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In the heated competition for native and cloud-based iOS productivity apps, InfoWorld chooses the winners you should own
Road warriors' essential business toolkit
Of the tens of thousands of apps available for the iPad, only a relative few are must-have tools for business use. The tools are regularly updated, and new competitors enter the fray -- cloud-based ones, most recently.
No doubt your iPad has specialty apps beyond these to help in your specific work. For this, you should peruse our recommended iPad specialty apps and our favorite iOS and Android apps for IT pros, as well as install the appropriate clients for your videoconferencing and instant messaging services. But the apps highlighted here are ones almost everyone should have.
Read on for our picks for the best native Office editors, best cloud Office editors, and best native companion productivity tools for the iPad.
InfoWorld Test Center scorecards: Native Office apps
Best word processor: Quickoffice Pro HD
Quickoffice, owned by Google, has long been the top cross-platform mobile office productivity suite. The newest version offers tracked changes and notes in the app itself, following on Office2HD's innovation. In addition to AirPrint support, it exports your files to PDF.
Quickoffice Pro HD's strong support for cloud storage (though not iCloud), and its straightforward editing tools make it the closest thing to a native Microsoft Office for the iPad. Quickoffice makes a really good companion to Microsoft Office on your PC or Mac.
The rest of the word processors
Apple's $9.99 Pages is good at layout, and it recently added revisions tracking (though not notes). But lack of support for style sheets makes it unusable in many workflows. Like Quickoffice Pro, Pages supports AirPrint and PDF export.
ByteSquared's $7.99 Office2HD has a very capable word processor, similar to Quickoffice, but it doesn't support text replace, live spell-checking, PDF export, or AirPrint printing, and the suite outside the word processor is slow.
BlackBerry's $16.99 Documents to Go Premium offers only the basics. It's languished for several years, and can't print or export to PDF.
Picsel's $9.99 SmartOffice 2 is, in a word, unusable due to a very poor user interface and limited capabilities
Best spreadsheet editor: Quickoffice HD Pro
Quickoffice's spreadsheet-editing module works very much like Excel, so it's instantly accessible to Excel users. There's also a Business App Store version that allows for content management by IT. Although it supports several cloud services, it does not support iCloud, but it does support AirPrint and PDF export.
Runner-up spreadsheet editor: Numbers
Apple's Numbers spreadsheet editor makes data entry easy, especially around numeric, date, and formula info. The keyboard adjusts based on the type of data you're working with. Excel users may dislike Numbers' approach to creating worksheets; Numbers allows several on a page, which can confound experienced Excel users.
Also, like all iWork apps, Numbers supports cloud storage services such as Box and Dropbox, but messily: You must copy your documents via Open In, which creates version issues. Only in an all-Apple workflow does Numbers avoid this messiness, using iCloud to keep your documents current on all your devices. But it does support AirPrint and PDF export.
The rest of the spreadsheet editors
The spreadsheet editor in ByteSquared's $7.99 Office2HD is capable, but it loads files very slowly, so it's a pain to use. The app also lacks support AirPrint printing and PDF export.
BlackBerry's $16.99 Documents to Go Premium offers the basics, but no more. It's languished for several years and is not a good investment choice. It does not support printing or PDF export.
Best presentation editor: Keynote
Keynote is an amazing slideshow editor. I prefer it over PowerPoint on the Mac. On the iPad, it works beautifully when creating complex slide transitions and element effects, which competing apps can't do. And its iCloud syncing can be a real life-saver. A bonus is Apple's free Keynote Remote app for the iPhone and iPod Touch that lets you remote-control a Keynote presentation on your Mac or iPad.
Keynote's big negative is its awkward requirement of copying documents to and from cloud storage services, rather than allowing direct access as other apps do. But it supports AirPrint and PDF export.
The rest of the presentation editors
The $19.99 Quickoffice Pro HD's presentation editor is basic, aimed at touching up existing presentations' text and object placement, not creating new slideshows. Forget about anything like Keynote's animation capabilities. But it supports AirPrint and PDF export, unlike its non-Apple competitors.
ByteSquared's $7.99 Office2HD presentation editor is likewise basic, aimed at touchup work.
BlackBerry's $16.99 Documents to Go Premium is less than basic when it comes to presentation editing, allowing just text touchup.
Picsel's $9.99 SmartOffice 2 is, in a word, unusable due to a very poor user interface and limited capabilities.
InfoWorld Test Center scorecards: Cloud Office app
Best Microsoft Office in-the-cloud service: CloudOn
Running Windows on an iPad can be a disconcerting experience, given how they weren't designed for each other. But the CloudOn app nicely accesses the 2010 versions of Excel, PowerPoint, and Word, as well as Adobe Reader, hosted on Windows Server. Plus, it supports the iPad's native keyboard and Share facility. And it uses your existing Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, and SkyDrive cloud storage for files, so you don't have to worry about version control across multiple devices.
It has a few flaws (such as no AirPrint printing) but is a very handy option -- as long as you have a live Internet connection.
The rest of the Microsoft Office in-the-cloud services
Two services let you run Office 2010 as a hosted app over the Internet from a Windows Server, with the claimed benefit of giving you the actual Microsoft experience on your iPad.
