There are only a handful of choices for Office suites for Android devices. The two top dogs for native Android app support on Honeycomb are Documents To Go by DataViz and OfficeSuite Pro 5 by Mobile Systems, Inc. Popular alternatives include Polaris Office, which is bundled with the ASUS TF101 Transformer, and Google Docs, either as a native app or via web browser.
The most popular use for Office suite applications is word processing, but the ability to create and utilize spreadsheets and presentations are also important functions of a full-fledged Office suite. Generally, the ability to read and write Word, Excel, and PowerPoint formatted documents is the benchmark for a modern Office suite. I’m not a heavy user of either Excel or PowerPoint, so I’m going to focus on word processing. How do these different products stand up to one another as Android alternatives to Microsoft Office? Read on to find out.
Polaris Office is currently only available bundled with the ASUS Transformer. It’s a relatively robust Office alternative that includes the ability to access and modify both local files (see Figure 1) and those stored on Google Docs. You can create a new document, spreadsheet, or presentation or load and manipulate a previously created one.
Generally, my experience has been that Polaris is relatively rough. For example, I uploaded .xls and .ppt files to Google Docs. While other Office suite apps had no problem with these files, in Polaris Office, I could only access doc files from Google Docs (see Figure 2) — the Excel and PowerPoint presentations were not visible in the file list. In order to load the PowerPoint presentation, I had to load the native Google Docs app, long press on the file, select Open As, and then direct Android to launch the document in Polaris Office. This worked, but it wasn’t very intuitive — and if you’re going to be using Google Docs, why bother with Polaris Office at all?
Once the presentation was loaded, it rendered correctly, and the application was well laid out to enter Edit Mode or Slide Show (see Figure 3). Later, I discovered a “refresh” item in the pull-down menu. I gave it a shot, and it worked. Polaris Office requires a manual refresh to update the Google Docs file list.
The Excel file I used as a test is an expense report that includes macros. It also would not load from the integrated Google Docs file list. Like the .pps file, I had to go into Google Docs, select Open As, and redirect the file into Polaris Office. Once there, the macros did not work, and although I was able to update cells, the formula did not auto-calculate properly. I had to manually click on cells to get the formula to update sums.
Again, it rendered correctly, everything was legible, and for reviewing or creating a simple Excel spreadsheet, I think the app probably would have worked fine. However, depending on what you’re doing, these little issues could become real productivity roadblocks. It is worth noting that Polaris Office was the only Excel app that preserved the custom graphics (see Figure 4) and formatting (see Figure 5) in the spreadsheet.
The word processor does integrate with Google Docs. The problem is that unless you’re looking for advanced document editing features — like inserting images, hyperlinks, tables, or other formatting features — I don’t think that the Polaris Office word processor adds a lot of value over the Google Docs experience. It’s also easy to argue that without a word count feature or a spell checker, you lose significant features that are expected on a modern word processor (see Figure 6). For me, the lack of a word count is a bust.
In a nutshell, Polaris Office alone is not a good enough reason to buy a Transformer tablet. If you’re buying the ASUS tablet and the bundled Polaris Office is one of the incentives, you may be disappointed and end up looking at aftermarket alternatives anyhow, some of which are covered in this post.
Documents To Go
Documents To Go by DataViz is probably the most well known Office Suite for mobile devices. Available for iOS, Android, BlackBerry, and Maemo, it has the widest cross-platform support if you happen to have multiple mobile devices and want a consistent interface. At between $14.99 and $19.99 (USD), it isn’t priced unreasonably. It’s also probably the most polished interface of any Android Office Suite. Google Docs integration works well, displaying folders and all file formats on your Google Docs account (see Figure 7).
On my test expense spreadsheet, the calculation did auto-sum when I updated a cell, but the workbooks lost some of their formatting and layout in the conversion from .XLS through Google Docs into the Documents To Go spreadsheet app (see Figure 8).
