Editing Excel files on an iPad

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If you frequently use Excel to create and edit spreadsheets on your Mac, you may want to access the same files while you’re on the go with just your iPad. Although Microsoft hasn’t released an iOS version of Excel, you can still work with Excel files on your iPad if you’re willing to accept a few compromises.

View Excel files on your iPad

If you only need to view Microsoft Excel documents, you’re in luck; Apple’s iOS can display them natively. All you need to do is get the spreadsheets onto your iPad—for example, email them to yourself as attachments, or use an app designed for transferring and viewing documents, such as Avatron Software’s $10 Air Sharing, Good.iWare’s $5 GoodReader for iPad ( ), or Readdle’s $5 ReaddleDocs for iPad ( ).

Editing your spreadsheets is not quite as simple. Although several apps and methods exist, none of them has all of Excel’s features. As a result, you’ll face one or more limitations—for example, loss of formatting or a poor touch-screen interface.

Edit Excel spreadsheets with Apple’s Numbers

One natural option for editing Excel spreadsheets is Apple’s Numbers ($10,  ). It can import and export documents in Microsoft Excel format, and offers a powerful and easy-to-use environment for creating and editing files.

Numbers has a full-featured, touch-optimized interface that includes a special keyboard with numeric keypad and other special keys.

As long as you’re running OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, using the latest version of Numbers for Mac and iOS, and have an Apple iCloud account, transferring documents between a given app on your Mac(s) and iOS device(s) is simple thanks to iCloud’s Documents in the Cloud feature.

Unfortunately, when you import a file in Microsoft Excel format (.xls or .xlsx) or export a Numbers file in an Excel format, you permanently lose essential formatting, tracked changes, comments, and other file attributes. So, if you’re content to keep your Excel spreadsheets in Numbers format once they’re imported—or give up any unsupported formatting—Numbers is arguably your best choice. But if maintaining fidelity with original formatting is your top priority when working with Excel documents on an iPad, you’ll want to look for another solution.

Edit Excel spreadsheets with Google Docs

Another approach is to rely on Google Docs, Google’s free Web-based office suite. Many businesses have standardized on Google Docs because it’s a convenient platform that requires no software beyond a Web browser, provides automatic backups and versioning, and makes sharing files with co-workers easy. All of this would seem to be a natural fit for the iPad, too.

Unfortunately, it isn’t a perfect fit. Although you can upload nearly any format file to Google Docs, if you want to edit spreadsheets online, you must let Google Docs convert them to its own format; as with Numbers, that may entail a considerable loss of formatting—and in cases where formulas differ between Excel and Google Spreadsheets, calculations may change.

Moreover, editing spreadsheets once they’re converted is problematic. With the mobile version of Google Spreadsheets (the default view on an iPad), you can do only the basics—edit cell values, add rows, and change sort orders. But if you switch to the desktop-style Spreadsheet View, you’ll find many of the controls inoperable, and even something as ordinary as selecting a range of cells might prove impossible. The latest version of Nikita Lutsenko’s $4 GoDocs, which offers editing and offline storage of Google Docs, lets you switch more easily between Google’s mobile and desktop views, but because it uses a built-in browser for editing spreadsheets online, its editing capabilities have the same limitations as in Safari.

Try editing with an Office suite

Other good options exist, however, even for Excel spreadsheets uploaded to your Google Docs account. You can still have an excellent editing experience on an iPad by using the native editors built into any of numerous other iPad apps that connect directly to Google Docs.

All five of the following all-in-one office suites for the iPad include word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation tools. They all can edit documents from Microsoft Excel and offer direct ties to a variety of cloud-based services, including Google Docs and Dropbox, making it easy to get documents in and out. The spreadsheet components of all the apps let you adjust font, size, style, text color, background color, alignment, and number formatting. They include a wide range of built-in functions and let you resize columns and rows (although not always in the most obvious way). But there also are significant differences between them.

Documents To Go Premium DataViz’s $17 Documents To Go Premium ( ) is an all-in-one office suite for the iPad, with word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation tools. It has a functional but unexceptional spreadsheet capability, and it doesn’t take good advantage of the iPad’s touch interface. The app does allow you to search and sort your data, but can’t display charts, has no support for cell borders, and can’t merge cells. (However, any of those attributes present when the file was imported are preserved when you save the file.) Although it lets you import a spreadsheet that contains unsupported functions, it makes the file read-only.

Office² HD Byte Squared’s $8 Office² HD ( ) has a broad set of spreadsheet features as well as a nicely designed interface. It supports sorting your data, and unlike Documents to Go Premium, also lets you merge cells, change borders, and search. But there’s one potentially serious drawback: Although most imported document features are preserved when you save an imported worksheet, charts are not. Note that the developer also sells the $6 Sheet² HD, an app with the same spreadsheet features but without word processing or presentations.

Polaris Office Infraware’s $13 Polaris Office makes good use of the iPad’s touch interface, has a respectable chart-creation tool, and also supports adding images and adjusting cell borders. It offers find and replace, merging, sorting, filtering, and a helpful Freeze Frame feature, which locks header columns and rows so you can scroll within a spreadsheet without losing your place.

Polaris Office has an excellent selection of chart-making tools, including 3D graphs.

Quickoffice Pro HD Quickoffice’s $20 Quickoffice Pro HD ( ) offers easier selection and editing than most other apps covered here and includes a find-and-replace feature. Charts from imported spreadsheets, although not displayed in the app, are preserved when you save. Other than that, though, Quickoffice has a fairly basic feature set—for example, no cell borders, merging, or sorting.

Smart Office 2 Picsel’s $10 Smart Office 2 has a somewhat awkward user interface even for simple actions such as inserting functions, and its performance can be sluggish. Like Quickoffice Pro HD, it lacks support for cell borders, merging, and sorting. It has a find feature but no replace. On the other hand, even though it can’t add new charts, it does display charts from imported spreadsheets—and even updates them correctly as the data changes.

Opt for a spreadsheet-only editing

Beyond these all-in-one office apps, I should mention one other iPad apps that edits spreadsheets specifically (but not Word or PowerPoint documents). Mariner Software’s $6 Mariner Calc for iPad has a solid array of spreadsheet features and can read and write Excel files (.xls only, not .xlsx). However, it doesn’t connect to cloud-based services for transferring files or preserve all formatting when saving imported spreadsheets.

Pick your tool

If you need to edit Excel spreads documents on an iPad, first consider whether they’ll need to travel back and forth between your iPad and Microsoft Excel. If not, Apple’s Numbers will likely give you the best experience. When you do need to preserve full Office compatibility, Office HD is your best choice, as long as you don’t need to import documents containing charts. If creating (or preserving) charts is essential, I’d give the nod to Polaris Office. There’s still one more option to consider, though, running the Windows version of Office on your iPad remotely.

Senior contributor Joe Kissell is the senior editor of TidBits and the author of the ebook Take Control of Working with Your iPad, Second Edition (TidBITS Publishing, 2011).

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