Office suite alternatives for Android tablets

Donovan Colbert takes a close look at several Office suites for Android tablets, including Polaris Office, Documents To Go, OfficeSuite Pro 5, and Google Docs as a native app or via a web browser.

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

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. Figure 1

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? Figure 2

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. Figure 3

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. Figure 4

Figure 5

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. Figure 6

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.

Read about Documents To Go.