September 04, 2012, 3:04 PM — When you want to edit Microsoft Office documents on your iPad, youre not limited to Apples iWork, Google Docs, and third-party office suites. Three apps, in conjunction with their respective cloud-based services, let your iPad connect to a virtual Windows server running in the cloud and run the Windows version of Microsoft Office remotely: CloudOn; nivio; and OnLive Desktop. Heres how they compare.
Opening up CloudOn, you dont feel like youre connecting to a remote Windows desktop. Instead, it looks like a file browser. CloudOn connects directly to your Dropbox, Box, or Google Drive cloud-storage account, and the app opens with a directory listing of those accounts.
Above the list of files are three icons: One for selecting your view (list, icon, or one that looks a bit like CoverFlow). The middle icon provides access to CloudOns settings, Help, and a tutorial. The third lets you launch Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. You can open an app from that icon or tap on one of your files in the file browser; in the latter case, CloudOn opens it in the associated app.
Once open, those apps look much like their Windows desktop counterparts: Theres the ribbon near the top of the screen, the document below that. Above the ribbon are tabs for the different ribbons (Paragraph, Insert, and so on).
CloudOn has done a fine job making Office touch-friendly: Tap on the tab for the ribbon you want to open and then on the tool you want to use. Selecting text is similarly simple. You can double-tap to select a word or triple-tap to select a line. Or, you can tap-and-hold then drag the cursor to select an arbitrary range of text. For text input, you get the standard iOS keyboard, augmented by a row of special keys (Control, Alt, Shift, Tab, and so on). Theres no onscreen proxy-mouse, but I never found I missed it.
So far, only the file browser portion of CloudOn has been optimized for the third-generation iPads Retina Display. The Office apps themselvesincluding any text in your documentshave a somewhat fuzzy appearance, but the company says it is looking into ways of improving the display of other parts of the app.
When youre done editing, tap on a bar in the top-left corner of the screen; CloudOn autosaves your document and takes you back to the file browser. There, you can perform basic file-management chores like copying, moving and renaming files. If you have accounts with both Dropbox and Box, you can access both in the browser.
CloudOn is currently free for personal use and $15 a month for each business user.
The nivio service provides iPad access to Microsoft Office, Outlook, Publisher, and Access as well as to programs from companies including Adobe, Google, and more. Youll find text and graphics editors, PDF tools, and even CAD software. Those apps are available for rent. Most have free trial periods; after that, pricing varies by vendor. (For example, after your trial you can rent the Office Standard 2010 suite for $15 per month.) In addition to app rental fees, you must pay for the nivio service itself after your initial 30-day trial period; plans range from $2 to $15 per month depending on the amount of storage space provided and the number of usage hours.
You can access nivio through your iPads browser or using the third-party app Wyses PocketCloud as a nivio client. If you opt for the latter, after youve installed the app, you must go back to nivio in your browser, log in to your account, and then tap Launch nDesktop. That launches the app, switches you to it, and opens your nivio desktop. Unfortunately, PocketCloud cant store your nivio login info, so you must repeat this tedious procedure every time you use the service.
Once opened, nivio presents you with an actual Windows desktop. On that desktop are five icons: nApps, nDrive, Help, Internet Explorer, and the standard Windows Recycle Bin. If you select nDrive, you get nivios built-in file browser, displaying your documents. There are two main ways to get docs up there: via the nivio Web interfaces Upload link or the nDrive app for the Mac; both work, though neither is quite as simple as something like Dropbox or Box.
If you tap on nApps, you get a palette presenting the range of apps. To use one, you tap on its Get Now link to install it, then you tap Launch to start it up. The nivio service provides a clever mouse-like cursor for the iPad screen, which can not only be used to click on things, but also provides some handy keyboard combinations (Alt-F4 and the like). You can, if you wish, use your finger to hold-and-drag onscreen items, just as you would normally on the iPad.
Of the three apps tested for this article, nivio was the least Retina-friendly; everything looked distractingly jagged on my third-generation iPad. In my testing, I found that nivio suffered from the lagginess that afflicts many remote-desktop apps: Id click on something onscreen and then wait for that click to take effect. File access is also awkward: You must first upload the files you want to work on to the service, by visiting the nivio site in your Macs browser, logging in, clicking on an Upload Files link, and selecting the files.
In sum, nivio does some clever thingsthat mouse cursor, for examplebut doesnt make the Mac-to-iPad integration as seamless as it could be.
Like nivio, OnLive Desktop puts an actual Windows desktop on your iPad. But rather than offer you all the apps that nivio does, OnLive gives you just the main Office appsWord, Excel, and PowerPointplus Adobe Reader, Internet Explorer, and a few others. OnLive Desktop Standard is free, including 2GB of cloud storage, but limits Web browsing to the OnLive site. If you want access to other websites (including Dropbox and Box), you must pony up for a paid account, the least expensive of which is OnLive Desktop Plus at $5 per month.
Although the display is not perfectly crisp on a third-generation iPad, its far better than the other services, and this contributes to a greater sense that youre actually using a Windows computer. As with CloudOn, you can use standard iPad taps to interact with the Windows interface, or use the apps Windows-optimized pop-up keyboard. I found the on-screen keyboard to have too much lag for my comfort, but the responsiveness may depend on the speed and quality of your Internet connection.
As with nivio, file management in OnLive is awkward. You have a Windows-standard My Documents folder where you can save files from the Office apps. You can upload and download files to and from that folder through a Web browser from another machine. But while the paid versions of OnLive tout their compatibility with Dropbox and Box, that access isnt well-integrated: To edit a file stored in one of these cloud-based services, you must navigate to it using Internet Explorer from within OnLive Desktop. From there, you can download it and open it in the associated app or save it to your OnLive documents folder. And if you open it in one of the Office apps, the only place you can save it is to OnLive; you cant save it back to Dropbox.
One note: OnLive has been experiencing some recent ups and downs as a company which might affect the service.
For now, CloudOn offers the most seamless experience of the three Windows-on-your-iPad apps, although OnLive Desktop currently looks nicer on a third-generation iPad. In my testing, I found CloudOn more responsive than OnLive or nivio, as well as more intuitive; it makes Office feel more like a native iPad app than either of the other two. It also has the virtue of being free. But if you need to edit Windows Office documents and guaranteeing file compatibility is your top concern, all three services offer viableif imperfectsolutions.