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First Impressions of Excel for iPad

Apr 18th 2014
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Four years after the first iPad spreadsheet, users finally have a Microsoft-sanctioned solution. When I first installed Excel on my iPad, I immediately focused on its limitations, but upon reflection I see that Excel for iPad has certain strengths as well. To be sure, tablet computers have far to go before any heavy Excel user would be highly effective with this version. And out of the gate there are some key limitations to keep in mind:

The free version of the Excel for iPad app limits you to viewing documents onscreen. Any true functionality requires an Office 365 subscription, which for most users will run $99/year. Resist the urge to activate Excel for iPad within the app—sign up for the free 30 day trial online instead. Students can pay $79 for 4 years, or savvy searchers can purchase discounted Office 365 subscription keycards online through an online reseller.

When the app was first launched, you couldn't print directly from Excel for iPad. However, there were some relatively easy workarounds, which you can still use:

  • Email the document to yourself, and then print it from iPad’s Mail App.
  • Print it via the free Office web apps, assuming that you’re willing to provide or spoof your birthdate, gender, and zip code to establish a Microsoft account.
  • Print via Office 365, which you gain access to when you activate Excel for iPad.

Recently, however, Microsoft issued version 1.0.1 of Excel for iPad, which added the ability to print directly from within Excel. Choose the second icon in the top left-hand corner of the screen to view a Print command.

However, a few drawbacks still exsist:

  • As shown in Figure 1, below, pivot tables are view only, even in the paid version.
  • You can’t run macros in any version of Excel for iPad.
  • Disappointingly, you can’t use Form Controls to create touch-enabled input forms, but you can interact with Data Validation lists created in the desktop or online versions of Excel.
  • Spreadsheets saved in the Excel 97-2003 format with an .XLS extension must be saved in the new XLSX format, which can be problematic if you need to return the workbook to someone using Excel 2003 or earlier.
  • You can’t split a worksheet a worksheet or create multiple windows.
  • The Slicers feature from Excel 2010 and later, as well as Excel 2013’s Timeline feature are not available.
  • External data links aren’t available, which precludes using Excel for iPad to view any sort of real-time dashboard spreadsheets.

Figure 1: Pivot tables are view only in Excel for iPad.

I did notice a few other quirks:

  • When you choose a menu command, as the Filter command shown in Figure 1, it’s not readily apparent that more choices are available. Be sure to scroll any onscreen menus so that you don’t miss a feature or functionality.
  • Perhaps I’m missing something, but it appears that if you hide a column in Excel for iPad, there’s no way to unhide that column again on the iPad. UPDATE: I really struggled to determine how to unhide columns because I was trying to select two or more columns via the worksheet frame. The proper approach is to select one column via the worksheet frame, and then drag the selector in the middle of the screen to the left or right. Then tap the worksheet frame again, and an Unhide command will appear. Use this same approach when you wish to clear multiple rows or columns. Granted you can use an online or offline version of Excel to unhide the columns, but tread carefully, as the Hide command is easy to hit by accident, as shown in Figure 3.
  • The Find feature shown in Figure 4 can’t locate text in hidden columns, but the Find and Replace command available under the gear icon did locate the text I was seeking. Of course this didn’t help me unhide the column.

Figure 2: You have to scroll some Excel for iPad menus to see all available choices.

Figure 3: You can hide—but not unhide—columns in Excel for iPad.

Figure 4: Find and Replace can locate items in hidden columns whereas Find cannot.

  • Working with worksheet cells is a bit tricky at first. A single long press reveals a menu for working with cells, while a double-tap a cell reveal the formula bar. I found Excel for iPad to sometimes be finicky about executing my touch commands.
  • Tapping an Excel attachment within an email launches the spreadsheet in a viewer application. To open emailed spreadsheets in Excel, press and hold the attachment icon until a menu appears from which you can choose Open in Excel.

