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iPad Q&A - Updated November 25, 2013

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Can the iPad be used to type documents? Can it open and save Microsoft Office files? Can it open and save PDF files?

The iPad most certainly can be used to type documents.

Originally, one major point of differentiation between the iPad and the smaller iPod touch and iPhone devices is that the iPad exclusively had compatible productivity software -- a version of the iWork Pages, Numbers, and Keynote applications -- for word processing/basic page layout, spreadsheets, and presentations, respectively.

Although Apple subsequently has released versions of these apps for the iPhone and iPod touch, the small displays make the software much less convenient for more than basic review and quick edits of documents, even with the assorted zoom functionality.

Pages, Numbers, and Keynote are available for the iPad for only US$9.99 each, a bargain compared to most productivity applications on Macs and Windows PCs.

Onscreen & Physical Keyboard Options

In addition to the productivity software and a "soft" onscreen keyboard, the iPad is compatible with the Apple Wireless Keyboard (US$69), the discontinued Apple Keyboard Dock Accessory, and a vast assortment of third-party wireless keyboards, many of which effectively convert the iPad into a touch-capable netbook.

The iPhone and iPod touch models also can be used with keyboards, but when combined with the larger display, an external keyboard makes it possible to comfortably compose full documents on the iPad.

Official Microsoft Office Compatibility

The iPad is capable of opening Pages, Numbers, and Keynote documents created on a Mac; opening Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents created on a Mac or Windows PC; and opening PDF files and saving files in PDF format as well.

Originally only Pages supported saving documents in Word format, but Numbers and Keynote did not support saving documents in Excel or PowerPoint, respectively. Thankfully, this subsequently has changed and Numbers and Keynote now both can save files in the equivalent Microsoft format.

Apple's original marketing copy officially heralded that the Pages, Numbers, and Keynote applications "work well with others" and documents could "easily" be shared.

More recent Apple marketing copy shamelessly declares that these apps "now work even better with Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint. So you can take a Microsoft Office document from your Mac or PC, import it to your iOS device, and keep the workflow flowing."

This marketing copy is followed by extensive lists of features that are supported, "partially" supported, and not supported for Word to Pages, Excel to Numbers, and PowerPoint to Keynote.

Always optimistic marketing copy aside, the straightforward lists of exactly what works, may work, and does not work definitely is welcomed and should help users have realistic expectations.

Microsoft Office Real-World Experiences & Other Translation Options

Based on hands-on use, feedback from readers, and postings across the Internet, attempting to convert between Microsoft Office formats and the Apple iWork equivalent on the iPad has been mixed thus far.

Likewise, from the extensive number of "partially" supported and unsupported features when converting between formats, it is clear that experiences still will continue to vary significantly.

Although the professional opinions below are referring to the original release of the iWork suite for iPad, they still do an excellent job demonstrating the range of possible translation outcomes using the official Apple solutions.

In his document translation test, PCMag's Tim Gideon reported:

When I downloaded the template for the Word document I am currently using for this review, the iPad automatically asked if I wanted to convert it to a Pages doc. When I did, I was immediately using a doc that looked exactly like my original Word document. Sending attachments is just as easy, as Pages can also convert your document back to Word when you're finished editing -- and you can send via the Email app by just clicking an arrow beneath your document's icon (you don't need to be in Mail).

The WSJ's Walt Mossberg -- likely using a more complex document -- was not as lucky:

I even got some light work done in the optional iPad word processor, called Pages, which is part of a [US]$30 suite that also includes a spreadsheet and presentation program.
This is a serious content creation app that should help the iPad compete with laptops and can import Microsoft Office files. However, only the word processor exports to Microsoft's formats, and not always accurately [the spreadsheet and presentation apps now export to Microsoft's formats, too]. In one case, the exported Word file had misaligned text. When I then tried exporting the document as a PDF file, it was unreadable.

In addition to the official solutions, two other translation apps include Documents To Go from DataViz, which has been providing Mac format translation software for decades, and newcomer QuickOffice, which now is owned by Google.

Official iWork Mac-iPad Crossplatform Compatibility

Just like Walt Mossberg noted when converting an iWork document created on the iPad to Word and PDF, individual users also have reported problems when opening iWork files on an iPad when those files were created on a Mac.

