Friday, January 23, 2009

MobileFiles Pro review: a Microsoft Office editor for the iPhone

When the iPhone first came out, we witnessed the lack of Microsoft Office document editors, believing that their absence slowed down the slick communicator's acceptance as a serious business tool or a “Mobile Office”, as I call it. Well, Quickoffice has just released MobileFiles Pro. It is available from the AppStore at $9.99. It's not a complete iPhone Microsoft Office suite—yet. You can view Excel, PowerPoint, and Word files, but you can edit only Excel spreadsheets so far. Still, it's better than nothing, and the software may eventually include full Microsoft Mobile Office editing capacities. Certainly for those who prefer the sleek iPhone to the generally clunky Windows Mobile devices, this app is a welcome foot in the Office door, Michael Muchmore at Pcmag reports.

The MobileFiles Pro also offers the standard viewing features that were available with the original MobileFiles app, including iWork and PDF files. You can also listen to music files, watch mp4 videos, and look at images using the app. The application even lets you use the iPhone's wireless feature to swap files with a networked computer
The home screen shows where you can obtain, store, or create files. Right now, you can do so either on the iPhone, in your Apple MobileMe account, or on a Wi-Fi-connected Mac or PC. According to Quickoffice, the publishers of MobileFiles Pro, later this year you'll be able to keep files in Google Docs and, too. On the Settings page you can do two tasks: choosing a password to protect the app and setting a maximum cache size for your working files. To create a new document, you first have to choose a folder location. Once you're in a folder, icons for creating folders and spreadsheets show up at the bottom of the screen. When you open a file, a new set of formatting icons appears.
Swapping documents and files between your desktop system and the iPhone is easy as we know from the other Finder-like apps we have used (Airsharing et al). You connect both to the same Wi-Fi network, and in the desktop's browser, navigate to the URL that MobileFiles shows on the iPhone. If you want, you can password-protect the resulting Web page, too. Note that the Wi-Fi router needs to be connected to the Internet for this to work—it's not simply a Wi-Fi connection between the iPhone, router, and PC. The Web page lets you get to your documents on the iPhone as well as upload and download them but gives you no spreadsheet or other program functionality. While this file-transfer feature isn't as neat as the one in Air Sharing (which adds drag-and-drop capability), it worked flawlessly in Michael’s testing.
The application includes an array of useful pre-built spreadsheets: a mortgage calculator, an expense planner, a student grade sheet, a personal net-worth calculator, and a break-even analyzer. You can edit these (and any Excel 2003 spreadsheet), entering your own numbers and changing formulas, and you can save new copies. You don't get the same ability that the combination of ActiveSync and Windows Mobile gives you to sync mobile and PC files. But using MobileMe to store files can achieve the same result, since you're simply storing the one file in online storage that can be accessed either from the phone or computer. And Wi-Fi transfer with MobileFiles Pro is more straightforward to set up than ActiveSync, which requires a program installation.

Editing a spreadsheet is simple. You can take advantage of the iPhone's touch screen to move the sheet, and the touch keyboard lets you make entries. Multi-touch pinching and spreading lets you zoom the view in and out. There are a couple of annoyances, though: The keyboard doesn't switch to number entry automatically, which usually makes sense for spreadsheet input, especially when the cell is in number format. (This was not the case in “Spreadsheet”, the app we had reported on last month). Also, tapping on the big "X" on the right-hand side of the text entry box doesn't clear the cell contents, as it would in any other iPhone app—possibly an early-stage oversight. The X does, however, work for clearing functions in a cell.

There are a couple of interface choices that Michael positively commented on: When you return to MobileFiles after quitting, you're taken right to the sheet and location you were last viewing—you're not forced to navigate back from a home screen. And the ever-useful Undo and Redo icons make life a lot easier for those of us who aren't infallible.

MobileFiles Pro doesn't let you create custom number formats, but you'll find every number-formatting selection Excel makes available in all its categories—currency, dates, scientific, accounting, and so forth. Toggling boldface and italics on or off is easy, as is changing the color of fonts and cell backgrounds. Adding rows and columns is equally straightforward, but you can't name a range or use cut-and-paste as you can with Microsoft Mobile Excel. You can select a range of cells, though without cut-and-paste capability, that's useful only for formatting.

The application offers the complete selection of functions that Excel lets you access from the "fx" symbol next to its cell-input box. Among the choices are financial standbys such as IRR (internal rate of return), trignonometric favorites, including arccosine, and statistical essentials such as standard deviations. But Microsoft's Excel Mobile offers all of this, along with helpful explanations of what each function does. Excel Mobile also gives you advanced features, such as the ability to refer to cells or regions on an external spreadsheet.

Excel Mobile comes out well ahead with charts and graphs, as well. MobileFiles Pro not only lacks the ability to create them, it can't even display them. Some users may consider charting and graphing capabilities to be frills, but they're a major reason that many people use a spreadsheet. The inability seriously detracts from MobileFiles' usefulness and also makes one wonder about the steep price. The company plans to add editing capabilities for the other Microsoft Office apps in 2009, which would justify the expenditure.

Even given its faults, MobileFiles Pro is a welcome step in the right direction for iPhone owners. It isn’t the first app that works with spreadsheets, but we are hoping that the iPhone Office editing capabilities will expand to the other programs of the Microsoft Office range. 

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