Clutching his trusty iPad under his arm, Nik Rawlinson breaks free from his desk in the quest to discover the best apps, hardware and tools for working on the move.
Why, in this age of broadband and Wi-Fi, do so many of us spend our days anchored to desks and swivel chairs? With a broadband connection, iPad or iPhone and a handful of well-chosen apps we could just as easily work al fresko as al desko.
Summer is fast approaching, so now is the perfect time to get yourself kitted out for a major change of lifestyle. Not only will days spent working in under the breezy shade of a nearby tree be far more pleasant than than those in the gust of an over-exuberant air con vent; they’ll likely make you more productive, not to mention inspired.
Could you imagine Wordsworth wandering ‘lonely as a cloud’ from the third floor of a rented office in Birmingham? The only crowd he’d be likely to see wasn’t so much ‘a host of dancing Daffodils’ — more likely a throng of sweaty commuters. Why should you be among them?
In this feature we’ll show you why it’s no longer necessary to spend your day at a desk if you want to get things done, why nobody ever need know you’re conducting your business from an iPad, and why open air really isn’t so different to open plan when it comes to maintaining productivity.
Mobile office apps
We all know that you need to open, create and edit Microsoft Office files to get the job done, but there’s no reason why that should restrict your choice of suite. Over the past 20 years, Word, Excel and PowerPoint have established themselves as business standards. That’s why any iOS office suite worth its salt takes those formats in its stride, with Quickoffice Pro HD leading the pack.
Quickoffice supports Microsoft’s latest formats – as well as plain text files – and can directly read from and write to a host of online services, including Google Docs, Evernote and Dropbox. You can organise your files into folders, while an app-wide search tool will hunt down documents across all of your connected services, not only those stored locally. Sadly it only works on filenames, though, and not their contents.
The interface is neat and stripped back, allowing you to focus on your work without the distraction of faux leather toolbars, and compatibility is excellent. Formatting is basic with only 12 fonts to choose from, but these include Cambria and Calibri, which are two of the default fonts in the latest desktop editions of Microsoft Office, so whatever you import or share with friends should closely resemble the originals.
It doesn’t rival Pages for pixel-precise layouts, but it does have most bases covered, with a neat dialogue for dragging paragraph blocks to the left, centre or right to set their alignment, and a more advanced equivalent in the spreadsheet module that lets you also set your data’s vertical position within cells.
When it comes to getting your files back out of Quickoffice it has a neat web server built in, which means you can download files from its internal storage using any regular Mac or Windows web browser. It’s much quicker than emailing them back to yourself or downloading through iTunes.
At just Quickoffice Pro HD is great value for money. It costs a penny more than any two iWork apps, yet bundles all three business tools – word processor, spreadsheet, presentation app – in a single suite.
Mac users will already be well versed with Pages, Numbers and Keynote, the three components that together make up iWork. Apple ported them to the iPad in January 2010, replicating many of the desktop editions’ impressive layout tools. The apps are universal binaries, so will work just as well on your iPhone as they will on an iPad, sold separately at £6.99.
Rather than ape Microsoft Office, they use their own proprietary formats, and with good reason: Pages is closer to a desktop publishing tool than a plain text editor, Numbers lets you place multiple tables on a single sheet – something Excel has never done – and Keynote boasts some pretty cinematic transitions. Replicating these precisely in Word, Excel and PowerPoint formats would be impossible.
However, you can export in each of the Microsoft standards, either when emailing your document or uploading it to a server. On the whole, the conversion is good but not flawless.
If layout and presentation are less important than price, be sure to check out the third of our recommendations: Office2 HD. Despite costing less than a single iWork app, it boasts good Word and Excel compatibility, and fair handling of PowerPoint files. The latter, unfortunately, lost their graphs, graphics and embedded tables in our import tests. Further, as the spreadsheet help files appear to be server-based rather than locally-hosted, tapping for an explanation of any particular group of functions instead throws up an advert for Byte2′s other applications. That’s not much good if you’re away from your desk and need to polish off a financial proposal. These gripes aside, Office2 HD is a great choice You can buy its constituent parts apiece.
Accessing docs everywhere
Working remote y is only practical if you can still stay in touch with family, friends and colleagues, sharing files and ideas in real time. That means having some way of efficiently sharing documents – one that’s as simple from an iPad at home as it is from your Mac or PC back at the office. Here, you’re spoiled for choice.
Dropbox handles file synchronisation between your iPad, iPhone, Mac and PC – including Linux systems. To get you started it’ll even throw in 2GB of online storage for free, which you can upgrade to 50GB or 100GB for $9.99 or $19.99 a month respectively. Once you’ve chosen which folders on your Mac or PC you want it to keep an eye on, it’ll copy theft-contents to its own server whenever it spots a change, and send those revisions to each device.
