Should you buy Microsoft Office for iPad?

Or is Apple's own iWork suite a better bet?

Office for iPad

The iPad is an odd concept for Microsoft. It's a PC, but a PC so totally different from all of the other PCs that have run Microsoft software in the past, the iPad breaks almost every conventional rule of being a "PC" – except for having a screen – and yet, has been a massive financial success, selling over 230 million units in its first four years on the market.

iOS is heavily restrictive when compared to Windows, or even OS X, leading to many dismissing the iPad as a "toy" and something serious work cannot be carried out on. And perhaps this is true – right now, I'm typing on my MacBook Air, with my iPad mini sitting next to me idly, devoid of any kind of work-related purpose. But for many the story is different, and Microsoft has moved to recognise this with Office for iPad.

Questionable Ballmer

Under the leadership of Steve Ballmer, Microsoft released a very, very small selection of apps for either the iPad or iPhone, but developed a lot of them internally. As a strategic move, Ballmer's decisions are questionable. Office for iPad received over 12 million downloads in its first week and has no doubt boosted the number of subscribers to Office 365, the cloud-based service needed to get any kind of useful functionality out of Word, PowerPoint or Excel.

Office 365, which costs £7.99 per month (around US$13, AU$15) for the Home edition, essentially moves Office into the cloud and enables the iPad to interact with the Windows and OS X versions of the suite, syncing documents and settings. In terms of functionality, Office 365 is £7.99 a month more expensive than iCloud, but works across multiple devices and natively supports Windows formats, which is especially important when trying to run a PowerPoint presentation which has been loaded up with animations in Keynote, Apple's answer to PowerPoint.

Solid but frustrating

On the iPad, the Office experience is frustrating but satisfactory. Due to the lack of a built-in keyboard, the iPad is never going to be the perfect device for penning 1,000-plus word missives – like the one you're reading now – but for some on-the-go editing the experience was acceptable.

When compared to Pages, from Apple's own iWork suite, Word held its own. Both are pared down for the iPad and both have similar drawbacks, including speed (although this varies from device to device) and higher-end features, such as checking versions of a document for changes. All-in-all, though, Word for iPad is solid and is definitely comparable to Pages, especially when editing more complex Word documents.

PowerPoint and Excel are slightly different stories, however, as they require far more screen space than is provided by the iPad. While this isn't Microsoft's fault, the implementation of both is sub-par and steps could have been taken to remedy this. Both suffer from over-complication, especially Excel, which leads to a pretty poor experience, especially when you consider that you are paying for it. Microsoft should've drilled down on the basic features of each and worked on putting those in the iPad app, leaving the more complex features for the desktop versions. In this case, less definitely is more.

Freebie thoughts

If Office 365 is out of your budget, PowerPoint is the only app that makes sense as a free one, without the ability to edit, since displaying a PowerPoint presentation is a much more manageable task than creating or editing on an iPad. Especially when paired with an Apple TV, PowerPoint thrives as an option for displaying presentations – effects and all – to an audience.

The iPad – especially the mini – lends itself to this function since it is easy to hold and glance at, has a long battery life and doesn't require a button press to change slides. Those who make lots of presentations – teachers, lecturers, business people, and so forth – should definitely consider PowerPoint for iPad.