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Microsoft Office Finally Comes to the iPad, With Caveats

After all the rumors, Office for iPad is finally here. Was it worth the wait?

When Microsoft released its Office Mobile app in June, it finally gave iPhone users a way to view and edit native Office documents on the go. While it worked well, it offered limited functionality. And let’s be honest, trying to do any real work on the iPhone’s smaller screen sounds about as fun as giving a cat a bath. That’s why many were hoping for an iPad version, and it has long been rumored that Microsoft was working on a version for the world’s most popular tablet.

Well, it’s finally here.

Available today from the iTunes Store, Office for iPad brings Word, Excel and PowerPoint to the tablet. It works on iPads running iOS 7.0 or later. With it, you can view, edit and create documents, collaborate with others, and work between your tablet and desktop. Like Office Mobile, though, the Outlook email client isn’t included, although Microsoft does offer an Outlook Web App for the iPad to get your emails.

Built from the ground up, the suite offers robust functionality, and does a nice job of bringing the familiarity of the desktop suite into a touch-friendly iPad experience. I used it on my fourth-generation iPad to write this column, fill out an expense report, and create a PowerPoint presentation, among other things, and it was evident throughout that Microsoft worked to optimize the suite for the iPad. This isn’t a case of taking the iPhone app and stretching it to fit a larger screen, or just dumping the desktop apps onto the iPad.

But there are some issues (you knew there was a “but” coming, right?). For one, the suite is only compatible with Microsoft’s OneDrive cloud service (previously known as SkyDrive), which will be a turnoff for those who store documents in other services like Google Drive or Dropbox. I also ran into a couple of minor problems with formatting, and the Word app crashed on me twice. But the biggest downside is pricing.

Office for iPad is free to download, and gives you the ability to read Word documents, work with Excel data and present PowerPoint presentations at no extra cost. But, like Office Mobile, to really unlock the full potential of the suite (editing and creating documents), you need an Office 365 subscription, which starts at $99.99 per year for the Home Premium edition (students get a bit of a break with an $80 Office 365 University edition; the $70 Office 365 Personal edition will also be supported when it launches later this spring). This gets you five downloads of the full Office suite for Macs or PCs and five tablets.

For Office 365 subscribers, it’s a no-brainer. Office for iPad is a great addition, and you should definitely download it. It’s certainly the best iPad office suite I’ve tested to date. For everyone else, it may come down to how much you use the Microsoft Office suite in your professional or personal life, and how much you plan on working on your iPad. If your answer is “not much,” or it’s simply too expensive, there are capable and cheaper alternatives like those from Apple, QuickOffice and Documents to Go.

For my job, I use Word the most, so I started out testing that app. After entering my Office 365 account information, I was able to access and view all the documents I had stored in my OneDrive account by selecting the Open option in the left toolbar.

When creating a document, you can choose from a variety of templates. The choices aren’t as comprehensive as in the desktop version, but I found the selection to be satisfactory, with options for blank document, business letter, resume and more.

Once working in a Word file, you’ll find a ribbon toolbar along the top of the screen, similar to the one in the desktop app, that gives you options for formatting text, font, alignment and so on. More tools are available from the Insert, Layout, Review and View tabs. Microsoft said it worked to include the most-used features of the apps into the iPad versions, but will continue to add more functionality, such as printing capabilities.

I had no problems navigating through the menus or making selections, thanks to the touch-friendly interface. You can also double-tap on text to select it, which brings up an overlay menu with copy, cut, and paste options, much like you’d see when you’re normally highlighting text on an iPad or iPhone.

I inserted tables and images into some sample documents and saved them to OneDrive, and there was no loss in formatting or content when viewed on my desktop. The same was true when I tried it the other way around. When collaborating on a document with others, I was able to see who was editing, and track changes also came through. But all wasn’t perfect.

While writing this story, Word unexpectedly quit on me twice. Microsoft said this is probably due to the fact that I was testing a prerelease version of the app. Fortunately, Office for iPad has an auto-save feature, so I didn’t lose much. Also, though you can open email attachments by doing a long-press on the attachment and selecting “Open in Word,” I wasn’t able to do so directly from my Gmail account.

With Excel for iPad, you have access to different charts, formulas and filters, and here you can really see where Microsoft worked to make the app iPad-friendly. For example, because they recognized that most people are entering numbers into spreadsheets, there is now a “123” button in the upper right-hand corner that you can press to bring up a number pad like you’d find on a physical keyboard. Keys that have a little green mark in the corner also signify that you hold them down to access other symbols, so you don’t have press the shift button.

I don’t usually have to create any complicated Excel spreadsheets for my job, but the app worked fine when filling out an expense report.

Finally, I used PowerPoint to make a presentation of different safari touring groups for a vacation a friend and I are trying to plan for later this year. It was simple to create and edit, and I added some fun transitions to the slideshow. The only issue I ran into was trying to readjust an image. While I could resize it with no problem, I couldn’t crop the image to better fit in the frame, so I had to fix it on my laptop.

PowerPoint for iPad also offers tools for when you’re making a presentation. You can mark up slides using a pen tool, or you can hold your finger on the screen to bring up a laser pointer.

Microsoft has done nice work to create a touch-friendly and capable Office suite for the iPad. It’s a boon for Office 365 subscribers, and worth a look for nonsubscribers who use Office a lot.

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