iPad face-off: Microsoft Office vs. Apple iWork vs. Google Apps

iPad office apps, round 10: Microsoft Office and Apple iWork get big upgrades for the iPad's new multitasking capabilities

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iWork has added sharing support for Android users, but they can only view shared documents. Shared iWork documents can be edited only in a Windows PC or Mac browser, or in iOS or OS X via an iWork app. Shared Office documents can be edited in Windows, OS X, iOS, and Android via the native Office apps on those platforms or via a desktop browser on a PC or Mac. Shared Apps documents can be edited in iOS and Android via the native mobile apps and in Windows, OS X, and Chrome OS via a browser. Advantage: Office and Apps (tie).

Only iWork supports iOS's Handoff capability, which lets you transfer a document from one device to another while in progress without an Internet connection (it uses Bluetooth and Wi-Fi Direct). This feature is quite handy if you, for example, start a quick edit in Pages on your iPad and realize you have more involved work to do than expected. When you get to your Mac, the Dock shows the Pages icon if the Pages app is running, and you click it to transfer that document to Pages on your Mac. You can transfer a document from your Mac to the iPad the same way. However, Handoff works only on Macs and iOS devices, so it's not useful in a multiplatform environment. Advantage: iWork.

Common user interface: The ribbon interface in Word -- indeed, in all Office apps -- is surprisingly easy to use, speaking as someone who can't stand it in Windows or on the Mac. iWork's user interface is more compact and requires more switching within tabbed panes, but it is also clearer about the results you'll get. Apps uses a similar interface approach as iWork, but its interface confusingly changes based on whether you are editing a native Google document or a native Office doc. Advantage: Office.

Microsoft Office for iPad ribbon UI (PowerPoint)

The Office suite on iPad uses the controversial ribbon UI to arrange its controls. The approach works very nicely on the iPad's screen.

All three apps use a document viewer to show you your available documents and to create new ones, as well as rename, duplicate, import, and share files. They look quite different from one another, but the differences are more cosmetic than functional.

Word processing compared

All three suites do the basics: enter, edit, and format text; format paragraphs and lists; search and replace text (with whole-word and capitalization options); insert and edit tables; insert and wrap around images; and spell-check text, track revisions, and add comments. However, Google Apps can check spelling and track revisions only in files saved in the Office formats, and it can work only with tables and images saved in its native format.

Google Docs cannot create hyperlinks in text, though Microsoft Word and iWork Pages can. And Word and Pages offer much more formatting capabilities, such as text backgrounds, text boxes, footers and headers, shapes, footnotes, page margins, page orientation, breaks, and columns. Both have ruler views.

Neither Word, Pages, nor Docs support paragraph and character style creation and editing in their iPad incarnations. All three preserve styles applied to imported documents, and both Word and Pages let you apply those imported paragraph styles to text on the iPad (though not character styles). But you can't create your own styles on the iPad, which makes it hard to do stable document formatting.

Apple iWork for iPad charts

All iWork for iPad apps (Pages is shown here) offer sophisticated charting, table, and shapes tools.

Word and Pages are nearly equal in their capabilities, with only a few differences around the edges. For example, Word lets you lock specific authors from making revisions in a shared file, whereas Pages does not. Pages offers a much richer set of preformatted tables and charts than Word does. Advantage: Pages and Word (tie).

Spreadsheets compared

It's a similar story for spreadsheet editing: Google Sheets has only basic capabilities: cell and text formatting; row, column, and cell insertion and deletion; a strong selection of formulas; and a rich set of data formats. If you work on native Excel files, the number of formulas and formats declines significantly, and you lose some formatting options such as strikethrough and decimal place settings.

Both Excel and iWork Numbers are rich with functionality, and they do nearly everything the desktop versions do. However, you don't get the more complex features like pivot tables, linked spreadsheets, and macros that the Mac and Windows versions offer.

Numbers offers richer formatting options for tables, charts, and images than Excel does. And it supports several number formats -- pop-up menus, star ratings, check boxes, sliders, and steppers -- that a traditional Excel user would shake his or her head at, but they work well for nontraditional but common spreadsheet uses as a list manager and interactive dashboard or calculator.

Furthermore, Numbers' adaptive onscreen keyboard makes numeric and formula entry easier than Excel's more standard onscreen keyboard.

Apple iWork for iPad Numbers keyboard

iWork Numbers for the iPad uses special onscreen keyboards when working with numbers and dates, to make data entry easier than in competing spreadsheet apps.

But Excel provides the ability to sort contents within selected cells, columns, and rows, which Numbers does not -- and that's a commonly used spreadsheet capability whose omission in Numbers would frustrate those who normally use Excel. Advantage: Excel and Numbers.

Presentations compared

Google Slides is a relatively more capable app than its word processor and spreadsheet analogs. Slides lets you create and edit slides, along with their content, and even add speaker notes. If you use the native Slides file format, you can include tables in your slides, as well as apply borders to text boxes and adjust line spacing.

Nonetheless, PowerPoint and iWork Keynote are leagues more sophisticated. Both support dozens of build effects and slide transitions, and you get the same sophisticated charting, table, and shapes tools here as you do in the rest of the Office and iWork suites. Plus, you can insert videos from your iPad's Photos app. Both PowerPoint and Keynote also let you set up presentations to autoplay; Keynote even lets you associate a music playlist from the Music app to a slideshow.

PowerPoint and Keynote also let you annotate your slides as you go through them, with a simulated laser pointer and the ability to draw on your slides, such as to post to an item or underline text as you speak. PowerPoint's presenter view shows the upcoming slides (which you can jump among) and your presenter notes.

Microsoft Office for iPad PowerPoint presenter view

PowerPoint doesn't support remote-controlled presentations, but its presenter view lets you track your presentation time, annotate your slides, use a simulated laser pointer, and view and move among upcoming slides, all in one place.

Keynote assumes you're remotely controlling your presentation from Keynote on your Mac, iPhone, or iPod Touch via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi Direct, so it puts the speakers notes and upcoming slides on that device. Keynote's remote-control capability is very handy, especially if you (like me) tend to walk the stage while presenting.

PowerPoint can't do that, but it lets you control your presentation from your Apple Watch -- if you run that presentation from your iPhone. (So does Keynote.) Advantage: Keynote and PowerPoint.

Apple iWork for iPad Keynote remote control

Keynote lets you remote-control a presentation on an iPad, Mac, iPhone, or iPhone Touch from any other of these devices. Shown here is an iPhone as the remote control to an iPad presentation.

Making a choice

It should be clear that the choice is between iWork and Office. Of course, that needn't be a choice, since iWork comes with your iPad, and it's a rare business that won't provide Office to its employees. (That is why Microsoft has tied the iOS and Android versions of Office to having an Office 365 subscription, to force the issue for companies with mobile workers.)

Because both suites are nearly equivalent in their productivity capabilities, your decision will be driven largely by two other factors:

  • Office dominance. Because Office for iPad looks and works very much like Office for Android, Office 2016 for Mac, and Office 2016 for Windows, it makes a lot of sense for a "Microsoft shop" to have everyone use Office everywhere. That reduces training and makes document flow a little easier. In more heterogeneous environments, iWork's strong file compatibility with Office means you can have your iWork and Office too.
  • Collaboration and cloud differences. All three suites differ most in how they handle files in the cloud and how they support collaboration. Even when their functionality is the same, how they deliver that functionality can differ significantly. Your cloud foundation and sharing approaches might tilt you to Office or iWork.

The good news is you really can't go wrong either way -- or both ways.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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