The right office apps for the iPad at work, round 2

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Users and business managers alike are loving the iPad as a potential laptop replacement, for at least part of the time. And more and more workplaces are providing employees iPads or letting employees use their own. So, just as companies typically install a suite of desktop productivity apps (nearly always Microsoft Office), what should the iPad equivalent be?

The answer can't be Office because Microsoft has no iPad-compatible suite. Microsoft's Office Web Apps cloud-based suite doesn't work on an iPad either. Google Docs is also not easily usable on an iPad, despite some improvements in winter 2011.

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InfoWorld.com first investigated the available programs in December 2010 and put together a recommended business apps suite that should be the standard install on corporate iPads. All have been revised, and new products have become available, so six months later, I've re-reviewed the options to see what makes the most sense today.

I remain surprised to find that none of the iPad productivity suites is ideal, though one continues to come close. (I've added U.S. iTunes links for each app covered.)

Of course, beyond the productivity apps that nearly everyone uses, iPadders have further needs. I've put together a collection of additional business apps that you might make available to employees or point them to for more specialized work.

The office suite candidates are Apple's iWork suite -- Pages ($10), Numbers ($10), and Keynote ($10) -- plus Quickoffice's Quickoffice Pro HD (formerly named Quickoffice Connect Mobile Suite; $15, but its price changes frequently) and DavaViz's Documents to Go Premium ($17). Quickoffice has a word processor, spreadsheet editor, and a slideshow editor; the last item is a recent addition. DocsToGo -- as it's labeled on the iPad -- has a word processor, a spreadsheet editor, and a tool to edit text and add notes to a presentation. All the programs read and write the Microsoft Office file formats.

Also in the mix is Soonr Workplace, which runs $10 per month for three users and 25GB of storage or $30 per month for five users and 100GB; other plans are available based on storage requirements and number of users. In its 3.3 version, Soonr Workplace is a cloud storage service that lets you edit Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents; you can preview but not edit iWork files. However, you cannot create documents in Soonr. You can work on files downloaded from your Soonr cloud storage or copied into Soonr via iOS's Open In facility.

I'll first pick out the best individual productivity apps, then pull together a recommended suite that includes utilities that should be in your standard installation as well. Note that my iPad choices aren't the same as my recommendations for the best iPhone office apps, due to app differences across the two devices. Here are the winners:

The best word processor for the iPad

Choosing the word processor was the toughest call. Note that none of the options support revision tracking; if that's essential to your workflow, you're out of luck.

Pages. Apple's Pages is by far the most capable word processor for the iPad, with real layout controls such as the ability to designate page margins; set tabs; and add footers, headers, and images. It also has the most extensive text-formatting capabilities available, such as fonts, text size, lists, text color, line spacing, and paragraph alignment. It even spell-checks your document, highlighting potentially misspelled words; you can then have it suggest corrections by selecting the word and tapping Dictionary from the contextual menu. The search-and-replace feature also lets you constrain your actions to whole words or text with matching case, as you'd expect on the desktop. One note: If you open the Find capability from the Tools menu and don't see a field for replacement text, tap the Settings button (the gear icon) to change the mode to Find and Replace.

You can create rich, stunning documents on the iPad with Pages -- not with all the bells and whistles available on a Mac or PC in Microsoft Word, but much more than in any other mobile word processor. It's also easy to use. However, Pages has a major flaw that could kill it as an option for many companies and two other issues you should know of in order to avoid them.

The flaw is that it doesn't retain style sheets in the documents it saves. That amounts to significant damage to the original file, and it will cause major issues if the document goes through any publishing workflow, such as for eventual HTML conversion or use in Adobe InDesign. The styles' text formatting is retained, but as local formatting only. Pages does have a styles capability that applies predefined formatting, as well as the ability to "paint" formatting from existing text, but it does not apply a style sheet that is editable by Pages or Word; the Pages "styles" are just local formatting groups.

The first issue to be aware of is that Pages doesn't work directly with cloud sharing services such as Google Docs, Dropbox, and Box.net, though you will be able to share wirelessly across your own devices using Apple's new iCloud service once that's in place later this year. If you want to share files with others, your standard options are limited to email or syncing to your computer via iTunes and sharing from there. Dropbox users have a work-around: The $5-per-month DropDAV.com service adds the CalDAV protocol to Dropbox so that Pages and the other iWork apps can exchange files with it. Box.net users also have a similar (but free) work-around: Log in from iWork apps via CalDAV using your Box.net sign-in credentials.

The second issue is a design foible: Any changes you make to a document are saved immediately in the original. You can't save the changed file later and retain the original file as is. The work-around is to make a duplicate of the file within Pages before you open it.

Quickoffice. Quickoffice's word processor is simple, with straightforward controls for basic formatting, such as font, text size, paragraph alignment, and lists. There are no layout controls, so you can use Quickoffice only to work on text. But Quickoffice retains the style sheets in your imported documents, so they're intact when you later export a document, even though it doesn't let you create, edit, or apply styles. And this week, Quickoffice added the ability to search and replace text, with a nice interface for doing so, but unlike Pages it can't search with criteria such as case-sensitive or whole words.

