iPad smackdown: Microsoft Office vs. Apple iWork vs. Google G Suite

Your iPad can largely function like a laptop with two of the three main office productivity suites

iPad smackdown: Microsoft Office vs. Apple iWork vs. Google Apps
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The iPad makes a great laptop, and nowhere is that more obvious than in its productivity tools. Apple showed the way years ago with its iWork suite (Pages, Numbers, and Keynote), and Microsoft has validated the notion with its Office suite (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint). Of course there's also Google G Suite (Docs, Sheets, and Slides), which includes mobile versions of the apps for iOS.

[UPDATED MARCH 27, 2017] Which of these office suites should you use on your iPad? Part of the answer depends on the functionality of the individual apps, but part depends on your greater ecosystem—namely, how your iPad productivity work fits into your overall productivity work on computers and other devices. That of course is for you to decide. Naturally, I'll focus here on how these three suites stack up in terms of functionality and ease of use. 

In a nutshell, one of these iPad productivity suites is powerful, but doesn't fit well in a cross-platform, Windows-dominated environment. Another works across all major platforms, but is quite limited on the iPad. Only one of them is both highly functional on the iPad and a good fit in a cross-platform environment. This review shows you which suites work best on the iPad; in our companion review, you can see which productivity suites work best across Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android.

iPad productivity smackdown: Core capabilities compared

Apple, Microsoft, and Google all consider their productivity suites to be more than a collection of apps. Instead, the three companies see them as services that work across computers, mobile devices, and the web, so users can go with whichever client is at hand to access their centrally stored documents, as well as share those documents with other people for collaboration.

Office for iPad is included with an Office 365 subscription, though the apps tend to go overboard in asking you to sign in—it's much too often. Nonsubscribers can use a subset of Office's editing capabilities for free. iWork for iPad is free for iPad owners. G Suite is free if you have a Google account, though there is a paid version for enterprise and government use that adds Exchange-like administration capabilities.

File handling. Naturally, Office for iPad natively supports the Office file formats, and it does an excellent job of maintaining file compatibility as documents are moved among its desktop and mobile apps.

iWork has its own file formats, but it does a very good job of importing and exporting the standard Office and RTF formats as well. In both Office and iWork, font differences are the biggest culprits in unwanted reflow and problematic display as documents move from one platform to another.

G Suite also uses its own file formats, but it can import and export native Office files. In iOS, G Suite can work directly on native Office documents, but doing so dramatically reduces the editing and formatting capabilities for these documents, so you need to convert your documents first to Google's formats, then export them when done for non-Google users. Google's conversion between its formats and Office's formats is less faithful than iWork's conversion, especially around layout, but it's adequate for basic documents. Advantage: Office and iWork (tie).

The iOS versions of Office, iWork, and G Suite can export files to PDFs, but only iWork can export text documents to the ePub format and spreadsheets to CSV. The internal code in Apple's ePub export, however, is very messy and littered with local overrides that inhibit further editing or proper TOC generation; it's not up to snuff for publishing documents for use in the iBooks Store or other e-bookstores, but it's fine for distributing documents for co-workers to read in the iBooks app or similar e-readers.

The Office apps also support exporting to the OpenOffice formats, which are less useful than iWork's extra formats. Advantage: iWork.

Both Office and iWork can print to AirPrint-compatible printers, though the control for doing so in Office is not in iOS's standard Share menu (which Office doesn't use) but in the File menu. G Suite supports both AirPrint and Google's own Cloud Print protocol, but printing is not intuitive: You have to preview a document (using the More menu) to get the Print option. Advantage: None.

All three suites use iOS's Open In facility to send a document to another app. They each bring you to the Send a Copy menu item in different, multistep methods, as none has the Share menu available at a top level. Advantage: None.

Office and G Suite let you make a copy of your document while it is open (use the File menu in Office; use the More menu's Share & Export option in G Suite). iWork does not; you must duplicate the file in the document viewer before you open it if you want to save your changes as a copy. Advantage: Office and G Suite (tie).

All three suites autosave their documents while you work on them, though Office lets you turn off autosave when working in a document if you desire. Advantage: None.

iWork lets you apply a password to individual files, which neither G Suite nor Office do. Advantage: iWork.

Both Office and iWork let you revert a document to a previous version. iWork makes the process easy: Select a document in the document viewer, tap Versions, and choose the desired version to revert to from the list that appears. Reversion in Office is trickier: If the file is stored in OneDrive, you can use the File menu's Restore version to open a list of recent versions in your browser, then restore a previous version. If the file is not stored in OneDrive, you can revert only to the last-saved version on your iPad. G Suite has no reversion capability. Advantage: iWork and Office (tie).

Cloud capabilities. The three office suites assume the use of cloud storage, particularly Apple's iCloud Drive for iWork, Microsoft's OneDrive for Office, and Google Drive for G Suite. All three suites present documents stored on their respective services in their default document views, with the ability to create folders and move documents among them.

Both Office and iWork support iOS's cloud plugin architecture, in which you can open and save files to other cloud services, in what Apple calls Locations. This OS-level feature is a bit clumsy to open (in the files view, you click More to access it in Office, and you click Locations in iWork) and navigate. Box, Google Drive, iCloud Drive, and OneDrive all support Locations, but Dropbox supports it only for saving files, not opening them. That makes using Dropbox with iWork difficult.

By contrast, Office directly supports Dropbox, so you can easily open and save files without going through the Locations feature. Office also directly supports corporate SharePoint repositories via Office 365. By contrast, G Suite supports only local files and Google Drive. Advantage: Office.

iCloud Drive is a sync-and-store service, so it keeps a local copy on each device after iCloud syncs, and you can access at least recent documents even without an internet connection. Both OneDrive and Google Drive are traditional sync-as-needed services, so you need a live internet connection to open any document that you did not explicitly store on your iPad. However, both Google Drive and Office (both the apps and OneDrive) let you store files locally on your iPad, though you need to do so manually, which is easy to forget.

All in all, the iWork suite is more usable while traveling on airplanes and other typically disconnected (or expensively connected) environments. Advantage: iWork.

Common user interface: The ribbon interface in Word—indeed, in all Office apps—is surprisingly easy to use, and I'm 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. G Suite 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.

All three apps use a document viewer to present 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. Advantage: None.

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