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The Top Office Suites for iPad

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Critics may once have argued against any office suite on the iPad on the grounds that it's a consumer-oriented tablet meant for media consumption, not for producing work. With the march of the iPad into the workplace over the past year and a half, however, that belief has fallen by the wayside. Ryan Faas discusses ways to create images and presentations (and to show them), work with financial data, and even type long form content with new office suites for the iPad.
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Critics may once have argued against any office suite on the iPad on the grounds that it's a consumer-oriented tablet meant for media consumption, not for producing work. With the march of the iPad into the workplace over the past year and a half, however, that belief has fallen by the wayside.

Even without an external keyboard, it is possible to create images and presentations (and to show them), work with financial data, and even type long form content (I've actually written 2,000-word pieces on an iPad—though it is slower going if you don't have a USB or Bluetooth keyboard).

In fact, the iPad has found its way into virtually every type of workplace and profession. With its incredibly broad selection of apps, it shouldn't be surprising that there are many that fit match a wide variety of different jobs. Those job-specific apps make the iPad a tailored solution in settings as varied as hospitals, car dealerships, airplane cockpits, schools, real estate offices, retail stores, restaurants, and just about anyplace else.

While niche-specific apps help the iPad fit uniquely into specific professional roles, the more general business and office functions seem to garner less attention. While many of us have tools specific to our fields and positions, many of us also rely on some very core, uniform tools to get work done. Chief among those tools is some type of office application suite.

For most of us, that suite is Microsoft Office, though for some it may be Apple's iWork, the open source Open Office suite, or another product. Despite the specific product, office suites always tend to include three core applications for word processing, working with spreadsheets, and creating/viewing presentations (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint in the Microsoft Office package). Although they might also include additional tools for processes such as page layout, drawing, calendar, and task management, those three applications are the backbone of any office suite, and we're used to seeing them on our computers even if we routinely only use one or two of the three.

While the iPad might not be the first device to come to mind when you think about any of these three core types of apps, a handful of full-featured office suites are out there for the iPad. They offer compatibility with the standard Microsoft Office file formats (a must in any office suite, regardless of the device) and they all work pretty well.

Here's your guide to the four most full-featured office suites available for the iPad, the features that set them apart from each other, and the overall pros and cons that each offers.

iWork

The Apple iWork suite (http://ax.search.itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZSearch.woa/wa/search?entity=iPadSoftware
&media=all&page=1&restrict=true&startIndex=0&term=iWork
) was the first set of office apps available for the iPad and is the one that comes most immediately to mind. The suite ships as three separate titles (Pages, Numbers, and Keynote) instead of a single all-purpose app (unlike the other suites in this list, which ship as a single purchase/app).

The iWork apps, like their Mac-based counterparts, use their own file types but can import the standard Microsoft Office file formats as well. Unlike the Mac versions of the iWork apps, the iPad versions cannot save/export documents in Office formats even if the documents imported were originally in those formats

As with the Mac-based iWork apps, the iPad versions are very polished and Apple-like offerings. Users of iWork for Mac will feel right at home, but Windows or Microsoft Office users may be a bit thrown by them at first.

Pages, for example goes beyond the word processing features available in Word and offers layout features that you might expect to find in Quark or In Design (although they're much easier to use).

Similarly, Numbers takes a layout-oriented approach to spreadsheets that is attractive to home users and small businesses for its visual approach and ability to create full documents in addition to the traditional sheets with their familiar grids.

Keynote comes closest to the Microsoft Office experience of PowerPoint, but it is also infused with Apple's design approach (which actually makes it somewhat easier to create presentations loaded with animations, special-effect transitions, and eye-catching visuals).

The very design-centric approach is actually a big advantage in some ways because creating documents that look like they were produced by a professional design shop is quite easy (and printing and external display support, including AirPlay, is baked into all three apps). However, the bells and whistles maybe seem like unneeded clutter to longtime Office users and others who simply don't need all the added visual capabilities.

Whatever your take on the visual nature of iWork (on a Mac or iPad) compared with other office suites (or Office itself on a PC or Mac), iWork does fall short when it comes to accessing or sharing files with the array of common cloud-based services today, and its file management is apt to confuse many new iPad users (and even some experienced ones).

It's also worth noting that, as a set, the iWork apps are more expensive than any of their counterparts.

  • Price: $9.99/app
  • Local file storage/transfer: iTunes
  • Cloud services supported: Mobile Me's iDisk, iWork.com (export only), WebDAV services
  • Document types supported: Microsoft Office 97[nd]2003, Microsoft Office 2007+ (import only), iWork
  • Pros: Amazing set of visual tools (templates, image effects, and so on), ease of use, integration with other Apple solutions (including AirPrint (http://www.apple.com/ipad/features/airprint.html) and AirPlay (http://www.apple.com/itunes/airplay/)
  • Cons: Limited cloud support; no simple option to save/export Office file formats; visual tools/feature may overload users who don't need them
  • Overall: If you're a fan of iWork on the Mac, iWork on the iPad will probably appeal to you. If you want something similar to a true office suite, you'll likely want to consider one of the other options.

One important consideration, however, is that you can buy the iWork apps a la carte—meaning that if you like the visual interface and capabilities of Keynote or want the occasional layout features of Pages, you can buy just one app and add it to another option for other types of tasks.

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