The updated results transferred from one page of the workbook to the other. This worked much better than I expected. Despite the fact that the display did not render 100%, I’d much rather have a spreadsheet that calculates right than one that looks pretty (see Figure 9).
The PowerPoint presentation loaded and rendered perfectly in Documents To Go — with an interface that was less cluttered and more minimal than that of Polaris Office. I’m not sure how I felt about this. To enter different modes, you use the Android menu from the taskbar, which displays a bar with File, Edit, View, Format, Insert, and More options (see Figure 10). There is no Slide Show mode (or it may be that Slide Show mode is the default view). You flick left or right to go to the next slide. With the integrated touch pad, you can also use two finger swiping left or right to scroll to the next or previous slide.
The word processor is also very minimal and uncluttered. There are no word processing toolbars — just a basic white screen with a gray title bar at the top and the Android task bar at the bottom. You can access advanced features by hitting the Android menu soft button, which brings up the same File, Edit, View, Format, Insert, and More bar (see Figure 11).
In the More menu, you’ll find Preferences, File Properties, Help, and most importantly, Word Count. What you won’t find in any sub-menu, no matter how hard you look, is a spell checker. Documents To Go just doesn’t have one, and that’s a major weakness in a product that’s the flagship Office suite for Android devices.
Perhaps most troubling thing to me is that I’ve had Documents To Go crash on me numerous times. It actually just crashed as I was writing this line (see Figure 12). It also crashed when I was showing a co-worker the PowerPoint app. One of the most painful crashes happened when I was about 4,500 words into a chapter on a book that I’m writing, and it didn’t auto-recover my unsaved work, which accounted for roughly half of that chapter. That kind of loss is extremely frustrating. I’m not sure if it’s Documents To Go, Honeycomb, or the ASUS Transformer, but I’m not experiencing these kind of crashes with other alternatives. Word count or not, crashing and losing my work is a big deal breaker.
OfficeSuite Pro 5
OfficeSuite Pro 5 features a busier user interface, but I like it. It’s more similar to a desktop Office Suite layout. When you open it, there’s a bar on the top that features New, Find, Edit, Sort, Filter, Recover, Settings, Updates, and Help. The left side of the screen is divided into a window that displays Recent Files, My Documents, Local Files, Remote Files, and Advanced English & Thesaurus (see Figure 13).
Shortly after I’d purchased Documents To Go for $14.99 (USD), OfficeSuite Pro 5 was released for free on the Amazon Appstore. Currently, OfficeSuite Pro 5 is on sale there for $4.99 (USD). Let me cut to the chase — at $5, I recommend snapping this application up as soon as possible, as that promotional price could end at any time. Every Android tablet owner who is interested in Office Suite productivity should have this app on their device at this price.
Unlike Documents To Go, OfficeSuite Pro 5 displays your Google remote docs in a flat format (see Figure 13) and doesn’t display or allow you to browse by folders. You can, however, sort by name, size, type, or date modified.
Like Documents To Go, OfficeSuite Pro 5 lost the special formatting in my Excel expense form (see Figure 14). Despite this, I think that the general layout of the Excel app is probably the best in OfficeSuite Pro 5. Again, it looks the most like, well… Microsoft Excel.
Updating cells worked as expected, with sums recalculated automatically without confusing extra steps (see Figure 15). Like Documents To Go, OfficeSuite Pro 5 does what you would expect with a mobile spreadsheet app. There may be advanced features that are lacking, but I’m not a real advanced spreadsheet user. I can’t imagine ever running into a situation where this didn’t support something I needed to do while on the road.
The PowerPoint document loaded fine in OfficeSuite Pro 5. The taskbar at the top takes up a noticeable amount of screen real estate to offer Save, Undo, Redo, and a pull-down context menu (see Figure 16).
The pull-down menu features File, Edit, View, Slide show, Outline view, Find, Help, and About (see Figure 17).
