Tablets are rapidly transitioning from novelty toys to business tools. While Apple's iPad may be today's workplace standard, with its maturing array of office and IT applications, Android-based slates are on the rise, boasting their own growing ecosystem of mobile work utilities.
Whether you want to transform your own Android tablet into a workhorse or support other business tablet users, the apps you choose can make or break the tablet experience. This is true particularly when it comes to productivity apps, where a significant portion of tablet-based business work resides.
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I tested five popular office suites to find the best possible productivity setup for Android tablet users. I looked at DataViz's Documents to Go, which costs $15 for the full premium version (needed for most features); Google's free Google Docs service, which is now part of the Google Drive application; Mobile Systems' $15 OfficeSuite Pro; Quickoffice's $20 Quickoffice Pro HD; and ThinkFree Mobile's $9 ThinkFree Mobile for Tablet. (Note: Prices are accurate as of this writing and may change over time.)
To assess the quality of each contender, I analyzed its handling of word processing, spreadsheet editing, and presentation management. I took into account the app's interface as it applies to the tablet form and the breadth and quality of features it offers. I also tested several stand-alone apps to find the best Android tablet tool for PDF manipulation, as most of the office suites don't natively provide that function.
Read on for the full breakdown and my recommendations for assembling the best overall office package for Android tablets.
The best Android tablet word processorThink all word processors are created equal? Think again. Android's top tablet office suites run the gamut from magnificent to meh in their word processing capabilities -- and if you don't get the right app for your needs, expect a lot of headaches, especially when supporting business users who find your app of choice falling short of theirs.
Documents to Go
Documents to Go may be one of the biggest names in mobile document management, but when it comes to Android tablets, it's also one of the biggest disappointments. The app's interface has not been optimized for tablets or even updated to meet Google's basic Android 4.0 design standards. As a result, you're forced to use a legacy menu icon in order to access basic commands that should be presented as on-screen options. Worse yet, most commands are buried within layers of menus, making them even more arduous to access and difficult to find.
Documents to Go's word processor does offer a decent set of editing tools, including options for table insertion, comment management, and word count. It has optional Google Docs integration, too, along with its own stand-alone PC-to-cloud sync utility. But with its outdated interface, using this app on a tablet (or any Android 4.0 device) is anything but pleasant. It feels like using a program that was at the top of its game a year ago and hasn't been updated since.
Google Docs (Google Drive)
Google Docs' biggest advantage -- $0 price tag aside -- is its seamless integration with Google's cloud storage: Any files stored in Google Drive automatically show up in the app and are continuously synced with other Drive-connected devices. The app also supports live collaboration, meaning you can edit a document simultaneously with other users. The feature works flawlessly; you actually see other users' edits show up on your tablet in real time and vice versa.
The Google Docs word processing interface is clean, simple, and tablet-optimized, but it isn't exactly robust. It has basic text-formatting commands -- text color and style, alignment, indention, and bullet points -- but lacks much else in the way of options. You can't create or edit tables, for example, or perform a basic word count. At the time of my testing, the app also opened only documents that were in the proprietary Google Docs format and offered no option for converting or importing standard .doc or .docx files.
OfficeSuite Pro's word processor shows how a tablet-based productivity app should be done. The app has a classy, sleek, and easy-to-navigate interface that's fully optimized for the tablet form and built to take advantage of its ample screen space.
Basic text-formatting commands sit at the bottom of the app's word processing window, while more advanced commands live along the top of the screen. OfficeSuite Pro has options for finding and replacing text, undoing and redoing actions, inserting images, creating and editing tables, and taking word counts. On top of that, it can integrate directly with cloud storage accounts from Google Docs, Dropbox, Box, and SugarSync.
Quickoffice Pro HD
Quickoffice Pro HD has a clean and easy-to-use tablet-friendly interface. In the word processor, all commands are located along a bar at the top of the screen. Those commands include options for basic text formatting, in-document image management, and -- as of a recent update -- table creation and spell check, the latter of which is a unique feature among mobile office applications. The app lacks a word count function, though, which may be a problem for some users.