Microsoft's free, hosted Office Web Apps works surprisingly well in the iPad's Safari browser but has little integration with the iPad. Accessing local files or printing requires labor-intensive workarounds. (Log in from office.microsoft.com.)
The free OnLive Desktop is a horrible Office hosting service: It scrunches Office 2010 into the iPad's smaller screen. The app forces you to manually activates its own onscreen keyboard, can't print, and loading files requires separate login to its website. Plus, leaving the app disconnects you.
The alternative of cloud-based office editors
An alternative to hosted Office services are Web-based document editors. They require live Internet connection and use their own user interface on mobile devices. But we can't recommend either of the services available.
Google's free Google Drive app provides basic editing of Office files via a Web interface -- emphasis on "basic." You get only basic touchup and formatting capabilities for Word and Excel files (not PowerPoint). Why bother?
The free newcomer AstralPad provides moderate editing capabilities -- more than Google Drive, less than hosted Office -- but is very slow, allows only two open documents, requires manual keyboard activation, and has a confusing interface. It does allow access to Dropbox files and can export PDFs you can then print.
Editor's Choice: Must-have productivity apps
Beyond the holy trinity of office productivity apps -- those for textual documents, spreadsheets, and presentations -- are lots of iPad specialty apps. Some are so broadly useful that they should be on nearly everyone's iPad. Our picks for those follow.
Best file manager: GoodReader
Many people really wish the iPad had a shared file system, like a PC or Mac. It doesn't, but GoodReader can give you much of the file manager you want. It provides a central file repository for files you transfer via Wi-Fi, various storage services, iTunes, and the Open In facility used by many iOS apps (such as Mail). As its name implies, GoodReader lets you read many file formats, including several not supported by iOS's naive QuickLook facility. Plus, it unzips file archives, so you don't need a separate utility for the task.
Best PDF markup: GoodReader
Although GoodReader didn't start life as a PDF annotation tool, it's evolved into a darned good one. You get all the markup tools you expect from Acrobat Professional -- even the advanced editing tools -- so no one will know you marked up the PDFs on an iPad. The app does a good job of using touch gestures for highlighting portions of your PDF for markup. My only quibble is you can't rotate individual pages; sometimes you're marking up a page rotated 90 degrees from the orientation of the sticky notes' text you're adding.
Best note-taking: Notability
Taking notes is a very personal activity, and dozens of apps for the iPad reflect those preferences. But two such apps work well for most people. One is the iPad's built-in Notes app, which is great for typing in text-only notes and having them instantly available to your computer and other devices via IMAP, Exchange, and/or iCloud syncing.
If you want notes that include audio recordings and drawings (alas, no syncing), get Notability. It's straightforward to use and can associate your recordings to what you type as you type; to hear the portion of a recording made when you typed in specific text, just tap that text.
Best calculator: Calculator Original
Who doesn't need a calculator now and then? But unlike the iPhone, the iPad doesn't come with one built in. Fortunately, you can get an iPad version of the familiar iPhone calculator for free.
Best cloud storage (tie): Dropbox
Apple's iCloud is a great service for keeping files and other data synced across iOS and OS X devices, but it's not (yet) a storage service where you can keep files in a central location accessible to all devices and other users. Dropbox is such a service, and it's integrated with many iPad apps, so it can fill in as a common file system in some cases. Dropbox also integrates nicely with OS X and Windows, appearing as another storage volume. It's available for Android as well. Note that using Dropbox with Apple's iWork apps requires a $5 monthly fee.
Best cloud storage (tie): Box
Like Dropbox, Box enjoys wide support from iPad apps; works in Windows, OS X, and Android; and now offers the simple integration with OS X and Windows long provided by Dropbox, so it's easy to work with files. Box can be used with Apple's iWork suite on the iPad for no additional charge, and it offers an enterprise version that lets IT manage access and content rights for corporate data.
Other cloud storage tools
There are a dozen more cloud storage options, but only three warrant most people's attention.
One is Microsoft's free SkyDrive app and tiered-rate service, mainly because it comes with Office 2013, Windows 8, and Office Web Apps as a default storage location, so it lets Windows-centered users stay connected. Only a few apps support SkyDrive directly, so you need the app to transfer files.
Although Google's popular Drive storage service is supported by many apps directly, having the Google Drive app is still a good idea.
If you use multiple cloud storage services, AppSense's free DataNow app lets you move files among them easily from one console. It supports Dropbox, SkyDrive, Google Drive, FTP servers, and WebDAV servers.
Best task manager: OmniFocus
If you're a project manager who needs serious task management capabilities, such as timelines, multimedia annotations, multiple assignees, calendar integration, and hierarchical steps, OmniFocus is the gold standard for iOS and OS X. If all you need is a to-do list, the iPad's built-in Reminders app is primitive but serviceable.
Best FTP client: FTP on the Go Pro
Cloud storage services have made FTP utilities archaic for many users, but if you work on a website or in many file-management systems, you still need a client. For the iPad, that client should be FTP on the Go, which not only does the FTP uploading and downloading you'd expect but also provides a basic HTML editor so that you can touch up your Web pages.