The Dropbox client is an impressive file viewer that takes Excel, Pages, PDF, Word, XML and a host of other common and more esoteric formats in its stride. You can share stored files by emailing links to your contact’s, and if you want to work on them locally there’s an Open in… menu that tracks compatible applications for each file type installed on your iPad and sends your chosen document straight to them.
Several tools use Dropbox natively. Stripped-back word processor PlainText is just one of many office tools that saves your work directly to your Dropbox account, so any documents you create on your travels will be waiting on your computer when you get back to your desk. It’s productivity and passive backup all rolled into one, so should the worst happen and your iPad is lost or stolen, your data will still be safe.
Quickoffice Pro HD and Office2 HD can also read from and write to your Dropbox account. Dropbox is far from the only choice. SugarSync (storage from free for 5GB to $14.99 per month for 100GB) also synchronises folders, and for those who would rather not rely on Photo Stream to synchronise their images, its dedicated photo tools make it easy to get images onto and off your iPad. If you need a quick and easy means of transferring assets for use in a Keynote presentation, this is much simper than first dragging them into iPhoto or Aperture or sending them by email.
Box (storage from free for 5GB to $15 per month for 1TB) offers not only file synchronisation but also direct integration with Google Docs, version control so you can retrieve older versions of current files, and extensive text search options, depending on the level of service for which you signed up. Its opening offering is more generous than Dropbox, with 5GB of free space for all users, but keep in mind that if you’re signed up to the free account no single file can be larger than 25MB. Dropbox, in comparison, will accept files of any size when dispatched through its desktop application, and 300MB when uploaded through its website.
Apple’s own iCloud service integrates smoothly with Quickoffice, Office2 HD and iA Writer , but the best experience is with Numbers, Keynote and Pages, which use it to synchronise your documents between all of the iPads, iPhones and iPod touches logged in under the same Apple ID. You’ll see it working, as edited files are momentarily overlaid by an arrow in one corner as it performs the upload; if yours aren’t, check that iCloud is switched on in the various apps’ entries in the iPad Settings app.
However, iCloud isn’t perfect for working cross-platform as its support under both OS X and Windows is sketchy, currently relying on you downloading your documents through the browser in PDF, Microsoft or native formats.
For Mac users this will change with the introduction later this year of Mountain Lion, the next iteration of the operating system, which will incorporate a feature called Documents in the Cloud.
It’s never been easier to stay in touch with your, and it needn’t cost a small fortune, either.
Skype has long been the world’s most popular online phone service. It’s still often the cheapest way to make international calls as it routes your connection over the internet so that it only pops up on the remote phone network close enough to its destination to charge you local rates.
Now available on both the iPhone and iPad it’s also the best choice for video calls as it does what FaceTime can’t: it lets you also talk to non-iOS, non-Mac users. The iPhone edition even has built-in shake reduction – sadly only on the rear camera – to smooth out the video stream if you’re talking while walking.
You’ll need to charge your account with some cash by logging on at skype.com before you can make calls to landline or mobile numbers, but if you want to talk to another Skype user, app-to-app, it’s free. Skype monitors the online status of any other users on your contact list so you’ll know in an instant if they’re free to talk. It packs a simple online messaging client, too, through which you can conduct a real-time text chat remotely.
It goes without saying that you’ll need to keep in touch with your email. If your corporate IT department follows the crowd, it’s likely they’ll be running an Exchange server. This boasts excellent iOS compatibility, and the iPad and iPhone Settings app is pre-configured to connect to Exchange, so you only need enter your email address, domain, username and password – each of which you’ll be able to get from your system administrator. Once logged in, your iOS device will synchronise not only your email, but also your address book and calendar.
If your company is starting from scratch here then point it in the direction of Office365. This hosted suite offers an Exchange server managed by Microsoft’s own data centres, plus web-based versions of Word, Excel, OneNote and PowerPoint. Prices start from £6.50 per user, per month, but if you only want access to Exchange and an online company document store then you can trim this to a bargain £2.60.
If you don’t already have a business-wide system in place, then Google Apps (google.com/a) offers collaborative email, calendar tracking, document sharing and more, starting at $5 per user per month. If you have fewer than 10 users and don’t need BlackBerry or Outlook compatibility, then check out the Google Apps plan linked through google.com/apps/ intl/en/group, which undercuts even Microsoft’s £2.60 offering. It’s free!
