Secrets of Office for iPad masters

Tips, tricks, tweaks, and twerks for Office gurus looking to make the most of the iPad variant

The essential guide to making the most of Office for iPad
The essential guide to making the most of Office for iPad

Office for iPad and Office for Windows and Mac share a few idiosyncrasies, but by and large they're completely different programs. While you can pick up a document in one and use it in the other, and some concepts carry over, there's a big gulf between the computer versions of Office and the touch-first transmogrification on the iPad.

If you've ever tried to tap your way through Office 2013 on a mouse-less PC, Office for iPad will blow you away. The interface runs rings around the Office we've known for decades, for touch-first situations. But if you're looking for a specific feature that's in Office 2013, you may well come up empty-handed.

If you're coming from a computer version of Office, here's what you can do to make Office for iPad -- both the free version and the Office 365 paid version -- work better for you.

Get the latest version
Get the latest version

Microsoft is upgrading the Office for iPad apps at a furious pace. There were big changes released in early November, when Microsoft decided to make the "core Office experiences" free for everyone on the iPad -- well, free if not used for business documents. In fact, the November version of the apps has very little in common with the earlier version.

The current version, 1.5, was released on Jan. 15, a month after Version 1.4. To get app updates automatically installed on your iPad, turn on app updates in the iTunes & App Store section of the Settings app. If you seek more granular control over the updating of your apps, open the App Store app and tap the Updates tab. You'll see any pending updates, and you can tap an app name to get the details of what's new before deciding whether to install the update.

Do you need to pay for Office for iPad?
Do you need to pay for Office for iPad?

When you first start Word, Excel, or PowerPoint for iPad, you'll be asked to provide either a Microsoft account or an Office 365 account. Office's capabilities depend on whether or not you've paid for a subscription, as well as whether it's a personal subscription or a business one.

Microsoft has a detailed list of the differences among the various Office 365 versions of each app, and they aren't as overwhelming as you might think. Aside from several exceptions, the basic breakdown goes like this: The free personal subscription limits cloud access to personal OneDrive storage, prohibits business use, and removes some higher-end ("Premium") features. The paid personal subscription enables Dropbox access and undoes those feature restrictons. The paid business version offers the full capabilities, plus access to the enterprise version of OneDrive and, if your company uses it, SharePoint storage.

What you get with the paid versions of all three Office for iPad apps
What you get with the Premium/Office 365 versions

In the Premium Office 365 subscriptions for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, you can:

  • Add custom colors to shapes, apply custom colors to fonts, and use custom colors as the fill color in cells
  • Insert and edit WordArt
  • Add shadows and reflection styles to pictures
  • Add or modify chart elements
  • Access Dropbox, enterprise OneDrive, and SharePoint cloud storage
  • Download the desktop versions of Office to your PCs and Macs
  • Get 60 minutes of free international Skype calling
  • Get unlimited OneDrive storage per account

One size doesn't fit all, of course, but for most people these are not particularly compelling capabilities. Try the free version first. If you go for a paid subscrition, Jon Seff at Macworld has a good roundup of Microsoft's cheaper Office subscription plans.

What you get with the paid version of Word and Excel
What you get with the Premium/Office 365 version of Word

Beyond the general differences outlined in the previous slide, a paid subscription for Word enables the following Premium features:

  • Edit a document in landscape mode
  • Change page columns
  • Apply section breaks
  • Accept or reject tracked changes, as well as disable revisions tracking in a  document where it had been previously enabled

For Excel, a paid subscription gets you the ability to create new pivot tables or alter their layouts.

Turn on the paid version, the smart way
Turn on the Premium/Office 365 version, the smart way

If you install Office on your iPad usig a personal email address for a free subscription and later want to upgrade to a paid subscription to unlock the premium features, here's how:

Close all the Office for iPad apps. To do so, press the Home button twice, swipe through the running apps, and when you encounter Word, Excel, or PowerPoint, slide it to the top of the screen to close it.

Then go to the Settings app. Way down on the left side, choose one of the Office for iPad apps. In this screenshot, I chose PowerPoint. On the right, under Reset, tap Reset PowerPoint. Then set the Delete Sign-In Credentials switch to On.

Finally, start the Office for iPad app that you just reset. You'll see the Office for iPad sign-in screen (slide 3). Tap Sign In, type your newly validated Office 365 ID and password, and you're off to the races with the Office 365 Premium subscription.

Hook up Dropbox
Hook up Dropbox

If you have a Dropbox account and the Dropbox app is installed on your iPad, get the account hooked into the Office for iPad apps.

To do so, start one of the Office for iPad apps. On the left, tap Open, then tap the + Add a Place icon in the left column. Dropbox appears as one of your options. Tap Dropbox, which opens the Dropbox app. The app asks if you want to allow the Office app access to the files and folders in your Dropbox. Tap Allow, and the Office for iPad app will be able to work with Dropbox files. Dropbox will display as one of the accessible file locations.

