Today I’m going to start a series of blogs about using the iPad in and around the workplace. I’ll be covering the following topics:
- Office Suites
- Tools & Apps for the aspiring iPad pro-user
- Remote & Mobile Working
Our first point of call is the humble, yet ubiquitous office suite. This is going to be a straight review / roundup so if that’s not your thing you might want to wait for part 2.
We’ve had 3 main office suites made available in the weeks following the iPad launch, and a fourth was released just this week. Let’s first consider the earlier entrants.
Like every other drone in the past 20 years I’ve been using Word almost without question in my working, academic and personal life for as long as I can remember using PCs. But since Word ’97, little has changed, whilst Bloat has become par for the norm. Pages, then, is a breath of fresh air, because it keeps every feature you’re used to – even demand – from Word, but simplifies the interface with which you create your documents. I’d also go as far as to say that it does what Microsoft have never seemed able to and merges Publisher functionality sufficiently well to do away with that nasty blast from the past (which I only see people using to create flyers for their kids birthdays anyway).
Some of the key features which make Pages a joy to use are Snap-to grids, beautiful font display / formatting, and lovingly produced templates.
Numbers is the weak spot in iWorks battle plan for productivity dominance only because it doesn’t try anything crazy. It’s not that it’s not good – it contains over 250 formulas, comprehensive (if slightly hidden) formula syntax help and good handling of cell selection. A minor letdown is that rendering and typography aren’t that great.
Ahh Keynote. To listen to my brother, Keynote is already becoming old news due to overuse at techie conferences and during presentations. That’s all very well, but it’s still clearly by far the best presentation software package on the market – everything about it is slick. Wizards and templates you’ll actually want to use. Object manipulation (shared in part with Pages) which feels intuitive, looks amazing and is surprisingly accurate. Iconic slide transitions (transposing images has an almost magical feel).
But again, a downside. Apple allow you to export to Word and Excel, but maddeningly not Powerpoint! Since even Microsoft have embraced more open office file format standards, this just seems absolutely ridiculous.
Ok, so overall iWork is a very decent Office suite, but I’m sorry to say I just can’t use it! Apple have left one absolutely vital thing out, in the pursuit of the perfect closed system, and it unfortunately lies on the wrong side of the line which I can tolerate. To access your files, you’re limited to:
- Looking at them on your iPad
- Sharing them on iWork.com
- Emailing them to yourself (!)
- Using a web interface on an ad-hoc iPad hotspot webserver
Predictably, these are all terrible options. iWork.com is probably the best of a bad bunch here, but even then the emphasis is on emailing copies of your document to all and sundry. That doesn’t make sense – efficient working requires one of two alternative approaches, which we’ll look at next.
The iWork suite represents excellence in UI design, contains the premier presentation designer for iPad, and is good value for money at $10 for each of 3 apps.
I’ve been using Office2 HD quite extensively and I really want to like it. Rather than iWork’s ‘One App per document type’ money-spinner, Office2 HD gives you the ability to create documents and spreadsheets, and view PowerPoint presentations, PDFs and the like. I suspect that editing presentations will be coming in a later update – that seems to be par for the norm.
Document editing is quite basic – more like a note editor (Evernote, Simplenote), but it does have a reasonable number of features scattered here and there. Undo is bizarrely tucked away on the number menu on the keyboard though (lots of iPad programs seem to like doing this for some reason), and some functionality isn’t especially discoverable.
Spreadsheets are much better, with really clear display, powerful style tools and extensive function help. Multiple cell selection isn’t obvious though (you tap, then quickly tap and hold somewhere else) and one really annoying niggle is that selecting a cell positions the carat at the end of its current content – beginning to type then appends to what was previously in it.
So that’s all well and good, but more interestingly Office2 HD has much better online syncing support. The cloud services I use are Dropbox and Google Docs, and you can simply add as many of these services as you like by entering your credentials. The interface is exactly what you’d expect – like Apple’s Mail app, it has a tree menu in landscape and a dropdown menu in portrait. When you load Office2 HD and go into an online services folder, it checks what documents are available, and you can just load and work on whatever you like as if it was local. This makes it quite simple for the novice, but is a serious limitation for a power user – there is no offline sync, you must be connected to wifi when you actually load a file or you can’t do any work!
Office2 HD is a good choice as a budget all-in-one office suite – cheaper than iWork, with more flexible sync options.
