Excel on my iPad -- free

By Sharon Machlis

A lot of people want access to Excel documents on a tablet so they can use their mobile device for work. Me? I want Excel on my iPad to help organize ideas for summer fun.

Different use case, but similar requirements: I don't only want to view my spreadsheets online; I also want to sort, filter, search and update them -- and make sure that changes on one device are seamlessly reflected on others. Given that I use a Mac at work, a Windows machine at home and have both an iOS iPad and an Android smartphone, cross-platform is key. (Technically, this time I don't need OS X compatibility, since I'm not keeping my "weekend and vacation ideas" list on my work machine; but I'm including that platform since many iPad users also have Macs.)

Alas, using Windows at home rules out Apple's Numbers spreadsheet app, whose best features are limited to the OS X/iOS ecosystem. Yes I could save my iPad spreadsheet as an Excel file and then email files back and forth to my other devices, but that would take the "fun" out of "summer fun list" in a hurry.

I checked out Galen Grumman's review of office apps for the iPad at work posted last spring, and determined that none yet meet my specific needs. QuickOffice can't sort columns -- what's the point of working on spreadsheets if you can't sort the data? Soonr workspace sounded promising for other needs but it's geared toward business, with cloud plans starting at $99.50/year for 3 users and 25G of storage. And $100/year for a team project-management service seems like overkill to edit a couple of spreadsheets on my device -- especially since using it for work still wouldn't solve the problem of pulling up personal documents on my iPad.

Of the apps Galen reviewed, DocsToGo sounded closest to what I want. However, I was put off by the interface description, which seemed somewhat cumbersome and kludgey to use. I'm not sure I want to learn a whole new application if it's one that isn't optimized for the iPad experience. Alas there's no free/lite trial version (the app costs $16.99 for a premium version that supports 2-way file synchronization), although I was prepared to give it a try if I couldn't find anything else.

Fortunately, there have been some new options since that 2011 review. My answer for 2012? CloudOn, a free app which lets me run a virtualized version of Excel (as well as Microsoft Word and PowerPoint) on my iPad. No need to learn a new interface; the only thing to get used to is the navigation and CloudOn's on-screen keyboard, which offers extra keys such as tab and control.

Because CloudOn integrates with DropBox, I can edit a spreadsheet locally on my iPad and then have the changes sync on my other devices. Since the file is in native Excel format, there's no need to "save as" Excel -- in fact, I don't have to "save" at all, since the app auto saves for me. And after sharing a DropBox folder containing my spreadsheet with my husband, changes were synced seamlessly across the polyglot gadgetry of our household: desktop computers, Android phones, Android tablets and an iPod Touch. There's no CloudOn Android app just yet, so I'd need another answer to editing Excel files on my phone, although the company says one is in the works.

Would I use CloudOn to work on company-confidential data? No, since I'm not convinced that Dropbox has enterprise-grade security. But will I use it to view, edit and sync non-sensitive documents? Absolutely.

As PC World's Yardena Ara pointed out, CloudOn is currently paying software-as-a-service licensing fees to Microsoft while offering its app for free. And that isn't a business model for the long run. So be advised that the odds of an ad-free, fee-free version of CloudOn lasting forever are somewhat slim. But meanwhile, I'm enjoying it while it lasts -- which I expect will be well after Labor Day.

Update: If you're just looking for basic spreadsheet capabilities, the Google Drive app for iOS gives access to Google spreadsheets. If you've got an Internet connection, you can edit and save your changes, including creating formulas and sorting columns. Without Internet, you can still view the spreadsheet but not work on it. This definitely is not Excel and can be slow and cumbersome to do serious spreadsheet work, but Google spreadsheets can later be downloaded in Excel-compatible format and you can upload Excel spreadsheeets to Drive from a desktop. iOS 6 or later required.

CloudOn on-screen keyboard

CloudOn's on-screen keyboard includes an extra row of keys to work with Excel.

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Sharon Machlis is online managing editor at Computerworld. Her e-mail address is smachlis@computerworld.com. You can follow her on Twitter @sharon000, on Facebook, on Google+ or by subscribing to her RSS feeds:
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