Hands-on: Microsoft Office for iPad apps review‏

Microsoft unveiled Office for iPad at a San Francisco-based event on 27 March, with Satya Nadella, the company's new chief executive, leading the helm. The mobile software's long-awaited debut follows years of leaks, and even some adamant denials from Microsoft, which had already released Office Mobile for iPhone but for some reason stalled in introducing a comparable tablet version.

That said, Office for iPad isn't just a tablet-optimised rendition of Office Mobile for iPhone. The three new apps, which include Word, Excel, and Powerpoint, simply aren't scaled-up iPhone apps. And maybe that's why it took so long for Microsoft to release them on Apple's App Store. They're completely new and feature rich; Microsoft clearly went back to the drawing board with this project.

In fact, Microsoft put a lot of effort into the software, likely hoping to impress you so much that you'd stick around and maybe purchase an Office 365 subscription. After all, there are a slew of Office-like alternatives out there - not to mention Apple's own iWork productivity suite that's available free of charge. In a nut shell: Microsoft's Office for iPad has to grab our attention straight out of the gate in order to really outpace some stiff competition.

But does it? Read on to find out...

READ: Office for iPad unveiled, but subscription needed for editing

Getting started

You can download Word, Excel, and PowerPoint for iPad from the App Store starting today, at no cost. Without forking over cash for an Office 365 subscription however, you can only read your Word documents, view your Excel data, and present with PowerPoint. You will need to subscribe to edit and create new documents with the iPad. And once you do, your files will sync across Office on all PCs, Macs, and mobile devices. You'll also have access to them in the cloud, thanks to Microsoft's OneDrive and OneDrive for Business.

Office 365 is a subscription-based online office and software services suite, which offers access to various services and software built around the Microsoft Office platform. It launched in 2011 with a number of different plans aimed at different needs, with each plan providing different features at different price points.

The Home account costs $9.99 per month or $99.99 per year. But the best plan available is limited to college students: Office 365 for University costs $79 for four years, meaning the monthly cost of ownership is just $1.67. If you're not a student but want to test Office 365 before shelling out a wad of cash for a plan, you can always trial the services suite for one month.

In order to sign up for the trial, you'll need a credit card or PayPal account. You won't actually be charged the $9.99 monthly fee until after the trial ends (if you decide not to cancel, that is). We went the trial route and found that - from signing up to logging into the iPad apps - the entire process only took about five minutes or less.

Word

The first app we logged into with our Microsoft credentials and fired up was Word. And we have to say, at first blush, the user interface looked and felt very much like Apple's Pages for iPad. At the same time however, the smattering of blue, as well as the actual text editor, screamed Microsoft. An interesting combination, to say the least.

No matter which app you enter, the first thing you'll see is your Microsoft profile picture in the upper-left corner. Icons for new documents, recents, and opening a new file are below your profile picture. The default folder for opening files is your OneDrive account, but you can still access local storage on the iPad. Naturally, yet unfortunately, there's no ability to integrate with other cloud storage services such as Google Drive or Dropbox.

When creating a new Word document (or even a PowerPoint presentation or Excel spreadsheet), you'll have the choice of many themes/templates or a blank new document. Once you make a selection, the familiar text editor will appear. You'll see the standard Ribbon menu at the top with options for options for Home, Insert, Layout, Review, and View, and below that there are options for font, page, paragraph, margins, and line formatting.

Whilst playing around, we noticed immediately that there's no support for rotate with multi-touch. To rotate images, you'll need to select an image and touch the rotation button. We suppose this prevents people from accidentally rotating items while editing. Beyond rotating images, you are free to move images around, well, freely. Text will automatically flow and wrap around the picture, just as it does in Pages for iPad.

The other big thing worth mentioning is Track Changes for group editing. It's, simply put, fantastic. There are buttons for skipping through comments as well as deleting and responding to them. You can even block certain sections from co-authors, etc. In a nut shell: It's clear that there are way more features available in Office for iPad than there are in Office Mobile for iPhone.

