Hands-on with Office for Android tablets: polished and ready for mobile productivity

word for android
Credit: Derek Walter

Office for Android is a key piece of Microsoft’s conquer-the-cloud strategy. The promise is you can work on any device, yes even on Android, with the productivity suite you know and (maybe) love.

Preview versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint have been in the Play Store since November, and we were impressed in our initial hands-on.

I got a chance to tinker with the final builds that are going live Thursday. While there were no sweeping changes, the apps are maturing into a compelling productivity suite that could challenge the dominance of Google's productivity apps (Docs, Sheets, and Slides) on Android.

Get started with a Microsoft account

To use and edit each of these Office files you’ll need a (free) Microsoft account. This connects you to OneDrive, Microsoft’s cloud syncing service. This way if you start work on a file on your PC, you can tinker away with it from your Android tablet.

office android open file

You can open files from a Microsoft account, Office 365, or Dropbox.

The full experience of course is for those with an Office 365 subscription. Microsoft has a rather convoluted mix of which features work with free and paid accounts: check out our breakdown to decide if an Office 365 subscription is what you need.

Along with OneDrive, you can also connect and open files from Dropbox, another piece of fruit from the two companies’ recent partnership.

Word will make you feel right at home

What many will appreciate about Word is how familiar it looks to Windows users on arch-rival Google’s mobile platform. Microsoft has done an excellent job at building a familiar interface across its product line, really going all-in with its “cloud first, mobile first” strategy.

Of course that means love it or hate it, you get the ribbon. But you can auto-hide it with one touch if you’d rather it not clutter up your view.

word android

The cut, copy, and paste options pop right up when you highlight a portion of text in Word.

Just touch anywhere on the file to edit, or tap and hold to get the smart popup bar for copy-and-paste. I most appreciate the ability to pinch and zoom on the page to zoom in for a closer look at the text. There’s also a useful button to hide the keyboard so it doesn’t launch if you’re just checking out a file in the reading mode.

My favorite find was the pleasant “Welcome back!” greeting that offers to take you to where you left off when re-opening a document. I tried this on a file and was ushered right back to page 6 where I made my last edit.

word android table

Use your fingers to add and manipulate images, tables, and other objects.

The only hangup I found was in how Word saves files to OneDrive. For example, with Google Docs there is no save button - everything saves as you go, almost instantaneously. You can even type on a tablet and watch the words show up in real time on another device.

Office promises the same, but doesn’t quite deliver. Changes made in Word Online or the desktop take a little while to show up in the tablet version. Also, being asked to save a file when closing seems like an unnecessary step, and out of touch with the "cloud-first" world. Microsoft should bring the instantaneous saving the Internet can deliver.

You can print from Word, along with the other Office apps. When I tried this it forced me to connect with Google Cloud Print, which must be connected to your tablet for printing. The perpetually-in-beta service is rather clunky, though of course this jagged experience isn’t Microsoft’s fault.

Excel offers solid number crunching tools

Pulling up a spreadsheet from your tablet can be helpful in a lot of situations, from business meetings to finding that last payment detail.

Doing extensive spreadsheet work on a tablet seems rather painful, but Microsoft hit the right balance here between usability and functionality. For example, just as with the preview version, you can edit pivot tables, though not create one from scratch. You can add in formulas, and the space for editing this is much larger and finger-friendly than on the desktop.

excel android formulas

Perform some formula magic inside your Excel spreadsheet.

If you want to move around columns, you can tap and hold them to drag them to a new home. You can take a set of data and create a chart, choosing from multiple types of data representations.

excel android sheets

Move and edit columns in Excel for Android.

Excel is very fluid and stable, which should please both Excel diehards and those who just want to make sure all their files are synced up while on the go.

PowerPoint is perfect for tablet-based presentations

If there’s an app that’s best-in-class among the three, it’s PowerPoint. It completely blows away Google Slides, which is nowhere near parity in terms of templates or slideshow design features.

powerpoint android notes

Add notes or comments to your PowerPoint slides.

PowerPoint on a tablet also makes a lot of sense, as it frees you from being locked to a computer when using this app for a presentation. You can also ink up your screen with your finger or stylus while presenting, which is great for keeping audiences glued in to what you’re saying.

powerpoint android mark

Mark up your PowerPoint presentations to keep your audience paying attention.

While you can tweak the transition and effect options of your slides, unfortunately you can’t change up the existing theme. You can move around the order of the slides by dragging and dropping them to a new location. There are several other finger-friendly options built in, making this a real standout application.

The future is Office everywhere

These new editions of Office are essential if you’re an Office 365 subscriber, but others will be happy with what Microsoft has cooked up here also. While the company is playing catchup to Google in the Android tablet space, it’s stepped on the pedal and isn’t far behind. It just needs to keep cranking out the features and honing in on making its cloud performance rapid and reliable.

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