Touch-optimized spreadsheet program still has a long way to go
With Microsoft's push to prioritize cross-platform services as well as be a mobile-first company, it's become very important to provide programs on iOS and Android, instead of trying to convince users to adopt software on Windows and Windows Phone.
As part of this strategy the company has delivered Office apps (Word, Excel and PowerPoint) for iOS and an Office Mobile suite for Android phones. Now the company has released a touch-optimized preview of Word, Excel and PowerPoint for Android tablets.
Lacking in features
Given that Google's office suite has been out for some time, Microsoft is lagging behind in the touch-optimized productivity suite market, but it the company is hoping to find success from the many people who have already bought into its ecosystem.
Currently Excel for Android tablets (along with Word and PowerPoint) is only available for ARM-based Android tablets with a 7" to 10.1" screen, 1GB RAM and running KitKat (4.4.x) or Lollipop (5.0). But Microsoft is working on expanding it further, specifically to Intel-powered tablets.
In the preview version, there is no need to have an Office 365 account to download these apps; a Microsoft email address is enough to sign up to this 'Freemium' version.
Unsurprisingly, Excel for Android tablets is not as fully featured as its desktop sister version. In fact, it feels like a very cut-down version, with only the most basic features included. So what can you do? You can format text, insert tables, pictures, charts and comments; and change the way you view the spreadsheet. While the most commonly used formulas have been included, there are a few features that make using Excel easier that haven't been included. This includes the ability to search for a certain type of formula and to create a formula from a certain selection, such as the top row or left column.
There are also no page layout features, image editing options, and you can't import data from other sources or perform any automatic conditional formatting.
Excel for Android tablets also falls down on its collaboration functionality.You can email a sheet as an attachment but not enable a document to be edited by multiple users at the same time.
But, on a positive note, you can sync your OneDrive and Dropbox accounts, allowing you to open documents from and save them to the cloud (as well as your device, if you prefer). Support of other cloud services would be useful.
Familiar ribbon interface
If you're already familiar with Excel (Office 2007 and onwards) then the ribbon interface will be very recognizable and you'll be able to easily flick between menus in the slick interface without problems. The sometimes overwhelming features and menus have been condensed with only the most important ones included, which makes it a lot more simple and straightforward to use. And also a lot quicker to find what you want. For example, I often struggle to remember where freeze panes is in the desktop version but it's very obvious in the Android tablet version.
If you're a power user and you want to create complex formulas quickly then Excel for Android tablets is not the ideal way to do it; desktop is still king in that respect.
Navigation horizontally and vertically is very smooth. But one major problem is that the keyboard takes up most of the screen when entering data, making it very difficult to see all the information in the spreadsheet. That makes Excel for Android tablets much better suited to bigger screens, or portrait view if entering data. The touch control isn't precise, which makes adding and editing formulas tricky.
The jury is out
Because Excel is used for such as wide range of functions and users (from the most basic to very advanced calculations), it was always going to be more difficult to get a touch-optimized version right. Excel for Android tablets is likely to be hugely frustrating to power users because there are some common features missing. For casual users, the design of the menus means that features are so much easier to find than in the desktop version and you aren't overwhelmed by the mountain of complex options that you never use.
It's important to note that this is only a beta version and Microsoft will likely have improved usability and added options by the time of general release. But whether this is enough to poach users from Google Sheets and convince its desktop Office users remains to be seen.