The default view shows the Notes area on the bottom of the screen. Again, this layout is the most similar to what a Microsoft PowerPoint user would expect to see. It’s also worth noting that while you can use multi-touch to zoom or shrink a slide, you cannot flick or swipe to go to the previous or next slide. Instead, on-screen arrows allow you to navigate forward or back in your presentation. Honestly, I’m not sure that the presentation app holds up as well to the competition as the rest of OfficeSuite Pro 5, but it seems to have the basics covered.
The word processor also gives up a little more real estate than the other publishers for the same taskbar across the top, plus an additional taskbar along the bottom with familiar formatting and editing buttons. These include Bold, Italic, Underline, justification buttons, bullets, highlighting, and font and color buttons (see Figure 18).
From the top taskbar, in the contextual menu, the options are File, Edit, View, Insert, Find, Word count, Settings, Help, and About. Like all of the other vendors, this app does not feature an integrated spell checker.
I did notice that formatting when saving a document from OfficeSuite Pro 5 to Google Docs was a little sketchy. Documents To Go makes it a selling point that the implement technology preserves your document format, even when sending docs to Google. In my experience, OfficeSuite Pro 5 is a little less reliable in this regard. For example, one document showed up in Google Docs italicized and in a different font than it was created in. It wasn’t a lot of work to fix, but for a heavily formatted document laid out for desktop publishing, losing your format and layout could be very frustrating.
Another reason I prefer OfficeSuite Pro 5 is that I haven’t had it crash on me while I was composing a document. I’ve also had the built-in Recover function work as intended to bring back data that would have been lost otherwise. This is a pretty advanced feature for a mobile Office suite, and it seems well implemented.
The Advanced English & Thesaurus button in OfficeSuite Pro 5 takes you to a link to download a free dictionary/thesaurus. I was hopeful that this would add a spell checker. Even after downloading the linked app, the button remains — there’s no actual integration between this app and OfficeSuite Pro 5.
Finally, navigating around OfficeSuite Pro 5 is a little difficult. It’s one of those Android apps where you’re never sure what the soft-back button is going to do. In fact, I frequently end up outside of the app, wondering how I got there. Conversely, sometimes it loads up a document, and I’m not sure why.
However, for the sale price of $5, it offers all of the significant features of Documents To Go — and although it has its own strange set of bugs and glitches, it hasn’t lost any data on me, and that’s the most important feature of an Office suite, when you get right down to it. Honestly, if I knew what I know now, with both Office suites at $14.99, I would pick OfficeSuite Pro 5 over Documents To Go if I had it to do over again. They’re so close in features, design, and polish that the real deciding factor is price. I think you can safely go with whichever one you can get at the best price.
Google Docs native and web
A word about Google Docs native and the web app for Android. Almost all of this would be redundant and unnecessary if one of two things were true.
1. If the Google Docs web app worked fine on any Android browser. I’ve tried it with Firefox, Dolphin HD, and the native Android browser — and it just won’t work right. Menus don’t respond, graphics and text render incorrectly, and it’s just generally unusable (see Figure 19).
2. If the Google Docs native app was better. I can’t begin to explain how disappointing the native Android Google Docs app is. Key features are missing, and it looks amateur, like it’s the winning final project for a high school programming class. Google should have put a major effort into making sure that Android delivers a world class Google Docs experience across Android devices, with a particular focus on Android tablets. That isn’t the case though.
This seems to be just another case of Google having a scattered, inconsistent focus, and a road map that’s all over the place and frequently neglects important things because every effort is concentrated on some other area. That’s too bad. I’d prefer to just be able to get into Google Docs via the web app (which is what I’m writing this article on right now). Part of the reason both Documents To Go and OfficeSuite Pro 5 support Google Docs integration is because there’s no other really good way to access Google Docs with Android devices. To me, that seems silly.
Did I miss anything, or do you have any additional information to share about any of these apps? Let us hear your opinion in the forums.