Also, from that point, every time you tap on an Office file inside Dropbox, the action box in the lower-right corner shows the Edit button (the pencil-on-page icon) that allows you to open the file directly in the corresponding Office for iPad app.

Nope, you can't connect your Office apps to iCloud, Google Drive, Box, or any of the other popular cloud locations. At best, you can share files from the cloud storage apps to Office apps, then mail yourself the modified files so that you can open them from Mail into the cloud storage app -- a tedious and error-prone approach.

Get Swype
Get Swype

I suggest you go with a better option than the stock iOS onscreen keyboard. Fortunately, with iOS 8, you can use the keyboard of your choice -- and as far as I'm concerned, that means installing the 99-cent marvel called Swype from the App Store. (Anndrew Vacca offers a roundup of other feature-rich keyboard app alternatives that are worth checking out.)

After installing Swype, tap Start to run the Swype app, then step through the tutorial. Activate Swype from the Settings app: Tap General, Keyboard, Keyboards, Add New Keyboard, and Swype. Then under Keyboards, choose Swype Keyboard - Swype. Set the Allow Full Access switch to On, then tap Allow. Go back to the Swype app, tap Activate, and follow the instructions.

One of its most powerful features, Swype actually learns as you ty -- uh, swype. Unfortunately, I can't find any way to link Swype's saved patterns on my Android device to Swype on my iPad, so you'll need to train Swype on your iPad even if you already use it on Android.

Save files on your iPad
Save files on your iPad

Many experienced Office users have trouble figuring out how to save files directly on the iPad. It's easy to save to OneDrive or to Dropbox if it's set up, but the option for saving to the iPad itself may escape your notice.

If you create a new file, then tap the back arrow in the upper left to save it, or tap the Refresh icon (near the upper left; it looks like a Save icon with arrows on a sheet of paper) and choose Duplicate -- the iPad analog to the desktop's File > Save As -- you're presented with the Save As/Duplicate form similar to the one shown here.

It may look as if you're limited to saving in the locations shown on the screen (in this case, it's my Dropbox folder), but you aren't. Swipe the screen to the right -- you may have to do it repeatedly -- so all your save locations appear. Choose the location "iPad" to store the file locally.

Save as PDF
Save as PDF

For reasons known only to Redmond, the current versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint for iPad don't let you save files in PDF format. They do, however, have a good PDF converter -- which you can use only to create an attachment for email. There's no Save as PDF option, only the Email as a PDF attachment option.

To email a document as a PDF, tap the Share icon in the upper right (it looks like a headshot with a + sign), choose Email as Attachment, then choose Send as PDF. An email appears, with the PDF attached, ready for you to add a recipient address, Subject line, and any body text that may cross your mind.

If you open that email in Mail, Gmail, or most any iPad email app, you can then share the PDF to other apps, including cloud storage apps, using the standard iOS Share feature.

Alex Campbell at PCWorld has a complex way to use the website to save as PDF to your OneDrive or Dropbox account. Once you jump through all the setup hoops, you use the Email as PDF Attachment option to email the message to an address.

Use pictures from the Photos app
Use pictures from your Camera Roll(s)

All three Office for iPad apps let you insert pictures from your iPad -- whether they're taken with the iPad's camera or reside in the Photos app.

Word, Excel, and PowerPoint for iPad all support resizing, drag-and-drop moving, rotation, in-place cropping, and frame styles on the pictures you insert. If you want to create drop shadows or reflections, you need a paid subscription.

Remember that the Office for iPad apps all automatically compress the pictures you insert. The resulting file size will doubtless be smaller -- possibly much smaller -- than the aggregate file sizes of pictures used to build it.

Try dictation in Word
Try dictation in Word

iOS's onscreen keyboard (but not the Swype keyboard) has a microphone key to the left of the spacebar. Tap it to have the iPad take dictation in your current app. That's really useful in Word. While the transcription isn't perfect, it's remarkably good.

Say "period" and you get a period. Similarly for "comma," "semicolon," "colon," "quote," "ampersand," "asterisk," "space," "question mark," and "new paragraph" -- they all work, and they're pretty smart. For example, if you say "Is that a question question mark," the document dutifully records "Is that a question?" If you say "two thousand one hundred thirty four," after a few moments of hesitation, you'll see 2,134.

Apple claims its dictation software recognizes many more commands -- open bracket, apostrophe, dash ellipsis, underscore -- but I had mixed results with many of those.

Editing dictated text is an art form. Use iOS dictation for a while before you try to dictate your next novel.

