12 iPad apps that mean business

Apple's App Store has a good variety of software designed to help business people get through the day

So far, Apple has sold more than 3 million of its iconic iPads, making it the best-selling tablet on the market. A runaway success? Absolutely.

But an out-of-the-box iPad can be a disappointment for business tasks. Its rudimentary word processor, e-mail client, contacts directory and calendar are slim pickings, especially for those who want to use the device for work on the road.

Thankfully, Apple's App Store has a good variety of software designed to help business people get through the day.

I looked at 12 different apps that can make your workday easier and more efficient. Some of these apps do one thing well, like Network Utility, which quickly checks out a company's networking infrastructure. Others are multifaceted, like Office² HD, which is a one-stop shop for creating and modifying business documents. And then there are those that are indispensable for road warriors, like FlightTrack Pro, which lets you keep an eye on your travel plans and react quickly to cancellations.

In short, these apps can transform an iPad into a Swiss Army knife for cutting through a workday.

Pages, Numbers and Keynote

Apple's iWork suite for the Mac includes applications for word processing (Pages), spreadsheets (Numbers) and presentations (Keynote).

All three apps work well and offer a number of features in common -- for example, they can all accommodate eight different languages and let you undo the last 200 changes. They can import the latest Word, Excel and PowerPoint file formats (although you can only save files in the Office 97 format).

However, these programs are available only individually for the iPad. Because of this, the suite has lost the integration that made each of these applications more than the sum of their parts on Mac laptops and other Apple systems. To add prewritten text to a presentation, for instance, you have to click the iPad's Home button, open Pages and copy the text. Only after hitting the Home button again and opening Keynote can you paste it in place.

Still, anybody who works on the road needs this trio of apps for reading, creating and working with all manner of documents. Despite the hassle of individually paying for, downloading and installing the three programs, it's worth the effort.

Pages

Pages ($9.99) creates documents of surprising sophistication -- documents look great, and there's a lot of flexibility in how you can present them.

The app can change formatting options like margins, type and indents, as well as adjust word wrapping around images. There's a good variety of formatting options, including 16 premade templates, and to make a simple chart or graph, you just tap in your numbers. Pages will automatically fit the document to the width of the iPad display, regardless of whether it's being held horizontally or vertically. This makes complicated documents easier to work with.

If you're working with a sophisticated document, be prepared to be patient -- it took several seconds for documents to appear when I pulled them up in Pages. Other apps, like Office² HD, don't have that problem.

Pages works with Word files and does an excellent job of font substitution when necessary. On the other hand, it lacks the ability to use Microsoft Word's Track Changes feature for facilitating group work. Documents brought into Pages include comments and notes, but only as plain text without highlighting or any indication of who made them. Pages automatically saves the document every time a change is made (as do Numbers and Keynote).

It's a snap to import an image, as well as to resize or rotate an image. And don't worry about using the app with external keyboards; Pages worked well with my wireless Matias Folding Keyboard.

The documents can be shared on Apple's iWork.com site. The site was still under development at the time of this writing but was stable enough for use. Apple recently added support for its MobileMe synchronization system.

Numbers

When it comes to manipulating figures, Numbers ($9.99) is a gem. The screen can hold an active worksheet as well as tabs for five more. There are 250 functions available -- more than twice the number included with Office² HD.

Numbers can create nine different graphs at the swipe of a finger as you highlight the data and choose which format to use; you can instantly change them to a different look. The program uses the same 16 Apple templates as Pages for a consistent look. Keynote

For many business travelers, giving presentations is the reason for not being in the office in the first place. The Keynote app ($9.99) can make quick work of creating simple shows on the road, editing complicated ones or just putting on a show.

Apple Keynote

The interface may look familiar to those who use the Mac version, but Keynote was built from the ground up for the iPad, with an emphasis on using its screen to the fullest. For example, if you're having trouble placing an image exactly where you want it, you can zoom in for greater detail.

While the iPad itself is a great way to show the presentation to two or three people, a bigger venue demands a projector or monitor. You'll need to buy a VGA adapter for $29 to put Keynote on-screen. (Numbers and Pages, however, don't include the ability to send an image to an external source.)

Keynote offers 12 themes, whereas Pages and Numbers offer 16, but it adds sophisticated image and text animation. You tap on the text or images to change and resize them. It took me about five minutes to create a 10-slide presentation with just enough text animation to keep an audience's attention.

Bottom line

When there's work to be done, and when there are documents to be read, edited or created, no programs do as much for making the iPad road-ready than Pages, Numbers and Keynote. I just wish they would work together better.

Office² HD

Byte²'s Office² HD can turn any iPad into a document factory. At $7.99, it's less than a third of the cost of the trio of iWork programs but offers two-thirds of the functionality: word processing and spreadsheets.

Office² HD can handle Word .DOC and Excel .XLS files, documents created in Apple's Pages and Numbers applications, and files from the free NeoOffice suite. When I tried it out, Office² HD correctly handled a variety of formats, including PDF and Microsoft's newer .DOCX files. You can save documents as PDF files as well.

Office² HD can adjust formatting, margins, type and font size, as well as place an image in a document. You can undo up to 100 previous changes. It lacks the ability of Pages to save files after every change, but the program will autosave when it's closed.

Like Pages, Office² HD can import files that use Microsoft's Track Changes feature, but the comments are in plain text. It cannot add comments that identify the writer.

The program can work with several spreadsheets at once. You can easily adjust the row height and column width by tapping and dragging them to the size you want. I was able to switch between spreadsheets with a finger swipe, which was quite convenient.

Office² HD includes 112 spreadsheet functions, from basic math to heavy-duty statistical analysis; this is half as many as Numbers has. Office² HD can't create graphs, which could be a real negative for many users.

One nice feature: The program lets you grab files from online repositories like Google Docs, Apple's MobileMe, iDisk or Box.net without leaving the application.

Bottom line

One big disappointment with Office² HD is the inability to view and edit presentation files. Still, what it does do, it does well and inexpensively.

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Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

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Brian Nadel

Computerworld (US)
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