Review of the Month for February 2012 - MS Office on iPad
There are many apps that let you open and edit Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint) files on an iPad. I use Documents to Go Premium mostly because I have been using a version of this app since I carried a Palm OS device in the 90's, but there are several other choices. As handy as they are, these apps do not provide the entire Office feature set. For example, I often use PowerPoint files with embedded audio or video or complex transitions when I teach at CLE seminars or law schools. For the most part, those advanced features are lost when I open a PowerPoint file in one of the many iPad apps that allow you to open, create, and edit basic Office files. Also, key features in Word such as the all-important Tracked Changes don't work with most iPad apps that claim MS Office file compatibility. What if you want (need?) to use your iPad as full-featured tool to create and edit Office files?
You could wait for Microsoft to develop an iPad app that preserves these advanced features. There are rumors that Microsoft is working on a version of Office that will run on the iPad. But I doubt that a native iPad Office app, even from Microsoft itself, will be able to preserve all of the advance features of the Office suite running on a PC. If you want to try a full version of Office on your iPad now, there at least two apps (and a third option) to consider.
To me, the most intriguing way to run MS Office on my iPad is the currently free OnLive Desktop web-based app and service. It puts a Windows 7 virtual machine on your iPad's screen and gives you access to full versions of Office 2010 applications (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint). Because it is web-based, your iPad must be connected to the Internet to use the service. I have a Wi-Fi only iPad 2 and the responsiveness when using OnLive Desktop has been very good. I don't know if it will work as well (or at all) over a 3G connection. In order to use OnLive Desktop, you visit their web site to create a free account. Then download the free OnLive Desktop app to your iPad from the App Store
Since you are using full versions of the Office 2010 applications, all of the advanced features of each application (embedded video, tracked changes, etc.) are available to you. OnLive Desktop provides you with a free on-line storage locker where you can upload and store your Office files so you can work on them anytime you have an Internet connection. The free account provides 2 GB of personal file storage. You can't upload files directly from your iPad. You must perform that task within a web browser on your PC. I uploaded several of the PowerPoint files I use when teaching. When running the app on my iPad and logged into the service, I was presented with a Windows 7 desktop with a folder on the desktop containing my uploaded PowerPoint files. It was easy to open and run them using the service. I was able to use an Apple TV box connected to the classroom projector to display the full PowerPoint files, with all of their embedded features, to my class.
One feature currently missing from OnLive Desktop is a web browser. Clicking on hyperlinks embedded in the PowerPoint presentation only produced an error message. Since many PowerPoint presentations include hyperlinks to web pages, this is a serious flaw if using OnLive Desktop for presentation purposes. Sure, you can switch the iPad's built-in Safari browser to visit web pages. Unfortunately, as soon as you switch applications on the iPad, your OnLive Desktop session logs out, making a quick return to your presentation impossible. Hopefully the OnLive folks will add a browser to what is otherwise an impressive technological achievement.
If you plan to use OnLive Desktop for Word document creation or editing, the lack of a web browser is less important. And there is no problem using an external Bluetooth keyboard with your iPad to key-in text when working with a Word document in OnLive Desktop. I find this to be a remarkable achievement in blending a web-based application with a locally-connected input device. Why use Word in OnLive Desktop instead of a local Office suite such as Documents to Go Premium? If your Word document is complex, such as the briefs I write in my appellate practice, it will have many features (multiple sections, various styles, page numbering, footnotes, headers/footers, references, etc.) that are not visible, lost, or altered in some way when the document is opened in a local app like Documents to Go.
Another Web-connected Office solution for the iPad is CloudOn. Like OnLive Desktop, CloudOn gives you full virtual versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint 2010 on your iPad's screen. Simply download the free CloudOn app and create your account from within the app. CloudOn requires a link to your existing (or newly-created) Dropbox account. Linking to an existing file syncing service makes file uploading and downloading as simple as possible. This is an advantage over OnLive Desktop. Of course, you must satisfy yourself that Dropbox's and CloudOn's privacy policies are sufficient to protect client confidentiality if you intent to use either service in your law practice.
My external Bluetooth keyboard worked find when creating or editing Office files in CloudOn. But I noticed that while animations in my PowerPoint's were preserved and displayed, embedded audio and video was not. This makes CloudOn less suitable for presentations than OnLive Desktop. CloudOn also shares OnLive Desktop's inability open hyperlinks embedded in PowerPoint presentations. On the upside, Track Changes and other advanced features of Word worked as expected. I found on-screen response to be a bit slower with CloudOn than with OnLive Desktop. Still, it was as good or better than most remote control/remote access apps I have used.
A nice feature is the ability to open Word, Excel, or PowerPoint attachments received via email directly in the CloudOn application (assuming you have a live Internet connection). Just tap and hold the attachment icon at the bottom of the message received in the iPad's Mail app, then select CloudOn from the Open In menu. You may have to scroll down to find CloudOn if you have many MS Office compatible applications installed on your iPad.
Conclusion (and a Third Option)
Both OnLive Desktop and CloudOn are viable ways to work with full versions of MS Word, Excel, or PowerPoint on your iPad - provided you have an Internet connection. I like the fact that either service works with an external Bluetooth keyboard. Using either app's on-screen keyboard (which substitutes for the Apple on-screen keyboard) takes up a large amount of screen real estate and limits your view of the document you are working on. For that reason, I recommend an external keyboard if you plan to do a lot of typing in any iPad app.
OnLive Desktop feels faster and more responsive to use. However, if you switch apps to check your email, OnLive Desktop will log you out of your account. It has to be in the foreground to remain logged-in. With CloudOn, you can switch to check email or open your browser, then switch back to CloudOn without being logged-out of your session. However, your open document is automatically saved and closed when you switch from CloudOn to another app, so you must reopen your document. That is slightly faster than OnLive's requirement that you log back in and then re-open your document.
Either service will give you full-featured access to the most-used MS Office 2010 applications. Since both are currently free, try both to determine if you have a preference. Another option is to use a remote access/remote control app and service. I use LogMeIn Ignition on my iPad to remote into my desktop PC when I am on the road. As with almost anything you want to do on a iPad, there are several other remote control apps available. Remote into your office or home computer and use the version of MS Office installed there. My hunch is that performance will not be as speedy as either OnLive Desktop or CloudOn can provide. But this method will provide you with access to all of your files and other PC applications.