Microsoft's new Office apps for Android tablets are the best apps of their kind on the platform. Unfortunately, not many people will actually get to use them. That's because the applications — which are identical to the touch-friendly versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint launched on iPad last year — simply aren't compatible with many new Android tablets, and they don't work on smartphones at all. Plus, you'll need a subscription to Office 365 to unlock some editing features within the apps. So while they may be the best office apps on Android, the barrier to entry is high.
Still, business users with the right hardware should take a look at all three apps, which are technically separate but are being treated as one unit for the purposes of this review. At the very least, these new apps are a big leap forward over the old Office Mobile app, which is still the only version of Office available on Android smartphones.
What's Office Mobile?
First, I want to clarify the difference between the new Office apps for Android tablets and the old Office Mobile app, which has been around for years on Android. The old app, which lets you view and make simple edits to documents, spreadsheets and presentations, is extremely limited compared with the new releases.
So while Office Mobile lets you create new documents, the formatting options are limited to changing the color and size of text. The spreadsheet editor is similarly limited; you can edit the content of individual cells and input simple equations, but that's about it. Meanwhile, you can't create new presentations in Office Mobile, but you can edit text in existing slideshows.
In comparison, the new Office apps for Android tablets are like mobile versions of Microsoft's desktop Office suite. In terms of features and functionality, there's no comparison.
Now, let's talk about what you'll need to run the new Office apps. As previously mentioned, not all Android users will be able to use them. In fact, many Android tablets are simply incompatible. Here's a quick rundown of everything you'll need to run the new Office for Android tablet apps.
- Android tablet (7 inches and up): The apps only run on Android devices with screens measuring 7 inches or larger, so don't try to run them on your 6-inch phablet. Also note that only users who subscribe to Microsoft's Office 365 program can run the apps on tablets with screens larger than 10.1 inches; apparently that's considered a premium feature.
- ARM processor: You'll also have to make sure your tablet runs on an ARM processor. If you're not sure, check to see if the name of the processor on your tablet starts with "Intel." If it does, then you're out of luck. If not, then your tablet can probably run the new Office apps. If you think this all sounds a bit technical, you're right. I was actually pretty puzzled when I found I was unable to install the new Word app on my 2015 Dell Venue 8 tablet, and the app installation page provided no clues as to why. After conducting a bit of research, I discovered that it's because that tablet runs on an Intel Atom processor. It's a puzzling limitation that will leave many Android tablet owners out in the cold. In fact, many of the most popular tablets, including Samsung's 2014 Galaxy tablets, can't run the apps because they're powered by Intel chips.
- 1GB of RAM: The only other hardware requirement is that your tablet must have at least 1GB of RAM; most newer devices do.
- Android 4.4 KitKat or 5.0 Lollipop: But it's the software requirement that's the real killer. The apps are intended to be used only on tablets running Android 4.4 KitKat. It won't run at all on earlier versions. That's a big deal, since nearly half of all Android devices are still running the previous Android release, Jelly Bean. Meanwhile, the apps do technically work on newer devices that run Android 5.0 Lollipop, though it's only available on a few devices, such as Google's Nexus 9. However, users will get a message that says the apps "may not function as expected" on those devices, since Microsoft doesn't officially support Lollipop just yet. The company plans to remedy that in the next update, though. For what it's worth, all three apps seemed to run just fine on my Nexus 9.
- Microsoft account: The last requirement is that you have a Microsoft account, since you have to log in to use the apps. Signing up is free and easy, though, and ensures that all your documents are backed up via Microsoft's OneDrive cloud storage platform.
- Office 365 subscription: Most of the features in these apps come free, but subscribing to Microsoft's paid Office 365 service gets you a few extra options, detailed later in this review.
Layout and design
If you've used one of the two most recent Office releases — Office 2010 or Office 2013 — then the new Android tablet apps will seem pretty familiar. The layout is consistent throughout all three apps. When you first launch them, you'll see a sidebar with recent documents on the left and a gallery of templates for new documents on the right. The main document view for each app is clean and uncluttered, as expected. Overall, it's easily the most attractive office suite on the Android platform.
Word, Excel and PowerPoint each features the familiar options "ribbon" at the top of the interface, which gives you quick access to commonly used options. Microsoft wisely stripped out many extraneous options from all three apps, leaving big, touch-friendly buttons for the must-have features.
Speaking of touch, handy gestures let you navigate around the apps more easily on a tablet. Pinch-to-zoom is quick and fluid, and I also liked panning around the screen with my fingers. Meanwhile, tapping and dragging to highlight text felt precise and reliable.
A subscription to Office 365 unlocks a few perks, but the free version of these mobile Office apps come with enough features to satisfy most users. In Word, you can easily format text, select paragraph styles, add headers and footers, and edit the overall page layout using the options ribbon.
Likewise, Excel lets you edit the layout and formatting of your spreadsheet, insert charts and pictures and select from a huge selection of financial formulas. There are also tons of premade templates to choose from, including spreadsheets for your personal budget, invoices, travel expenses, online sales tracker and product inventory.
PowerPoint is simple, but surprisingly powerful for a mobile presentation app. You can select from about 20 attractive templates, write and format text, and even add animated transitions between slides. There are also some editing tools, like the ability to add comments in the margins of each slide.
Some features are shared between all three apps, like the ability to place photos, tables and other visual elements. Once an image has been inserted, it's easy to move and resize it using touch.
I was also annoyed to discover that you must close the current document before opening another. That means you can forget about editing two files at once.
Buyers who subscribe to Microsoft's premium Office 365 service get extra features that could come in handy for business users.
In Word, you gain editing tools like the ability to track and review changes to a document. You can also insert columns into page layouts, customize headers and footers for different pages, change the page orientation to landscape mode and more.
PowerPoint also gains a few editing tools, like a pen tool for inking annotations. There aren't any unlockable features for Excel, though.
Storage and backup
As previously mentioned in this review, when you sign into your Microsoft account to start using any of the new office apps, they're automatically linked to your OneDrive account. If you've never used OneDrive before, it's similar to other cloud services such as Dropbox, Box and iCloud Drive. In short, it lets you save your files and documents to the cloud, so they're backed up and accessible from anywhere.
One perk of using OneDrive is that the platform is built right into newer versions of Windows. If you open any File Explorer window inside of Windows 8, you'll notice a OneDrive folder in the left column. Inside, you'll find all the documents you've saved to OneDrive on other devices, including Android tablets. In other words, OneDrive lets you keep your files synced across all your devices, without having to install extra software on your office PC.
If you just prefer Dropbox, you can also link that platform to your Office for Android apps to keep your files backed up.
Word, Excel and PowerPoint for Android tablets are excellent apps, but not many people will use them. Your tablet must be the right size, have the right hardware and run the right software. The simple fact is that not many people actually own a compatible device. And with so many great Windows tablets on the market, it's questionable whether or not an Android tablet is a smart investment for work at this point.
If you already own a compatible tablet, though, you can't go wrong with these free apps. They include almost all the best features of the desktop Office apps, but with a new touch-friendly interface. Plus, they sync with Windows PCs via OneDrive. They're also the best-looking office apps on the platform, if you value aesthetics.
For everyone else, there are still many good options. WPS is a full-featured office suite for documents, spreadsheets and presentations. Google's own Docs, Sheets and Slides apps are pretty good options as well.