Creating the perfect iPad office suite

Galen Gruman
7 December, 2010
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Users and business managers alike are increasingly looking at the iPad as a potential laptop replacement. More and more companies 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) on their laptops, what should the iPad equivalent be?

The answer can’t be Office, because Microsoft has no iPad-compatible suite. But there are still several office suite candidates for the iPad, including Apple’s iWork suite – Pages, Numbers, and Keynote – plus Quickoffice’s Quickoffice Mobile Connect Suite and DavaViz’s Documents to Go Premium. Quickoffice has a word processor and spreadsheet editor; DocsToGo (as it’s labelled 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 to the Microsoft Office file formats.

After some investigation, I was surprised to find that none of these suites is ideal (though one comes close). But I still came up with a list of apps that I think should be the standard installation on corporate iPads – the best individual productivity apps and one recommended suite.

Word processor

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. To my mind, 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 colour, 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 even lets you constrain your actions to whole words or text with matching case, as you’d expect on the desktop.

You can create rich, stunning documents on the iPad with Pages – not with all the bells and whistles available from Microsoft Word on the Mac, of course, but more than in any other mobile word processor. It’s also easy to use.

But Pages has two major flaws that could kill it as an option for many companies and a third you should know about so you can avoid it. The first flaw is that it doesn’t retain style sheets in the documents it saves. That will cause major issues if the document goes through any subsequent 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 to 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 second flaw is not so fatal: Pages doesn’t work with cloud-storage services such as Google Docs, Dropbox, and If you want to share files with others, your options are limited to email, syncing to your computer via iTunes and sharing from there, or Apple’s MobileMe service.

The third flaw is more of a 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.

Quickoffice can connect to, Dropbox, Google Docs, and MobileMe cloud storage, as well as to a computer directly over Wi-Fi. It also of course can email documents, and it provides a Save As option, as well as an internal folder structure so that you can organise your documents. But Quickoffice has no search-and-replace or even search-only capability, nor a word counter.

Documents To Go. DataViz’s app is similar to Quickoffice in terms of its capabilities – they’re essentially simple text editors with some basic formatting options. However, DocsToGo does offer search and replace, as well as word counting. But I have to ding DocsToGo for one really dumb UI choice: All the controls are at the bottom of the screen, where they become hidden by the on-screen keyboard. This means you have to hide the keyboard each and every time you want to adjust any formatting – a real productivity killer. (Pages and Quickoffice put the controls at the top of the screen.)

My verdict: It’s a split decision. Pages is all around the better word processor, but its flaws make it unusable for many organisations. If your document workflow rests on style sheets or requires cloud storage services such as Google Docs, your best bet is Quickoffice.


The spreadsheet candidates are much closer in capability than 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 counterpart, takes an odd approach to spreadsheet creation if you’re accustomed 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 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. The on-screen keyboard doesn’t have the sophisticated contextual display that Numbers does, but Quickoffice’s 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.

DocsToGo. The spreadsheet capabilities in DocsToGo are similar to those in Quickoffice, but again its user interface is deficient. Switching among worksheets is more work than necessary, for example. But it can hide rows, sort columns, and freeze panes, none of which Quickoffice can do.

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. Still, it remains a pain.

My 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 iPad spreadsheet app.

Presentation software

Keynote. I think that Keynote, Apple’s presentation app for the iPad, 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. There’s also a presenter notes feature, and you can add graphics from the Photos app, as well as create charts, tables, and shapes. Chances are you won’t miss PowerPoint if you’re using Keynote. My only frustration with it (besides the lack of Save As that all iWork apps share) is that it displays only in landscape orientation – a real puzzler, given Apple’s other iWork and native iPad apps are orientation-adjusting.

Quickoffice. The Quickoffice suite cannot view, edit, or create presentations.

DocsToGo. The DocsToGo suite lets you open PowerPoint presentations and add notes to them, such as to make comments or provide feedback to your spreadsheet jockey. It also has basic editing capabilities. You can edit the text in your slides, though to do so you must switch to outline mode. Furthermore, you can do no formatting. You can also create blank slides and duplicate or delete existing ones. Note that if you’re in outline mode, you have to go back to slide preview mode to insert a new slide. You can’t delete or duplicate slides when in outline view.

The result is that DocsToGo is fine for touchup work on existing presentations or to create a basic text-only presentation that you might use as the starting point for a slideshow you add images and formatting to on the desktop – but that’s all.

My verdict: The only real choice is Keynote. It’s easily the strongest of the three iWork apps, able to replace PowerPoint completely for many users.

PDF markup

There are dozens of apps to open PDF documents on the iPad, but the built-in Preview app does that for mail attachments, and most Wi-Fi file-sharing apps preview PDF documents. What you really want is a program that can mark up PDF files, adding sticky notes and the like.

That app is GoodReader. You can do most of the markup you would in Adobe Reader, such as notes, highlights, and even free-form shapes (for example, to circle an item). Once you get the hang of using your finger like a mouse for such actions, it’s an easy-to-handle app.

GoodReader is not just a PDF markup app. You can also use it to view Office files, text files, and pictures, as well as play audio files. In addition, it comes with a Wi-Fi file-sharing capability to transfer documents to your computer.


The iPad can’t open .Zip files natively – an amazing omission. There are several apps that can unzip files, but the best is ZipThat. Its clean interface makes it easy to use.

If you need to view Photoshop-native files – for page layout, web, or presentation projects – get the AirFilesHD app, which also offers Wi-Fi file sharing and basic drawing capabilities.

The iPad’s own Notes app is fine for taking notes, and its Calendar app is perfectly suitable to manage your appointments. There are tons of alternatives for both, but I don’t see the point – with two exceptions: The Notes Plus app lets you take handwritten notes with a stylus, then export them to PDF, though it doesn’t convert the handwriting to text. You can also type in text and include audio recordings. If your notes include drawings, Notes Plus is the way to go. The Notability app is for people who take notes while recording lectures, presentations, and the like. Afterward, if you tap any text you entered, Notability will play back the audio recording from that point in time, so you can hear what was being said as you were typing. (If your note taking needs differ, check out this roundup of note taking apps for iPad.)

Putting it all together

Given that no one suite does it all well enough, what is the ideal combination? That’s a tough decision, but I think the best overall productivity suite is Pages, Numbers, Keynote, GoodReader, and ZipThat. If Pages’ lack of style-sheet retention is a deal-breaker, you could go with Quickoffice, Keynote, GoodReader, and ZipThat. (You might make Numbers available as well for those who need to create charts and do more sophisticated spreadsheet work than Quickoffice can accomplish.) Either way, toss in AirFilesHD if you need to view Photoshop files and either Notes Plus or Notability if you need more sophisticated note-taking capabilities.

One Comment

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  1. JollyJap says:

    I agree on your GoodReader choice, a great combining app. On the problem with word processing I have found that the plethora of note apps provide an option for anyone to compose what they need in text (converting later to a document in the office/home). I use TrunkNotes Wiki
    You didn’t mention a task manager in your office set-up which I thin is important; OmniFocus and all the apps I sue can provide links to each other to connect my office functions.

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