Quickoffice can connect to Box.net, Dropbox, Google Docs, Huddle, and SugarSync cloud storage, as well as to a computer directly over Wi-Fi. Of course, it can also email documents, and it provides a Save As option, as well as an internal folder structure so that you can organize your documents.

DocsToGo. DataViz's app is similar to Quickoffice in terms of its capabilities: It's also a simple text editor with basic formatting options. However, DocsToGo is more sophisticated than Quickoffice, offering search and replace (with case and whole-word criteria) as well as word counting. Its cloud storage options are nearly the same; it supports all the services Quickoffice does except Huddle.

But I can't recommend DocsToGo due to a really dumb UI design: All the controls are at the bottom of the screen, where they become hidden by the on-screen keyboard. This amounts to hiding the keyboard to do any formatting each and every time -- a real productivity killer. (Pages and Quickoffice put the controls at the top of the screen.)

Soonr Workplace. The text editing features for Word files are pretty sophisticated, with spell-checking, image insertion, and table creation in addition to most of the editing and formatting tools you'd expect. What's lacking are support for styles -- both full style sheets and even "style painting" à la Pages -- and search and replace (it just searches, though it does so with options for whole words and case). Also, Soonr wipes out style sheets from your documents, rendering the files unusable in many workflows.

The verdict: It's a split decision. Pages is all around the better word processor, but its style-sheet flaw makes it unusable for many organizations. If your document workflow rests on style sheets or requires cloud storage services such as Google Docs, your best bet is Quickoffice. Soonr is useful only for editing. It's nice to have if you are using Soonr cloud storage but insufficient to be your main editing tool.

The best spreadsheet editor for the iPad

The capabilities of the candidate spreadsheet editors are much closer than for the word processors.

Numbers. Similar to Pages in its richness of functionality, Numbers is a full-on spreadsheet editor. You can enter complex formulas, create charts, and have multiple worksheets. The on-screen keyboard adapts to what you are entering, making special symbols and formulas very accessible. What takes a little getting used to is switching your entry mode for a cell, such as to text or to formula or to date, but that's how Numbers knows what controls to put in the on-screen keyboard.

Numbers, like its Mac OS X counterpart, takes an odd approach to spreadsheet creation if you're used to working in Excel: Adding a worksheet results in a blank page with no cells. Excel users will be mystified as to what to do next. What they need to do is add a table to the worksheet -- that's the grid of cells. In Numbers, a worksheet can have multiple tables, whereas Excel has just the one table automatically created. Once you know this, Numbers is easy to use.

Like Pages, Numbers has a good find-and-replace capability. Alas, like Pages, Numbers has no Save As feature; you need to duplicate a document before opening to leave the original intact.

Quickoffice. Excel users will take to Quickoffice quickly, as it works very similarly. Quickoffice has a large set of functions available, and it's easy to work with cells, rows, and columns. Quickoffice's on-screen keyboard doesn't have the sophisticated contextual display that Numbers' does, but its interface is nicely designed, so it works well without that ability.

Quickoffice has a Save As functionality, unlike Numbers. What it doesn't have is a set of charting tools or the ability to sort columns or rows, both of which Numbers can do. Quickoffice also can't hide columns or rows -- but neither can Numbers. Quickoffice can search and replace in spreadsheets, but it lacks Numbers' ability to search based on case and/or whole words.

DocsToGo. The spreadsheet capabilities in DocsToGo are similar to those in Quickoffice, with better search and replace capabilities than Quickoffice. DocsToGo also can hide rows, sort columns, and freeze panes, none of which Quickoffice can do.

But again its user interface is deficient. Switching among worksheets is more work than necessary, for example. The fact that the formatting controls are on the bottom of the screen isn't as problematic as it is for text documents, since you use the keyboard less in a spreadsheet. Still, it remains a pain.

Soonr Workplace. Soonr's spreadsheet editing and formatting tools are fairly complete: You can add and edit formulas, add worksheets, sort rows or columns, insert columns, copy and paste cells, and edit cell contents. What's lacking is the ability to move rows and to create charts, and to replace text (it can only search). Plus there's no numeric keyboard for working with cells as there is in Numbers.

The verdict: Numbers is the most capable of the spreadsheet editors, and its quirks are ones you can adjust to pretty quickly. It's my choice for spreadsheet editor.

The best presentation software for the iPad

Keynote. Apple's presentation app is simply amazing. You can create beautiful presentations with sophisticated transitions and animation effects, as well as draw on capable text and object formatting tools. It's the only iPad spreadsheet editor that has find-and-replace capabilties. There's also a presenter notes feature, and you can add graphics from the Photos app, as well as create charts, tables, and shapes. And you can display your presentation on an external monitor, while seeing it and (optionally) your slide notes on the iPad. Chances are you won't miss PowerPoint if you're using Keynote.

My only frustration with it (besides the lack of Save As across all iWork apps) is that it displays only in landscape orientation -- a real puzzler, given that Apple's other iWork and native iPad apps are orientation-adjusting.

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