Anyone working on their own can rely on Apple’s own iCloud offering (icloud.com), which offers rock-solid email hosting, complete with webmail access, and a calendar and address book that synchronise on iOS, OS X and Windows, as well as shared reminders, which we’ll show you to set up later in the issue.
Working out in the field – in its most literal sense still requires that you can get online whenever you need. iPhone and iPad 3G users with good mobile coverage clearly have no problem here, but what if you’re out of reach, or overseas? And no 3G?
If your iPad is Wi-Fi-only and you need to work on the go, then check out the iPhone 4 and 4S Personal Hotspot feature, which lets you share your 3G connection with your iPad as though it was directly connected. This will eat into your iPhone contract’s monthly data bundle, but it could still work out cheaper than buying a 3G-enabled iPad.
Most providers will apply a surcharge if you exceed your monthly bandwidth, so it pays to Keep an eye on your consumption. Tap Settings > General > Usage > Mobile Usage to see how much data you’ve sent across the network so far and get into the habit of tapping Reset Statistics at the start of each billing cycle. If that’s too much bother, then download My Data Use and enter your billing date and monthly limit. It’ll warn you when you’ve hit it.
On most networks Personal Hotspot is only available you have a monthly contract, so it’s out of reach for one signed up to Pay as You Go – or indeed anyone with an earlier iPhone.
If that sounds like you, then the simplest solution is to park yourself in reach of a public hotspot and switch to Wi-Fi. Look for coffee shops that offer internet access as an inducement to pop in and buy a drink. Often this will be free, but sometimes it’s provided by a large national hotspot brand.
If you’re planning a business trip, it also makes sense to check out what facilities will be available at your chosen hotel. Many offer Wi-Fi in public areas and optional Ethernet connections in each room. Clearly no iOS device has a wired network port, but packing an AirPort Express, which isn’t much larger than a full deck of cards and shouldn’t raise any eyebrows as it passes through an airport x-ray machine, lets you share physical connections with wired devices. That means that not only can you carry on working, but you can also stream movies, usually for less than it would cost to watch a pay-movie on your in-room TV.
If you’ll be relying on an AirPort connection on your travels, be sure to install AirPort Utility before you leave to help set up your network and diagnose any potential problems while away from home.
Taking your PC with you
There are over 575,000 apps in the App Store. You’d think that they’d cover every conceivable base between them, but the truth is there are gaps here, there and everywhere. Quite apart from the missing headline products, like Microsoft Access, and bespoke freeware and shareware downloads that you’ve done to rely on. Your only choice where these apps are concerned is to access your PC from your iOS device.
LogMeln Ignition lets you control a remote Mac or PC courtesy of a free app installed on the client machine. It presents a copy of the remote desktop on your iPad or iPhone, which despite the device’s lower physical resolution remains surprisingly useable on the portable device. It can wake a sleeping computer, so you don’t need to keep your desktop machine active to use it, and can control an unlimited number of machines, so you can access your home computer over your domestic broadband just as easily as your office machine on a leased line.
It is pricey, so if you don’t need printing to AirPrint-compatible printers or HD video support, consider the free LogMeln app, which still offers Ignition’s core features, but without the hefty charge.
Splashtop Remote Desktop for iPad performs a similar function, locking on to a free client app – Splashtop Streamer – running on your Mac or PC across the internet or a local network connection. In our tests we found it fast and responsive, with plenty of useful gestures through with you can implement mouse clicks, right clicks, scrolls and so on. Note, though, that it does step down the resolution on your regular computer to 1024 x 768 so you don’t have to keep repositioning the picture to see what you’re doing.
If you’d rather avoid scaling your screen in this way, check out a regular VNC client, such as Mocha VNC Lite, which connects to your Mac or PC using standard protocols built in to the operating system. The free version is easy to set up and although it offers only minimal controls it still lets you run applications that would otherwise be out of reach. A little bit of lateral thinking will also let you share remote files by email or through a cloud service like Dropbox so that they pop up in your synchronised folders on your iPad client app.
If all you need is access to traditional, full-blown Microsoft Office – as opposed to the file compatibility provided by Quickoffice Pro HD and its rivals – then the new CloudOn app gives you just that capability. The applications themselves run on the CloudOn servers, and although they look a little harsh when compared to the smooth characters and buttons on a native iOS app, they can’t be beaten for rock-solid compatibility.
It relies on you having a Dropbox account for file storage, but this is all the better in our opinion as it means your synchronised documents will immediately appear on your regular computer for you to carry on working when you get back to the office.
Although it’s not available on the UK app store, US iPad owners should also check out OnLive Desktop, which bundles the Microsoft Office applications with 2GB of free storage at files.online.com.