Quickoffice is no slouch in cloud storage support: The app can integrate with accounts from a huge array of cloud-based services, including Google Docs, Dropbox, Box, Evernote, Catch, and SugarSync.
ThinkFree Mobile for Tablet
ThinkFree features an attractive tablet-optimized interface that's a pleasure to use. Basic text formatting commands sit along the top of the word processing window, while more advanced options reside in a second bar above that.
ThinkFree's word processor supports table management and image insertion but lacks support for advanced features like word count, comments, and footnotes. The app integrates with ThinkFree's own cloud storage service -- you're given 1GB of free space when you buy the program -- but provides no option for utilizing accounts from any other cloud storage providers.
The verdictIf you're a devoted Docs user who doesn't need advanced word processing capabilities, the Google Docs app might do the trick -- particularly if you're interested in real-time Docs-based collaboration. For most users, though, OfficeSuite Pro will provide the best experience for word processing on an Android tablet. Its only notable flaw is the lack of an integrated spell-check feature, but with nearly every virtual keyboard now providing on-the-fly autocorrect and autosuggest functionality, that void is not difficult to fill. Quickoffice Pro HD is a good choice as well, but lacks nice-to-haves, like word count; additionally, a less polished interface -- combined with its higher price tag -- keep it squarely in second place.
The best Android spreadsheet editorSpreadsheet capabilities are crucial to an office suite's appeal -- especially on a tablet, where ease-of-use is more important than ever. So which of our Android office apps has what it takes to excel?
Documents to Go
The spreadsheet editor in Documents to Go is feature-packed, but once again, its outdated interface makes it tough to recommend for tablet users. Like its word processor, the app's spreadsheet editor has all of its functions hidden in a legacy menu button that appears alongside the main system navigation icons at the bottom of the screen. It looks and feels like you're working on last year's smartphone instead of this year's tablet.
Google Docs (Google Drive)
Google Docs offers very limited spreadsheet editing capabilities. First and foremost, only spreadsheets saved in Google Docs format will open in the app, rendering it useless for editing of any desktop-created documents. Beyond that, only the most basic data-entry and row-sorting functions are supported -- and even those tasks are somewhat difficult to perform. More advanced features like text formatting, calculations, and multiple worksheet toggling are all missing in action.
Using the spreadsheet editor in OfficeSuite Pro is about as close as you can get to a desktoplike Excel experience on your tablet. OfficeSuite Pro makes spreadsheet input and editing easy, and it packs a huge range of features -- everything from three-dimensional chart creation to cell freezing, comment insertion, and numerous data-manipulation functions. OfficeSuite Pro's spreadsheet editor has full multiworksheet support along with find-and-replace functionality, a jump-to-cell option, and simple multicell selection.
Quickoffice Pro HD
The spreadsheet editor in Quickoffice Pro HD is solid, but it falls short of reaching the same level of excellence that OfficeSuite Pro achieves. The app supports multiple worksheets but lacks chart creation tools and other advanced features. It has some data-manipulation functions but hides them in a curiously small scrollable box. Compared to OfficeSuite Pro, Quickoffice's interface looks noticeably less sharp and compelling, with far fewer options in easily accessible places.
ThinkFree Mobile for Tablet
ThinkFree Mobile is another mixed bag when it comes to spreadsheet editing. The app has some useful features, like basic chart creation, shape insertion, and text box insertion, but it's missing certain items, such as a list of data-manipulation functions. Want to calculate an average or add up a row of numbers? You won't find any way to do it in this program.
The verdictOnce again, OfficeSuite Pro steals the show. It combines a great interface with a powerful lineup of features, leaving every other office suite in its dust.
The best Android tablet presentation softwareOnly four of our five Android office suite contenders offer support for presentations -- sorry, Docs -- and each has its own unique set of benefits and drawbacks.
Documents to Go
Documents to Go allows you to create, view, and edit PowerPoint presentations, but its options are severely limited and its interface -- you guessed it -- is sorely dated and difficult to use.
