I did it for science

I did it for science: editing Word docs on my iPhone and iPad

Posted by Matthew Stibbe
Picture of Matthew Stibbe
on 23 July 2013
Advice Technology Writing tools

Hypothesis

I have a split personality when it comes to technology. My daily beast of burden is a custom-built silent PC running Windows 7 and Microsoft Word 2013. But my personal tech is all Apple. I have an iPhone 5 and a brace of iPads, not to mention Apple TV and a MacBook Air.

The 'I did it for science' hypothesis that I want to test this week is: ‘is it possible to edit Word documents on iOS devices and move work in progress seamlessly between my work PC and my mobile devices?’

Materials

Method

I decided to test the hypothesis by downloading the various apps and then trying to use them to write this article, working on different paragraphs on different devices with different applications.

Observations

The Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard could be a great way to work on the iPad mini. It's compact, looks good, doubles as a cover and holds the iPad at a comfortable angle. However, there's something about the odd placement of the keys and their small size that meant that I was constantly having to edit the text. It does have cursor keys which makes iOS editing much easier. But overall I was reduced to two-fingered typing to avoid mistakes and so it wasn't much faster than using the screen keyboard.

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QuickOffice is owned by Google and the free version only works with Google Apps. However the paid-for version supports a range of cloud storage options including Dropbox, Google Drive, SugarSync and others (but not Microsoft’s SkyDrive). You can create and store new Office-compatible documents locally or one of the supported cloud storage options. It supports track changes and lets you create comments, which is very useful for professional writers. There is a word count function but it’s on a menu and doesnt display constantly, which is not ideal. You have to buy the iPad and iPhone version separately which increases the cost, but overall, I liked QuickOffice.

I’ve been using Documents to Go for a decade or more, going back to my Palm days. You can sync over Wi-Fi directly with your desktop Mac or PC using an installed app or you can use  one of the usual cloud storage options (again, except SkyDrive). Unlike QuickOffice, it preserved my choice of fonts so Calibri didn't turn into Times New Roman when I added new text. It is a universal app so you only have to buy it once and you can run it on iPhones and iPads alike. It doesn't support track changes and I would say it's more useful for quick edits than long-term use.

Office Mobile is only available for iPhone at the moment. There may be an iPad version in the works but Microsoft suggest you can use their Office Web Apps on iPad devices in the meantime. To use it, you need a subscription to Office 365, which is not exactly cheap. Also, it doesn’t sync with any cloud applications except Office 365, SharePoint and SkyDrive. Luckily, I have all of these so I was able to test it. The interface is nice and clean, almost minimalistic. For example, on the Word editing screen, there is nothing but the text until you start to edit. I may have been missing something but I found it very difficult to select a piece of text to copy or style. To be honest, Office Mobile is a bit of a disappointment. It’s the very minimum functionality that Microsoft could offer and it needs some sprucing up before it’s ready for prime time.

Apple’s own Pages word processor is the most polished of the bunch with the best user interface. It relies on iCloud for storage and uses its own file format. It is possible to open and save Word documents but there’s a conversion process. It is also possible to load and save from Dropbox or other cloud storage systems but it requires far too many extra clicks. Apple doesn’t really want you to do that. Uniquely, it has the option to have a live word count display.

Conclusion

If I didn’t need to make the round trip to Word-land, Pages would be my preferred iOS word processor. I like Documents to Go and I think it has a higher level of fidelity between the iOS and PC-based documents. But QuickOffice adds good support for track changes which is an important part of my life so that is my recommendation. If it supported SkyDrive, it would be ideal.

However, the experience of actually writing serious amounts of copy on a tablet, even with the Logitech Ultrathin, still falls short of a proper PC with a full size keyboard.

So, is it possible to edit Word documents on my iPhone and iPad and move them back and forth to my PC. Yes. Do I want to make a habit of it? No.

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