Apple's own support site has posted documents that quietly acknowledge a number of specific formatting changes that will occur when importing a Mac version of a document created with the iWork '09 versions of Pages, Numbers, or Keynote into its iPad equivalent.

More recently, Apple released newer "dumbed down" versions of Pages, Numbers, and Keynote in an effort to bring more parity between the Mac and iOS versions. Although this may have been well meaning -- the backlash from consumers was swift and substantial -- and Apple has promised to bring back at least some of the features removed or broken by the new release.

Whether using the '09 or '13 versions of Pages, Numbers, or Keynote for the Mac, changes typically are more minor than those converting between Microsoft applications and their Apple equivalent, but some of these changes still are quite significant. For example, in '09 Pages, "documents using page layout are converted to word processing with text wrap" and in '09 Keynote, "comments are not imported."

Depending on the complexity of the document, converting a document using a page layout to something so much simpler could completely destroy it or at least require substantial time to fix it. Likewise, removing the comments in a presentation could range from frustrating to devastating if you were planning to review them prior to your presentation and only then discovered that they were gone.

iWork Mac-iPad Compatibility Real-World Experiences

It certainly appears that more recent versions of the iWork apps for the iPad are more compatibility with the Mac version than earlier releases, albeit partially because the latest Mac version of Pages, Numbers, and Keynote have had more advanced features removed.

Nevertheless, as Apple makes the applications for both systems, and the company no doubt wants to encourage sales of both Macs and iPads -- or at least encourage migration from the Mac to the iPad -- one certainly would hope that compatibility will continue to improve as long as Apple views Mac compatibility as important for iWork.

Compatibility of the original version definitely was overstated, as the below journalists note.

Kenn Marks, writing for the well-respected O'Grady's PowerPage, cautioned:

If you are planning on buying an iPad to be a portable editing device for your iWork content -- think twice. The Apple Discussion boards are all aflutter with teachers and professors who hoped they could leave their laptops in the office and only take their new iPads to the lecture hall. This is not the case. Although Apple has branded the programs the same as the versions you can buy for your Mac, this is where the similarity ends. It's like using Google Translation to convert a foreign web site into your language of choice, but worse. The two programs I was interested in were Pages and Keynote and they both corrupt files on import (once you can get them in -- that's another article). Formatting is lost in Pages so formulas and footnotes disappear in Keynote transitions and builds go away. It is not as if they are temporarily suspended while on the iPad they are gone so when and if you save back to your Mac they are no longer there.

In a ZDNet blog posting, Adrian Kingsley-Hughes summarized his opinion regarding the issue:

The problem here is that Apple is attempting to blur the lines between the desktop/notebook ecosystem and the iPad by releasing the iWork apps for the iPad, but the company is being disingenuous in obfuscating the limitations of the mobile app, especially when those limitations can actually cause irrevocable changes to those documents.

Thankfully, this previously permanent file change issue has been rectified. You now will be "prompted whether you would like to open the original version or to create a copy, and changes made to the content or document layout are listed for your review."

Needless to say, not permanently modifying a translated document, particularly if translated poorly, is a major improvement.

Anyone interested in using the iPad for document creation would be wise to create documents directly on the iPad or convert a copy of complex documents to a stable format like PDF after creation on a Mac or Windows PC before sending them to the iPad for display. As always, keep a backup of a file before attempting to convert between any formats.

The more powerful UXWrite app also supports more complex documents than Pages and can save documents in Microsoft Word (DOCX), Open Document Format (ODT), LaTeX (TEX), HTML5, and PDF. It may be of interest, too.

iPad Document Preparation Conclusion

Since the dawn of computing time, translation efforts between programs sometimes has worked flawlessly and other times the results are unusable. Unless open and universal formats are adopted, there is little reason to be believe that this will change. After all, companies have a vested interest in keeping users chained to their formats as it makes it more difficult for them to defect to products made by competitors.

If you need to prepare documents for online use or print as well as prepare and even display presentations -- and you don't need a notebook computer for more "heavy lifting" tasks -- it is possible that the iPad could meet all of your mobile computing needs.

However, if you routinely prepare complex documents in a collaborative environment (where documents will be sent back and forth between multiple parties for revision), particularly with Microsoft Office, a Mac or Windows PC -- or possibly a Mac or Windows PC and an iPad -- would be a better choice for document creation than an iPad alone, at least for now.

Feel free to write in and share your personal iPad document translation experiences, too.

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