The Documents to Go presentation editor supports only plain-text slides. On top of that, you can't even view the slides with their proper formatting while you edit them; instead, you're forced to toggle over to an "outline view" in order to change text. Options -- of which there are few -- are hidden in a old-fashioned legacy menu icon. Altogether, this offering is about as unimpressive as can be.
OfficeSuite Pro provides you with 10 presentation templates, each with its own background and graphical theme. Within each template, however, your options for customization are rather limited: You can touch any text field to type in words, and you can move any field by pressing it and sliding your finger around the screen.
Beyond that, you're pretty much stuck with the setup the template gives you; commands for changing text color and size and for inserting images are nowhere to be found. OfficeSuite Pro does have controls for text indentation and bulleting, though, as well as for reordering and duplicating slides. It also supports slide-specific notes.
Quickoffice Pro HD
Quickoffice Pro HD has an impressive range of slide-creation tools. The app gives you a choice of 11 different templates for each slide you add and allows you to easily insert and format text to your liking, changing the font type, color, and style as needed. It also has options for inserting images from your tablet's gallery or camera, as well as options for inserting a variety of shapes, lines, and arrows.
The app's Achilles' heel: It lacks any backgrounds or graphical themes, which -- despite its success in customization -- results in plain and dull-looking slides.
ThinkFree Mobile for Tablet
Like Quickoffice, ThinkFree has a nice range of slide-creation tools, including options for inserting text boxes, tables, shapes, and images. The app has just three graphical background options, though. While it's an improvement over Quickoffice, it still restricts the way you can make your presentations look.
The verdictThis one is tricky, as none of the apps' presentation functionality is 100 percent perfect. That said, OfficeSuite Pro's simple and attractive graphical templates make it the best choice for anyone looking to create basic presentations or to edit and manipulate existing presentations. For anyone who needs more finite control over newly created slideshows, ThinkFree may be a better choice, thanks to its superior customization tools -- but know that any presentations you create with it will be somewhat limited in the way they can look due to the app's underwhelming background selection.
The best Android tablet PDF markup programWhile all of our office suite contenders allow for PDF viewing, only one of them provides an option for highlighting or marking up the files: Quickoffice Pro HD.
Given the fact that Quickoffice lags behind other office suite contenders in so many areas, however, I wouldn't recommend spending $20 on it for this function alone. Instead, I'd suggest grabbing Unidocs' EzPDF, available for $3.
EzPDF has a huge number of features, all in a slick-looking interface that translates nicely to the tablet form. EzPDF lets you annotate documents with text or freehand drawing. You can highlight or underline text, add in shapes and images, and crop or rotate preformatted pages. The app can select text from PDF documents, too, after which you can copy it to your system clipboard and use it as needed in other applications.
EzPDF is even built to work naturally with stylus devices, making it an excellent option for users with pen-based tablets like Samsung's Galaxy Note. With the program's free cloud plug-in add-on, you can also connect it directly to your Google Docs account for seamless in-app access to cloud-based files.
Putting it all together: The ideal Android tablet office suiteFor word processing, spreadsheet editing, and presentation management, OfficeSuite Pro is the best overall office suite available for Android tablets. From its stellar interface to its wide range of features and cloud connectivity options, OfficeSuite Pro delivers a superb user experience and stands in a league of its own. Its primary drawback is in the area of presentations, where it shines at simple slide creation -- with a variety of ready-made, slick-looking backgrounds -- but is limited in the amount of customization it provides.
If PDF editing is part of your routine, you'll want to add EzPDF to the equation; it offers a standout tablet-optimized interface for marking up PDF documents in any way you might need. With its $3 price tag, your total expense between that and OfficeSuite will be $18 -- still $2 less than you'd spend on Quickoffice, which includes PDF markup functionality but is significantly less impressive than OfficeSuite Pro in many other regards.
With those tools at your disposal, your tablet will be well on its way to becoming a mobile work machine. If you can manage to stay away from Words with Friends, your potential for productivity should be sky-high.
This story, "The best office apps for Android tablets," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.
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This story, "The best office apps for Android tablets" was originally published by InfoWorld.