Office Mobile: Better on iPads than on Windows 10 tablets

Touch-savvy Office Mobile is undercut by Windows 10, so the best tablet for Office is still an iPad

Office Mobile: Better on iPads than on Windows 10 tablets

Windows users have fumed for a year that iPad users enjoyed a good Office experience on their tablets, but not users of Windows PC tablets like Microsoft's Surface. When Microsoft released Windows 10 on July 29, it also released the mobile versions of Office for PC tablets. Finally, Windows fans hoped, they'd have a usable touch version of Office on their PC tablets.

That's not what they got. Office Mobile for Windows 10 suffers from running on an operating system that still can't do tablets quite right. Instead, you really need to run Office (whether the desktop version or the new mobile version) in desktop mode, with a keyboard and mouse or touchpad.

The good news: The Office Mobile apps for PC tablets are as capable as their iPad and Android tablet counterparts, assuming you have a paid Office 365 subscription in effect. (Oddly, a Windows user can't do any editing unless they have an Office 365 subscription, whereas an iOS or Android user can do the basics.) To use a corporate Office 365 subscription for Office Mobile on a personal PC tablet, or vice versa, be sure to do the hidden setup trick I explained in a previous story.

Tablet mode is essential to using Office Mobile

It's important to run your PC tablet in tablet mode to get a usable Office Mobile experience. Enable it via the Tablet Mode switch in the Settings app's System panel. I also recommend you disable the Hide App Icons on the Taskbar in Tablet Mode switch to Off; without that task bar, launching non-running apps and switching apps in Windows 10 is a real pain.

Windows 10 taskbar visible in tablet mode

If you show the taskbar when in Windows 10's tablet mode, you can more easily switch applications.

If you don't use tablet mode, the Office Mobile apps open in floating windows, as if on a regular PC. The buttons are too close to each other for finger-tappings, and it's way too easy to tap the Close button by accident in those floating windows. Plus, the onscreen keyboard rarely opens up on its own when you work in text fields. 

In tablet mode, with the onscreen keyboard open, you get the same amount of screen real estate for your documents as you get on an iPad or Android tablet. Buttons and menus are largely consistent across the three operating systems, and the small differences aren't problematic for regular users.

Microsoft's Office UI is better on iOS and Android

Ironically, the iOS and Android versions of Office Mobile make more controls available in their ribbons than the Windows 10 version does, though PC tablets tend to be wider than iOS and Android units, so they could hold all the same elements as in iOS and Android Office. Thus, it's easier to know what you can do in Office on an iPad or Android tablet than on a PC tablet.

Office Mobile for Windows 10 adopts the iOS convention for contextual menus: a horizontal list of options that better fits a constrained screen. But the Windows 10 version includes traditional drop-down menus within that horizontal list -- and the drop-down options often disappear behind the onscreen keyboard, so you can't access them without hiding the keyboard, a stupid workaround, or without docking the keyboard (the box-like icon at the keyboard's upper right), a setting that should be the default.

Office Mobile for Windows 10 menus get covered by keyboard

The drop-down items in Office Mobile for Windows 10's contextual menu fall behind the standard onscreen keyboard, making them unavailable.

That's the kind of user interface snafu that Microsoft does all too often. UI is not Microsoft's strong suit, not by a mile. The result is a corrosion of the functionality on offer. That's a key reason why Office Mobile on Windows 10 is a lesser option than essentially the same apps in iOS or Android.

You (almost always) must have an Internet connection

On any platform, Office Mobile suffers from its use of Microsoft's OneDrive cloud storage. Cloud storage is great when you have an unmetered, always-available Internet connection. That's not the case in mobile contexts.

Therefore, I cannot rely on Office Mobile on any OS -- if I hadn't downloaded the files I need ahead of, say, a flight, I'm stuck.

Well, I'm stuck most of the time. If you opened a document on your PC tablet (or iPad or Android tablet) recently, a copy might be in OneDrive's local cache and still accessible. If so, it will open; if not, you'll get an error message.

I wish Microsoft (and all cloud storage providers) would do more automatic local syncing similar to what Apple does with iCloud Drive, so more documents would be more likely to be available for working when disconnected from the Internet. Apple's iWork apps are particularly good about this syncing, but you'll still encounter documents that must be downloaded when you don't have a connection. However, it happens less often than with the Office apps.

Keep in mind that Microsoft still doesn't have a workable version of OneDrive for Business for Macs, so OneDrive is a problematic service for multiplatform organizations. Fortunately, you can access other cloud storage services like Box and Dropbox from Office Mobile, though you have to use the File Explorer interface that's hard to manage via touch.

Office Mobile file explorer

To access files stored elsewhere than OneDrive or the default Office folder, you use the File Explorer interface in Windows 10. Unfortunately, it's not well designed for touch use.

Office Mobile is no reason to get a PC tablet

Windows 10 comes with the touch-oriented Mail and Calendar apps that essentially replace Outlook, similar to the Mail and Calendar apps in iOS and the Email and Calendar apps in Android. The iPad's apps are better designed and more capable, and offer critical business features like out-of-office messages for Exchange in Mail and time-zone controls in Calendar.

There's a theme: Microsoft's tablet apps are either inferior to their iPad (and, often, Android) counterparts, or operate in an inferior way due to poor choices in Windows 10. 

Of course there are a ton of other good apps available for iOS and Android. This is decidedly not the case for Windows tablets, where your only real option outside of Microsoft's few apps is struggle to use standard Windows apps that don't fit the tablet environment well.

Thsee standard apps really require that a keyboard and mouse be attached to your PC tablet! making it into a traditional laptop. But the $130 Microsoft Type Cover that turns a PC tablet into a laptop through its keyboard and trackpad is not a great solution: It's not stable enough to use in a lap or any environment outside a traditional desk or table setup that provides a stable surface for support. Even then, it is less responsive than a Bluetooth or USB keyboard and mouse.

If you want a usable true tablet experience, get an iPad or possibly an Android tablet. Otherwise, use a laptop -- there are plenty of lightweight models to choose from. Either way, toss that PC tablet and get something that actually works well instead. Then run Office on that device.


Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.