Now that you know what you can’t do with Excel for iPad, let’s look at what you can do:

  • Change font names and sizes.
  • Apply bold, italics, underlines.
  • Apply vertical or horizontal borders, but not diagonal.
  • Change colors for cells or fonts, but don’t try using getting fancy by entering RGB codes.
  • Align text and merge cells.
  • Apply a wide variety of number formats, although you can’t enter custom format codes.
  • Wrap text (by way of the cell format menu).
  • Insert and delete rows and cells.
  • Sort and filter Excel 2003-style, which means based on cell contents and not on color.
  • Use Excel’s Table feature—a hidden gem that was a great call to be included on the iPad.
  • Create charts either manually or via the Recommended Charts feature introduced in Excel 2013.
  • Insert pictures, shapes, and text boxes.
  • Use just about every worksheet function available in the desktop versions of Excel.
  • Navigate through comments in the same fashion as via the Review tab in the desktop versions of Excel, but note that you can’t add or edit comments.
  • Hide/unhide/duplicate/delete/rename worksheets.
  • Show or hide the formula bar, sheet tabs, worksheet frame, and gridlines.
  • Freeze panes.
  • Search and replace.
  • A limited number of keyboard shortcuts are available if you use an external keyboard with your iPad.
  • As shown in Figure 5 you can email spreadsheets to others from Excel for iPad.

Figure 5: Excel for iPad makes it easy to share workbooks with others.

It seems like new updates appear almost daily for apps on my iPad, but I’ll definitely be on the lookout for updates to Excel for iPad. The early iterations of Microsoft products tend to have rough edges that get smoothed out with time.

About the author:
David H. Ringstrom, CPA, heads up Accounting Advisors, Inc., an Atlanta-based software and database consulting firm providing training and consulting services nationwide. Contact David at[email protected] or follow him on Twitter. David speaks at conferences about Microsoft Excel, teaches webcasts for CPE Link, and writes freelance articles on Excel for AccountingWEB, Going Concern,


Replies (6)

Comments for this post are now closed.

By KeyCuts
Jun 25th 2015 20:11 EDT

It's strange that you can hide but not unhide columns/rows, I guess the hiding is more "permanent" on the iPad.

Microsoft may have missed the boat on OneDrive up against Google Drive and Dropbox, but if we ever have a native Excel file that needs some basic editing, we will definitely use Excel on the iPad despite the limited functionality. The jury is still out on whether the Office 365 subscription is worth it.

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Replying to Christopher Wagner:
By David Ringstrom
Jun 25th 2015 20:11 EDT

JH cleared up the mystery in a comment above: you have to select columns on both sides of the hidden column, and then at that point an unhide command appears. I had tried everything *except* that. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on my article!

One aspect of the Office 365 subscription that I haven't tested yet is a run-time version of Excel that you can use on *any* computer, without first installing the actual software. That just might be a compelling reason for those that use Excel on site in locations that either don't have Excel or are still on an antique version.

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Jun 25th 2015 20:11 EDT

You can unhide a column by selecting the column beside the hidden column, drag the selection to select the 2 columns encompassing the hidden column and the menu will show an 'Unhide' option. That's how you unhide the hidden column.

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Replying to WillKeller:
By David Ringstrom
Jun 25th 2015 20:11 EDT

Nice! I tried *everything* but that. Thank you...I figured I was missing something but just couldn't get there. Thanks again.

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By Dillon
Jun 25th 2015 20:11 EDT

Nice review.
The app is fine but as you say, for heavy users computer remains the best tool. In fact, for all kind of excel users computer remains the best. That’s why after a month I resign my 365subscription to return to my laptop for creating and editing my spreadsheets, and even remove the free app as soon as I already have a viewer in my productivity app (Beesy: ).
It’s the same for Word for ipad: computer is always better. However I found the word app better than the excel one…

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Replying to skinnyvinny:
By David Ringstrom
Jun 25th 2015 20:11 EDT

Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I think Excel for iPad has a place, but mostly for users that are reviewing documents, as opposed to creating.

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