In fact, the Word for iPad app is practically a full version of Word for desktop. Overall, we loved the functionality of this app, and we really enjoyed how smoothly everything worked.

Excel

Unlike Word, Excel is all green (as it is for PCs, Macs, and everywhere). Beyond that, this iPad app loads just like Word for iPad. Your profile picture appears in the upper-left corner, followed by icons for opening files, and of course there's all the themes and templates your heart could ever desire. And once you open new file, you'll see the Ribbon Menu at the top, formatting options below that, and then the actual spreadsheet editor.

Once again, Excel for iPad is way better than Microsoft's iPhone version. You can add columns into spreadsheets, as well as tables, shapes, text boxes, pictures, charts, etc. Speaking of charts, there are loads of options, from pie to bar, and more. It's also quite obvious that Microsoft's spreadsheet app has more capabilities than Apple's Numbers.

Speaking of Apple, Microsoft changed the iOS keyboard for Excel. You still have the ABC and 123 layout options. The latter just brings up a larger number pad with arrow keys and other common symbols. Also, while adding text, you might find yourself looking around for various buttons. Not to worry; it's all there. Excel for iPad has included the AutoSum button, logical text, date/time/math formulas, fx formula button, and the list goes on.

As for editing tools, Excel will let you hide and show the sheets tab, headings and grid lines, formula bar, and all that jazz. This is, again, nearly a complete rendition of Excel for desktop, only it's simpler and touch-friendly and plays nicely with Apple's A7 processor. We liked it very, very much.

PowerPoint

Staying true to the user interface of Word and Excel for iPad, PowerPoint, which is of course orange throughout, opens and reveals your profile picture and file-access buttons on the left-hand side, with various themes and templates filling up the right-hand side. Just make a theme selection to load the actual presentation editor.

Like the other apps in Office for iPad, you'll see the Ribbon menu at the top, then formatting options, and finally the presentation editor (the thumbnail viewer is on the right-hand side, similar to PowerPoint's desktop version). To zoom in and edit any slide, simply pinch to zoom. From there, you can add text, tables, shapes, and pictures. Oh, and we should mention, for all Office for iPad apps, you can only choose locally-stored pictures.

Now, let's move on to transitions: there are roughly 40 options, including cut, fade, fall over, random bars...and, yeah, more than enough. And if you want to preview each one within your slideshow, enter slideshow mode. Microsoft has not forgotten this handy feature, which lets you play from the start or current position and even hide specific slides.

And lastly, PowerPoint for iPad lets you beam slideshows to televisions via AirPlay or whatever streamer you prefer. There's also a whiteboard mode that lets you add comments and a laser pointer that you can bring up by pressing and holding your finger. Nifty, right?

Final impressions

Wow. Office for iPad is amazing and beautiful and absolutely chock-full of features. Although it has more options than the average user would ever need, the overall design does not suffer at all. Everything looks Apple-esque yet uniquely Microsoft, making for a clean interface that doesn't distract and lets you work efficiently and speedily. And that's key, considering most Office for iPad users will be editing and creating while on the go.

One of the downsides to this suite is Microsoft's Office 365 subscription requirement. The price is a little steep, especially for people who would adore access to a productivity suite but don't necessarily use one enough to justify $10 a month (for home accounts). Students, on the other hand, likely have to use Office a lot at school anyway, so they shouldn't mind paying $2 a month for a set of great mobile apps.

Either way, paying for anything these days doesn't seem very appealing with so many free alternatives on the App Store (which includes Apple's own iWork for iPad). That said, Microsoft definitely hit the ball out of the park this time around in terms of developing amazing Word, Excel, and PowerPoint apps for iPad.

The other major con to Office for iPad is that there is no ability to print hard copies. Yeah. So, you have to share your file with another device or app in order to actually get a physical version of whatever you just created. That seems like a glaring omission to us, but it's also something that can be easily fixed with a software update in the future. 

It's now up to you whether you think Office for iPad is worth the extra hole in your wallet.

READ: Office for iPad now available but costly: Here's seven alternatives