Tap and hold for alternate characters
Tap and hold for alternate characters

Both the native onscreen iOS keyboard and the Swype keyboard make it very easy to insert characters that aren't in the standard Latin character set. For example, on the standard keyboard, tap and hold the letter "a" to see the selection shown in this slide. Slide your finger to one of the offered characters, and it is inserted into the document.

The Swype keyboard has even more options, with noncharacter capabilities. For example, if you press and hold the "a" key, as in this slide, you can also choose the "@" symbol.

That merely touches the surface. There are keyboard cults within cults, with all sorts of tricks. iOS 8 introduced a (somewhat controversial) predictive typing capability called QuickType. Allyson Kazmucha at iMore has dozens of tips for getting the most out of QuickType. The Swype website has dozens more.

Use the Excel numeric keyboard
Use the Excel numeric keyboard

If Excel for iPad is the best spreadsheet for iPads -- arguable, I know -- the exceptional numeric keypad has to take some of the credit. Double-tap on a cell, and the keyboard pops up. In the upper-right corner of the keyboard, tap 123, and the beauty shown here appears.

The number pad works as you might expect, but the keys with tags in the upper-right corner pull double-duty. Tap and hold on any of them, and additional options appear. For example, if you tap and hold the $ (dollar sign), you're given symbols for cents, yen, euro, and won (yes, won).

Add cell references to formulas by tapping on the cell. Start a cell with an = (equal sign), flip over to the Abc keyboard, and you get a pull-down list of functions. Very slick -- although you may find it easier to use functions from the Formula tab.

In Excel, learn to use Autofill
In Excel, learn to use Autofill

If you've used Excel on the desktop for any time at all, you know how useful Autofill can be. Whether you're filling in numbers, dates, days of the week, months, or nearly anything with a readily identified sequencing, Autofill saves you tons of time.

Autofill is easy on the desktop -- not so on the iPad. Here's how to autofill:

Start by entering the first item in the series, in the first cell. (If you have an unusual sequence -- say, you want to fill in all the even numbers starting at 10 -- you may need to enter two or three items in consecutive cells. In this case, enter 10 and 12 in consecutive cells.)

If the keyboard is still on screen, dismiss it by clicking the down arrow in the lower-right corner of the keyboard.

Select the cell with the first item. (If you're going to fill an unusual sequence, use the circle on the bottom right of that first cell to extend the selection to the all of the items that control the fill -- in this example, select the cell with 10 and the cell with 12.) You see the contextual menu shown in the slide.

Tap Fill. Arrows appear at the bottom and on the right of the cells you have selected.

Tap and drag the appropriate arrow to fill down, or fill to the right.

Use the PowerPoint pen
Use the PowerPoint pen

Although the iPad isn't the ideal platform for developing presentations, it's quite capable at giving presentations if you have an Apple AirPlay-compatible projector or giant screen or if you have a screen hooked up to an AirPlay-enabled computer (for Windows, check out AirServer).

Take advantage of two of the most useful tools for presentations: the built-in laser pointer and the pen.

Using the pointer is easy. While your presentation is running, tap the screen and a laser point appears. Drag your finger across the screen, and the laser light follows.

Using the pen is a bit more difficult. During the presentation, at the top of the iPad, you see a thin black line. Drag that line down and you get options for showing slide notes and slide previews (which appear on only the iPad, not on the projector, as would be the case in Presentation View), extra options for setting the pen's width and color (shown in this slide), and turning the pen on and off.

Pick a color, tap the pen, and anything you draw on the slide appears while you're making the presentation.

Know when to give up
Know when to give up

Office for iPad can do many things, but a lot of important stuff simply can't be done in the iPad version. For now and the foreseeable future, you have to drop back and punt -- on a desktop or laptop.

For example, Word for iPad won't let you edit text inside SmartArt. There are no watermarks. Most section-based settings don't work, along with paragraph indents, line spacing, custom tabs, and on and on.

Excel for iPad won't do conditional formatting or sparklines, no matter how hard you try. You can see them if they've been set up on a desktop or laptop, but you can't do anything with them on the iPad. The same goes for changing components in charts.

PowerPoint lets you create new presentations, but there are only 20 templates, most of which aren't very inspiring. Transitions and animations that work in the desktop version may or may not work in the iPad version, and there's no way to embed a YouTube clip or a video clip embedded on a computer.

None of the Office for iPad apps tolerate odd fonts. If you stick to the Office Compatible Fonts and iOS fonts, you're fine. But if you want to work outside the norm, be prepared for text that jumps all over the place.

There's a point of diminishing returns at work here. If you throw in every Office feature, you'll end up with an app that runs like Photoshop on DOS and a Ribbon that looks like Office 2013 -- and nobody wants that. The folks who design Office for iPad have to carefully choose which features they'll support and which get relegated to the heavy iron.

Get used to it.