If you fantasise about a life on the road unencumbered by a bulky laptop, accompanying power brick and other heavy business gear, you're not alone. And now that a tsunami of tablets is flooding the market with models running a variety of operating systems, that fantasy is starting to look very plausible indeed.
Mobile productivity suites bring the document editing features of desktop suites like Microsoft Office onto the tablet, but are they ready for serious business? I tried four top options to find out.
To see how well tablet productivity suites work for practical document editing, I spent two weeks working almost exclusively in popular productivity apps for Android slates and iPads. I used the apps for daily writing as well as for viewing and editing spreadsheets, and I created a test presentation (something I don't normally do in the course of my work) in each app.
I evaluated each app for its interface and ease of use, its compatibility with Microsoft Office and its ability to sync with cloud services. Because we're interested only in apps with full editing capabilities, I did not evaluate free versions that merely view documents.
To avoid confusion, I'll discuss the two platforms separately. In this installment, I'll evaluate four Android apps: Google Docs, DataViz Documents To Go, ThinkFree Office Mobile and Quickoffice Pro.
Before jumping in with the apps themselves, I'll tell you the single most important finding from all of this testing. If you're going to do a lot of typing on your tablet, you absolutely should get an external keyboard. Pretty much any Bluetooth keyboard will do the trick with Android, and if you have a tablet with a USB port, that makes almost any PC keyboard an input device for your tablet.
Google Docs has proven to be a serious, though somewhat flawed, alternative to Microsoft Office on the web, so I was really interested to see how the Android app would perform, given that it's running on Google's own OS.
Disappointingly but unsurprisingly, Google Docs for Android doesn't do much of anything without a live data connection to Google Docs on the web. While it's understandable that you can't open documents from your online Google Docs account without a connection, the fact that you can't cache documents for later editing or create new documents for later uploading makes it hard to think of this app as a full featured editor.
Offline editing, in my view, is a fundamental enough feature that its absence here seriously limits this app's usefulness.
What you actually get with Google Docs is an Android-friendly set of links to the Google Docs web apps. The app itself is designed for phones, not tablets, so its six main buttons leave tons of empty space on the tablet screen. Once you're connected, however, the Google apps look good and play as nicely as you'd expect with the Android browser.
As I've documented elsewhere over the past few years, Google Docs has more than its share of compatibility issues with Microsoft Office document formats. It handily imports Office files for viewing and editing, and keeps simple files more or less intact, but saving those files as Office .docx, .xlsx or .pptx files almost always introduces some sort of error in my experience. And if your document includes complex formatting that you'd like to preserve, you can pretty much count on disappointment.
If you're a Google Docs user already, you should definitely download the free Google Docs app for Android, if only because it's the best app for that particular job. But if you're looking for a full featured document editor with offline usability and great Microsoft Office compatibility, any of the other apps in this roundup will be a better choice.
ThinkFree Office Mobile
Despite its name, the full version of ThinkFree Office for Android is anything but free. It's £9.19, which puts it right in line with its offline-capable competitors in this roundup.
ThinkFree can read and write Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint formats, and it acts as a PDF viewer as well. It also includes integrated access to Google Docs, as well as access to ThinkFree Online, so you can use the web-based apps when you're at a PC and the Android app when you're on the go.
ThinkFree's Microsoft Office compatibility is solid, and I didn't encounter any noticeable formatting errors in the documents I sent back and forth between the Android app and Word, PowerPoint and Excel. Even Excel charts looked as expected in ThinkFree.
Like most of the other apps in this roundup, ThinkFree is primarily designed for phones, but it works well on Android tablets too. The interface is clean and simple, even a little sparse, but easy enough to navigate. My one complaint on the menus is that the home tab offers no way to start a document or open an existing document. Instead, you have to go to the My Docs, Online or Google tabs. This strikes me as an oversight on ThinkFree's part, as it means you can't do much of anything that's worthwhile immediately upon launching the app.
ThinkFree falls short of getting a hearty recommendation from me because it crashed several times while accessing online services. Frequently, though not all the time, the app force-closed the moment I tapped the Google or Online tab. This happened exclusively on my Iconia tablet, and not on my HTC ThunderBolt phone.
Documents To Go
DataViz has been cranking out its Documents To Go mobile office suite for years, and the software remains one of the best document editors for smartphones. The latest update to the Android app brought some interface enhancements that tailor it a little better to Honeycomb tablets, giving it a distinct advantage over Google Docs and ThinkFree in its tablet interface.
Overall however, despite its recent Honeycomb-friendly enhancements, the Documents To Go interface still feels like a small screen UI stretched out to fill a larger display. With that said, Documents To Go is packed with useful context menus that give you just the options you need for the document you're working on, which makes it a good deal easier to work with than ThinkFree.
Documents To Go does an excellent job of handling Microsoft Office files from Word, Excel and PowerPoint, and it includes the best Track Changes support I've seen on a mobile productivity app. It lets you store files locally of course, but also syncs to your PC and accesses files stored on Google Docs with aplomb. Especially useful is the app's Starred Files feature, which makes it easy to mark important documents for quick retrieval later on.
For its rock solid dependability and simple (though basic) context sensitive interface, Documents To Go is tough to beat.
Quickoffice HD Pro (the winner)
Only one app in this roundup has been designed specifically with Android tablets in mind, and that's Quickoffice HD Pro. The difference between a so-called HD app, fully designed for tablet displays and a phone app that spreads out to fill a tablet screen is typically striking, and Quickoffice HD Pro is no exception. At £12.26, this app costs 33 percent more than its most serious competitors, but that extra cost is chump change for the additional usability.
From the moment you launch this mobile office app, it feels like it was made for the tablet, because it was. By contrast, the other three mobile productivity suites in this roundup, including Documents To Go with its recent Honeycomb updates, look sparse and ill fitting on a 9-inch display. Quickoffice HD Pro's tablet-centric menus drop down from the top as you would expect menus in a full screen app to do.
Objects in documents, such as photos and text boxes, include handles for easy resizing and repositioning just as in their Microsoft Office counterparts. At every level, this suite is the best Android editing environment of the bunch.
In addition to Google Docs support, Quickoffice HD Pro includes support for Box, Dropbox, Huddle, SugarSync and Apple MobileMe accounts. Hands down, this is the best lineup of cloud options among the four apps. In its Microsoft Office formatting, Quickoffice HD Pro is on a par with ThinkFree and Documents To Go, and worlds better than the Google Docs app. It also reads PDF files, and it can open and browse zipped files as well.
If you have an Android tablet and you're serious about getting work done on the go, you'll want to grab two things. The first is a good Bluetooth keyboard (or a compact USB model, if your tablet supports it). The second is Quickoffice HD Pro.