Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Here’s Why You Don’t Want Excel on Your iPad

When Excel for iPad finally arrived, my first impression was here we go, yet another 1.0 Microsoft product *insert eye roll here*. As you might expect, Excel for iPad only offers a small fraction of the functionality available in the desktop versions of Excel, but I realized it’s unfair to call it a 1.0 product. Excel for iPhone was the 1.0 product, which Microsoft used to mark their turf, much like a dog peeing on bushes. Forget about the screen size issue, Office Mobile Apps are free now for a reason. Excel for iPad is definitely a 2.0 product—highly quirky, but somewhat less frustrating to use. I think over time Excel for iPad will blossom into a useful product, but you never can tell. Remember Office Accounting, the software that was going to eat QuickBooks’ lunch? Anyone? Anyone?

Another Microsoft corporate tradition involves ignoring technologies invented by other companies for as long as possible. Although the PDF format was invented in 1991, you couldn’t directly save an Office document as a PDF file until Office 2007. Even then, early adopters had to download a software patch. But your patience has been rewarded, young grasshopper—Word 2013 offers the ability to open, edit, and save PDF files. What’s 22 years in the scheme of things?

Thus Excel for iPad arrived four years after gleeful geeks first fondled their debut iPads with admiration. Three things you need to know up front:

  • Excel requires 450 MB of hard drive space, or 3% of a 16 GB iPad.
  • The free version of the app just lets you push numbers around on screen. You can’t edit but hey, you can pinch and zoom!
  • The ability to edit documents entails an annual subscription, which for most users means $99/year.

With that said, students can pay $79 for four years of access. And to be fair, all of the subscription plans do allow you to install the iPad or desktop versions of Office on up to 5 devices.

But before you fork over any cash, check this list of possible deal breakers:

  • You can hide—but not unhide—worksheet columns, so pay attention in case you fat-finger that menu choice accidentally. If you miss your chance to undo, you’ll have to use another device or the Office Web Apps to unearth your buried column. UPDATE: At first I thought you couldn't unhide worksheet columns, but then I discovered the secret handshake. Select a one column on the left side of the hidden area, drag the little selector in the middle of the screen to the right so that two or more columns are selected, and then tap on the worksheet frame again. At this point the mythical Unhide command will finally show itself. Clear as mud, right?
  • iPads make perfect sense for reviewing content, and indeed you can view comments in spreadsheets, but not add new ones.
  • You can’t directly print a document from Excel for iPad. I say directly, because determined dead-tree folk can use workarounds like emailing documents to oneself to then print from the Mail app on your iPad. UPDATE, May 1, 2014: Well, that didn't take long! Version 1.0.1 of the Excel for iPad app adds the ability to print. Choose the second icon at the top left-hand corner of the screen to reveal a Print command from within Excel.
  • Pivot tables are view only, even in the paid version of the app.
  • Forget about form controls and macros.
  • Group and Outline doesn’t work on the iPad either— it sure would be useful to expand and collapse a spreadsheet by tapping a button on the worksheet frame.
  • If you stand on your head you might be able to save your document somewhere other than OneDrive.
  • You have to duplicate an emailed spreadsheet onto OneDrive before you can edit it. The same goes for Excel 97-2003 files that have the .XLS extension. Two copies of a document are better than one, right?
  • You can only open one workbook at a time, so plan some time if you need to copy and paste anything from one workbook to another.

If you do decide to give Excel for iPad a try:

  • Ensconce your device in a toddler-proof case in case you get the urge to sling your device in frustration.
  • Don’t make the rookie mistake of activating within the app. Go online and sign up for a 30 day free trial instead.
  • If Excel for iPad makes sense for you, you can purchase an Office 365 subscription keycard through an online retailer for 30% or more off the $99/year sticker price.
  • Preserve your sanity by catching some helpful tips at AccountingWEB.
  • (Shameless self-promotion warning) Sign up for the upcoming High Impact Excel: iPad Edition webinar [Ed. note: David is so ahead of the game we haven't announced this one yet, stay tuned for a link here]. If nothing else you’ll walk away with a free hour of CPE.

David H. Ringstrom, CPA@excelwriter on Twitter — heads up Accounting Advisors, Inc., an Atlanta-based software and database consulting firm.