Microsoft Word for iOS review: This classic word processor shines on every device
By Jeffery Battersby
At a glance
A few months back, when Microsoft first released Word for iPad, there were wildly varying responses, from, “Who cares and who uses Word any more?” to “I’ve been waiting forever for this!” to “Wait, what? I have to pay to use this app?” But, no matter what camp you were in, there was one reality: Word for iPad was (and is) an excellent iOS word processor—an Office app for your iOS device that offers substantial document creation and editing tools, with an interface that’s clutter-free, so creating and editing documents on your iPad is a cinch.
Microsoft’s most recent update offers free editing for all, adds Dropbox integration, and now includes an app for your iPhone that you can use to create and edit documents.
Free for all
The most significant change to Word for iOS, and the missing feature garnering the most complaints when the app first shipped, is that you can now edit documents in the app regardless of whether you have a paid Office 365 account. Previously, without an Office 365 subscription, you had read-only access to docs. Now, while you are required to have a free OneDrive account in order to use the app for storing and accessing documents, a paid account is no longer required and editing features are intact.
While the free version is has some limitations, the differences between Word’s free and subscription-based versions are subtle and many users may not feel the pinch of the free app’s limitations. In short, if your word processing life consists of creating documents with standard text formatting, including selecting and changing a document’s paragraph formatting, adding and making basic changes to tables and charts, and merely viewing changes and making editing updates in change tracked documents, the free version will work perfectly for you. But if you work in a business environment you may find the limitations to be significant, depending on your editing needs or where your documents are stored.
Most features requiring Office 365 access are kind of deep-dive layout and formatting tools. Although it’s important to note that, no matter what, you can always make content changes to the text in any document, no matter which version you’re using.
So what requires “Pro” access? To start, pro features include page orientation changes, additions or reductions to columns and page sections, and change tracking. If you want to track changes, or accept or reject changes, you’ll need Office 365, but, if change tracking is already turned on for a document, any changes you make are tracked—you just can’t accept or reject changes. Word Art, custom text colors, adding reflections or other image editing options, advanced table and chart editing, (i.e. adding or changing a chart label) all require Office 365. And the final, very important detail: If you expect to be accessing files stored in OneDrive or Dropbox for Business accounts or on your own private Microsoft SharePoint, you’ll have to have a paid account. Any documents accessed from these services open as read-only, with no editing options.
For your iPhone, too
When you use Word on your iPhone you’re faced with the same size limitations that plague other word processors and text editors for small iOS devices. But Microsoft has created a workaround that makes editing documents on your iPhone less painful than it might otherwise be.
Word for iPad has a streamlined “Ribbon” (the toolbar you’re used to using in every Office application) that allows you to maximize screen space while editing text. On the iPhone, this goes even deeper. The Ribbon on your iPhone is tiny and includes a few small buttons you tap to access all of the formatting tools you’re used to. In addition to the streamlined Ribbon, there’s also a “Reflow” button that resizes the text, wipes away unnecessary document elements, and floats tools above the text. Admittedly, the text can look a little goofy when you’re working on it in this mode, especially when you’re working with documents that include tables and other images, but this mode makes no permanent changes to those document elements, it just allows you to focus on the text you’re editing.
My personal view of editing documents on an iPhone remains one of “it’s nice in a pinch, but I wouldn’t want to do this for long.” But you may want to temper that opinion with the fact that I’m still using an iPhone 5S. If you’re using an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus, you may find your phone to be a perfectly valid option for creating and editing all your documents.
Microsoft has added Dropbox integration to the new versions of Office for iOS, which means you’re able to add your Dropbox account to Word and open any Word documents you have stored there. While this is a welcome feature, I did find that editing documents stored in Dropbox did not work as seamlessly as did editing documents stored in OneDrive, particularly when more than one person was editing a document.
One of the handier features Word for iOS offers, even in the free version, is the option to simultaneously edit documents with others. So, files stored in OneDrive or in your Dropbox can be opened and edited at the same time. If the document is stored in OneDrive, an indicator at the top-right of the screen shows you how many people are editing the document and tapping on that button reveals a list of those editors. Sadly, any time I had more than one person editing a document, I kept getting messages to reload the document, which interfered with the actual editing of the document.
This situation worsened when the file was stored in Dropbox, as there were no indicators that anyone else was editing the document. After changes were made, if the other person editing the document made and saved changes, my only option was either to duplicate the document or discard my changes in favor of the other editor’s changes. A spotty implementation, at best.
Spotty multi-user editing aside, Word for iOS is a continued improvement over the initial offering of the app. Free editing for many documents, direct access to files stored in Dropbox, and an app you can now use to edit Word files on your iPhone combine to make Word for iOS and essential tool for anyone who needs to create and edit Office documents on their iOS devices.