DocumentsToGo has been around at least as long as I’ve been in the workplace. You just know it’s going to be really good for syncing documents even before you try it out, and you wouldn’t be wrong. When it loads you’re presented with 3 sections, Local Files, Desktop Files & Online Files. Frankly Desktop Files is a legacy from the old days of Palm / Active Syncing to a desktop PC, and you’d be an idiot to use it now. I also can’t think of a good reason to use Local Files, and strangely you can’t cut and paste files between the three sections, so it’s best to choose one and stick with it. The Online Files section is really powerful though – it solves all the problems of Office2 HD by keeping a mirror of all your online/cloud based documents, making sync status crystal clear and even having a comprehensive search feature to find what you’re looking for. You do get an off-putting minisync every time you traverse a folder though, as it checks for updates.
Unfortunately DocumentsToGo is definitely not a looker -it’s almost reminiscent of older Palm OS / Psion type programs, and is a far cry from Pages or Keynote. The plain, no nonsense interface actually works ok in the word processor, where menu icons give way to submenus and hide a good level of functionality, but the presentation viewer is pretty terrible – certainly not good enough for anything professional. The spreadsheet program is rather similar to Office2 HD – slightly odd design decisions, but good typography. I couldn’t figure out how to multi-select cells – let me know in the comments if you figure it out!
Overall the comprehensive offline syncing which supports a wide range of different cloud services will entice many business users to DocumentsToGo, but you lose a lot of the user friendliness and fun that’s kind of the whole point of having the iPad in the first place.
The Newcomer: QuickOffice Connect HD
The authors of this brand new app are quick to say that Presentation editing support is coming later in the year, and now might be a good time to pick it up if you’re after something that’ll hopefully eventually do everything that I’ve touched upon so far, and do it well. For as of today QuickOffice Connect HD is an essential app for the iPad! Let’s see why.
This is the first multi-pane interface I’ve seen in an iPad app. To the left you have your accounts, including local documents, and in the middle you get your folder structure. However, as you navigate around it expands to the right and you can flick up and down the tree quickly. It’s a really delightful little interface, and a lot of thought has gone into it.
Like Office2 HD, you have to be connected to the Internet to look at your online files, but unlike the former, a caching system downloads a (hidden) local copy of any file you load from your online repositories, so if you lose your connection or quit out for a few minutes you can carry on working were you left off. I would dearly like to see the same system in place as works so robustly DocumentsToGo (which caches your folder hierarchy and replicates it locally as you load a file for the first time), but until then there is a workable alternative in QuickOffice which wasn’t present in Office2 HD. The interface fully supports drag & drop, so to keep and work on a local copy of a file, simply drag it to your “On Alex’s iPad” folder, make your changes, then drag it back when you’re done to update the online version.
QuickDoc is a great visual word processor, fairly close to the level of polish of Pages. Most of the formatting tools are accessed from a box on the top right of the screen, and documents are rendered really clearly. It’s really easy just to fire up a new document and start typing too – perhaps it’s because the default view is slightly more zoomed out than some of the competitors, but it does feel like you’re creating a document rather than typing up a note.
QuickSheet mimics Numbers in quite a few ways, and I had quite a few problems when testing it out for this review. I found quite a few files it was unable to load due to ‘file corruption’, but on further investigation, the file corruption had actually been caused by DocumentsToGo! Forunately it works fine when you load files which haven’t been edited by something else first. I found it an easy to use but powerful spreadsheet program, which displays spreadsheets more closely to how they are intended than all the rest on review.
My multi-cell selection bugbear is side-stepped by having draggable nodes on each of the 4 sides of a cell – this makes it very clear how to perform the select, but potentially doubles the number of gestures you must use to make your selection.
QuickOffice is currently on special offer at $10, which represents amazing value for money, considering they’ve committed to enhancing the product with a presentation designer this year. The apps are close in quality to iWork, and with a bit of getting used to the options for online file syncronisation are as powerful as you could ever need.
I toyed around with the idea of doing a summary table or review scores, but that would detract from my main point – all these apps are worth their price tags, well below the equivalent for Windows or Mac, so as a business user, just go ahead and buy a bunch of them, see how you get on. I’ve settled for QuickOffice & Keynote, which I’m confident should cover most bases for me at the present time, whilst more business focussed users will see extra value in DocumentsToGo.
The next installment of this series will look at cloud services, data syncronisation, and some of the apps which really lend themselves to efficient, futuristic styles of working and information consumption on the iPad.