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Choosing the Best iPad Office Productivity App

iPad Office App Battle Royale

[Update, February 2012 -- This review has been updated to reflect the current state of each app, including any changes, additions, or deletions to each app since July 2010.]

iWork vs QuickOffice vs Docs To Go vs Office2

For most iPad users who want to make their device into a productivity machine, one of the first apps to seek out is an Office app – something to create and edit documents and/or spreadsheets. Searching the App Store turns up a fair number of contenders for this, all of them with a fair mix of both glowing and less than positive reviews. We here at App Chronicles decided to examine and compare the leading apps side-by-side, helping users decide which app is the best choice.

There are four oft-mentioned contenders for the crown of best office productivity app:

The apps have been evaluated in five areas that are important to productivity in the modern workplace: Word Processing, Spreadsheets, MS Office Compatibility, Cloud Support, and Other Considerations.  Hopefully comparisons between these iPad Office apps will aid iPad users in selecting the office apps best suited for them.

Word Processing Features

Word processing is probably the first productivity demand many users will want for their iPad. And here, hands down, the iWork app, Pages, wins the battle of the word processors. It is more fully featured, more fully functional, and more user friendly than any of the other word processing apps. It has robust and well-implemented controls, excellent ability to insert tables, graphs, and shapes, and extensive formatting and layout options. It’s simply the best choice on the iPad for document creation.

There’s a wide gap between Pages and the word processing features of the second place contender, QuickOffice, and a much narrower gap between QuickOffice and the other apps. Basically, all three edit on a more basic level with fewer features, bells, and whistles. QuickOffice rises above the others, however, in two areas. First, its interface design is better and more innovative than the others (see, for example, its visual page scrolling). Second, it has implemented more word processing features, faster, since the app’s release. All three of the second-tier apps have been in an arms race, however, and so their feature sets compare much more closely now than they did when the iPad first launched.

Spreadsheet Features

Excel is a ubiquitous part of many workplaces, and so spreadsheet functionality is an important feature. Once again, the clear winner is the iWork app, Numbers. Even though Numbers is not a perfect spreadsheet app (see our review), it is clearly the best available in terms of features. Especially notable here is the app’s use of the spreadsheet-friendly and function-friendly keypads, which make data entry much easier than in any other app; and its charting and graphing ability. For straight up iPad spreadsheet functionality, Numbers has it.

The functionality gap between Numbers and the rest of the pack isn’t quite so pronounced, but it is definitely a gap. As with word processing, the level of functionality between Office², Docs to Go, and QuickOffice is fairly level. And so again, the nod has to go to the app with the best interface and implementation, which is, again, QuickOffice.

Presentation Features

This category is pretty simple to sum up: None of the apps tested were a very good replacement for PowerPoint on a desktop or laptop. The third party apps were all pretty atrocious at reading PPTX files, and all were only a little better at PPT files whenever graphics got even a little complex. Docs to Go does not even have presentation creation functionality, while the QuickOffice and Office² creation offerings are slim. Keynote is the best of the bunch for creating original, good-looking presentations, and it also offers the best support for things like AirPlay. It is not much better than the others, however, in preserving or exporting features of PPT and PPTX files.

MS Office Compatibility

For most users, compatibility with Microsoft Office — the most dominant productivity app in both workplaces and schools — is a must.  Here, the  iWork apps dominate once again.

Pages is perfectly compatible with Microsoft office, able to work with files in both DOC and DOCX format.  This is a trait that it shares with both QuickOffice and Docs to Go. In all three instances, the transfer from Office to app isn’t perfect, and some more advanced document formatting will likely be lost. Pages has done the best job here of converting DOC files, however, due in part to its more robust word processing tool set. There just does not exist a perfect app for dealing with heavily formatted DOCX files. Pages does better than the others, however.

Not surprisingly, it’s Numbers that comes out tops in Excel compatibility. As with Pages, the conversion is not always perfect, especially for advanced formatting options and complex forumulas, but it rivals the other options. QuickOffice and Docs to Go will also handle XLS and XLSX files. Again, neither app does so perfectly, and XLSX files seem to lose the most in terms of advanced formatting. But both are functional enough.

Office² falls short in this category. It only creates and edits DOC and XLS files — that is, Office 97-2003 format, which is no longer the default standard. It can read DOCX and XLSX files, but can’t edit or create them.

Workflow & Cloud Support

Cloud computing is clearly the dominant trend in file storage and sharing, especially for a wireless device like the iPad, and so cloud support is vital. This is the one area where the iWork apps take a hit over their third-party counterparts. Simply put: if you want to use Google Docs, Dropbox, or other popular cloud services, you have to look beyond iWork. Docs to Go, QuickOffice, and Office² all support popular cloud services, such as Google Docs, Dropbox, MobileMe, and Box. In this category, it’s a draw; just make sure that the program you choose is compatible with the cloud service you prefer, as some of the smaller services aren’t served through every app.

The situation with workflow and the iWork apps is a special consideration, and it is this: So long as you’re okay working through iCloud, then the iWork apps offer up phenomenal cloud support. The iCloud service, introduced with iOS5, is a fine and featured system, especially if you’re also working on a Mac.  But that’s the rub here: you can only do this via iCloud. Great if you’re integrating between multiple Apple devices, but poor if you need the kind of sharing and collaboration between multiple people on multiple devices and platforms.

Other Considerations

There are some other things to note for consideration. For one thing, Pages and Numbers are separate apps. This is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending upon your needs. If you don’t need a spreadsheet app, for example, then you don’t have to pay for Numbers. But since Pages alone is $10, you’re not exactly saving money versus the current purchase price of either QuickOffice ($10) or Office² ($8). And if you need both, the Pages/Numbers combo is actually the most expensive option.

The other apps in question all function as a single unit which, on an iPad currently lacking multitasking, can make swapping between document and spreadsheet a little faster. This does means that each needs a more robust file management interface. Here, QuickOffice definitely wins. They put a lot of thought into creating a full-featured and iPad-friendly file interface, and the result is something that’s smooth and intuitive.

On the other hand, the iWork apps and Docs To Go are Universal apps, while QuickOffice and Office² offer seperate iPhone and iPad offerings. If you’re looking for a cross-device app, you’d be best served looking first at the Universal apps, as paying for the same program in two formats can get expensive.

It should also be noted that of all the apps, Office² was the one that we found the most problematic in our individual review. The program was simply inelegant in its design, and the version reviewed also contained a number of bugs. In fact, as of their latest releases (February 2012), all three of the third-party Office apps, as well as Numbers, were scoring under 4 stars on the App Store, with numerous crashes and bugs reported in user comments on the latest versions. Only Pages maintained a 4-star score.

The Verdict

If you own a Mac and sync a lot, or if you plan to use iCloud or simple iTunes syncing to port files, then the clear winner here is the iWork Suite. Apple knew what they were doing when they designed Pages and Numbers, and both of them come with more features than any of the other contenders. They’re nice apps that come with the backing of the very designers of the iPad.  They are hands-down winner for both Mac-friendly iPad users and those not looking for a Google Docs or Dropbox connection.

For many users, though, cloud support probably matters.  If you need your iPad to be compatible with online services and the computers of friends and coworkers, then you might want one of the other apps. Here, QuickOffice is the best choice. While it shares a lot in terms of basic features with Office² and Documents to Go, it is simply a better app. It is well designed with a slick interface and fewer bugs. For iPad users who want an app to insert into their daily workflow, QuickOffice should be the app of choice.

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