In addition to iWork, Google Docs, and third-party office suites, you have another option when it comes to editing Office docs on the iPad: You can connect to a remote Windows server from your iPad and run the Windows version of Office remotely. Three services in particular (all with companion iOS apps) enable you to do this: CloudOn (site.cloudon.com), Nivio (us.nivio.com), and OnLive Desktop (desktop.onlive.com). Here’s how they compare.
CloudOn (which is completely free) doesn’t connect you to a remote Windows desktop, as Nivio and OnLive Desktop do. Instead, it opens a file browser that shows you your Dropbox or Box account.
Above that list are three icons: One is for selecting the view (list, icon, or a view that looks like Cover Flow). The middle one provides access to CloudOn’s settings, help, and a tutorial. And the third lets you launch Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. To open one of these apps in CloudOn, tap its icon or tap a file formatted for that app.
Once open, the apps look much like their Windows desktop counterparts, with the selected ribbon across the top of the screen, tabs for the different ribbons (Home, Font/Paragraph, Insert, and so on) above that, and the document itself below.
CloudOn has done a fine job of making Office touch-friendly: You tap on the tab for the ribbon you want to open, tap on the tool you want to use, and tap on text you want to select. For text input, you get the standard iOS keyboard, augmented by a row of special keys (Control, Alt, Shift, and so on).
When you’re done editing, you tap a bar at the top of the screen; CloudOn autosaves your document and takes you back to the file browser. There you can perform basic file-management chores (copying, moving, and renaming files).
Unlike CloudOn, Nivio (which offers free accounts as well as several tiers of paid plans) actually gives you remote access to a real Windows desktop from the iPad. You access that desktop either through your iPad’s browser or with a third-party app such as Wyse Technology’s free PocketCloud Remote Desktop.
However you access that desktop, you can click its nApps icon to gain access to more than 40 Windows programs, ranging from the Office apps to software from Adobe, Google, and others. Most have free trial periods; after that, pricing varies. (For example, Office apps rent for $7.50 per month individually, and $15 a month for the whole suite.)
If you select nDrive, you get Nivio’s built-in file browser, displaying your documents. To upload docs, you can either use the Web interface’s Upload link or an nDrive Mac app; neither is as simple to use as Dropbox or Box.
Nivio provides a clever mouse-like cursor for the iPad screen—you drag it around with your finger, but you can also click on things as if you were using a regular mouse. That cursor also provides some handy Windows keyboard shortcuts.
In testing, I found that Nivio suffered from the same screen lag that afflicts many remote-desktop apps: I’d click on something and then have to wait a couple seconds (or more) for my click to take effect.
In sum, Nivio has some clever touches—that cursor, for example—but it doesn’t make Mac-to-iPad integration as seamless as it should be.
Like Nivio, OnLive Desktop (which also like Nivio has both free accounts and paid options) 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 apps—Word, Excel, and PowerPoint—plus Adobe Reader and Internet Explorer.
As with CloudOn, you can use standard iPad taps to interact with the Windows interface, or use the app’s Windows-optimized pop-up keyboard. Unfortunately, some features don’t work as you might expect; for example, you can’t tab between form fields. Keyboard response is decent but occasionally lags.
As with Nivio, file management is awkward. You have a Windows-standard My Documents folder where you can save files from the Office apps. (You’re given 2GB of space.) You can upload and download files to that folder from another machine via a Web browser. But while OnLive touts its compatibility with Dropbox and Box, it doesn’t integrate that access well: To edit a file stored on Dropbox, you must navigate to it using the OnLive browser, and then either open it in the associated app or save it to your OnLive documents folder. If you open it in an Office app, you have to save it to OnLive; you can’t save it back to Dropbox.
For now, CloudOn is the smoothest of the three Windows-on-your-iPad apps. I found it more responsive than OnLive or Nivio, as well as more intuitive; Office feels more like a native iPad app in CloudOn than in either of the other two. Still, if you need to edit Windows Office docs, all three offer viable—if imperfect—solutions.