly smaller touchscreen of the iPad. But it’s obvious many of the diverse functions of PowerPoint were sacrificed in order to achieve a more sleek appearance.
Having said that, you can still create some so-so presentations. Tables, pictures, shapes, and text box insertions are included, as are transition effects that come with a respectable range of options. Comments can also be added for collaborative projects, and there’s the inclusion of a customizable pen tool that lets you drag your finger around the screen to circle, underline, or otherwise emphasize certain points as the presentation is being displayed.
Probably the best argument in favor of Office for iPad is the convenience factor of being able to leap effortlessly from a desktop environment to your iPad to pick up where you left off. If you’ve already got an Office 365 subscription, the free app downloads are a no-brainer. But if you’re not already a convert to Microsoft Office suites, it’s not likely you’ll find much here to change your mind.
Microsoft’s decision to cater their software suite to the iPad crowd is by no means indication it’s throwing in the towel and giving up hope for new incarnations of the Surface tablet. But it does indicate the company may be hedging its bets. The newly released Office for iPad is a smart insurance policy that will ensure Microsoft’s relevancy and viability in the sometimes unpredictable tech landscape. That Microsoft delivered a product that works so well on the iPad, seamlessly integrating high-level performance with the need for touchscreen functionality, is proof positive that Microsoft knew well in advance there was a lot riding on this venture.
It’s not perfect, but it’s also new. Expect that to change as Microsoft analyzes the incoming feedback.
- Clean, uncluttered user interface.
- Imported documents render perfectly.
- Applications are feature-rich and you have to dig relatively deep to find missing parts.
- Action and icons for common commands have been tweaked to work well on touchscreen.
- Can be used to view existing Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents without an Office 365 subscription.
- Requires an Office 365 subscription to create or change existing documents.
- Can’t save Word documents to PDF format.
- File storage options are limited to OneDrive and the iPad’s internal memory. Note: Microsoft has indicated it is working on this and that future updates to the apps will likely allow for compatibility with other storage destinations more frequently used by iPad users.
- No print support. Note: Microsoft has also indicated it is working on a solution to make Office for the iPad compatible with AirPrint devices.
- PowerPoint is missing some key advanced-level ingredients.