Editor's note, May 12, 2014: This post was updated to include details about Google's new Drive apps for Android and iOS.
Now that Microsoft Office is available on the iPad, we all have yet another option to write, create spreadsheets, and build presentations on the go. We're taking this opportunity to take a look at the most popular productivity suite offerings to see how they compare.
This guide takes you through the big three productivity suite options: Microsoft Office, Apple iWork, and Google Docs. I also highlight two free offerings, Apache's OpenOffice and LibreOffice.
Each suites outlined in this post have three core programs. Those are a word processor for writing and editing text documents, a spreadsheet tool for organizing and analyzing data, and a presentation builder for creating slide shows. I won't dive too deep into how each program works, but instead point out the important features you should know about from each productivity suite. I'll also give you guidance on which service is right for your needs and your wallet.
OpenOffice or LibreOffice
Windows and Mac
Windows, Mac, and Linux
iOS, Android, Windows Phone
Android and iOS
Starts at $100 for subscription service
Microsoft's productivity software, Office, has been the gold standard for almost 26 years. Chances are you've encountered at least one of the Office applications, whether that's Word, Excel, or PowerPoint. Those are the big three applications, but Office also encompasses the desktop email software Outlook, note-taking app OneNote, and HTML editor SharePoint Designer. Even Microsoft's cloud storage service OneDrive is now getting looped into the Office family.
Office has stayed popular for so long because each application has more features than most of us will even use, from extensive templates in Microsoft Word, robust calculations and programming in Excel, and animated transitions and multimedia options in PowerPoint. There are also plenty of built-in tools to make collaborating easy, such as tracking changes and leaving comments.
There are two ways to purchase Office. You can buy the desktop suite, which starts at $140 for the student edition and can be downloaded on only one machine. However, Microsoft has been heavily pushing its Office 365 service for the last few years. Office 365 is a yearly subscription service that starts at $100 for individuals (business plans start at $150 and there's a student plan for $80). You can download one or all of the Office apps on up to five machines and share your work in real time with other people.
Office 365 is also the only way to edit documents on your tablet or phone, as you need a subscription to use the Android, iPhone, and new iPad app. You can, however, use Office on a Windows Phone, without an Office 365 subscription.
Best for: Office users who want to access their files across their devices, and anyone who wants to save money up front by buying into a subscription service.
iWork is Apple's proprietary productivity suite. Though it doesn't have the abundance of programs that Office does, iWork has everything you need to write a report, create a spreadsheet, or craft a presentation.
Pages is your word processor, and it sports common features including document templates, text formatting, and charts. It also has an unique page layout mode, where you can completely control the layout of everything on your page and drag to move items around.
Numbers handles spreadsheets, and can do most of the same calculations and data analysis as Excel. Thanks to an update in the fall of 2013, you now get more control over fonts and design effects in your spreadsheets.
Lastly, Keynote is the presentation builder, and features colorful and design-rich themes, and realistic physics-based animated transitions between slides. All three apps have full file compatibility, meaning you can open and save docs in Microsoft Office or Apple's proprietary formats.
In terms of what they can do, Office and iWork are very similar. However, iWork has a simple, clean design that makes it easy for anyone to pick up and use without any training. Each iWork app also has more templates than Office, which means you have more design themes to choose from when building a slideshow or creating a brochure.
The biggest difference between the two suites is that you can only download the iWork desktop apps on an Apple device. While you can use Office on a Mac, you cannot use iWork on a Windows machine. You can, however, use iWork online via iCloud on any device, you just need to have an iCloud account.
One place that iWork really has Office beat is price. iWork is completely free, but only with the purchase of a new Mac computer. If you already own a Mac, iPad, or iPhone, you can still purchase the individual apps. The desktop apps for Pages, Numbers, and Keynote cost $20 each. The apps for iOS cost $10 each.
Best for: Anyone who wants to stay in the Apple ecosystem, and doesn't want to pay for software.
Google's word processor, spreadsheet app, and presentation builder, packaged together as Drive, have gained popularity in recent years, mostly because they're free, and you get access to them as soon as you sign up for a Gmail account.
On the face, the apps look pretty basic, with few features and a sparse design. But, Google has steadily been adding more and more features so that Drive is almost as useful as Office or iWork. One of our favorite features is that everything you create or edit is automatically saved as you make changes. That cuts down on the risk that you'll lose everything if your connection cuts out or you close the document accidentally.
Unlike with Office or iWork, you don't need to open an individual app to start a new text document or create a spreadsheet -- all of the Google Drive apps live together in the same interface online. That said, each app has its own name.
Docs is your typical word processor, with plenty of features to add tables, charts, and images to your text. Sheets is similar to Excel, where you can build out a spreadsheet, format the cells how you like, create graphs, and perform equations. Lastly, Slides let you create simple slideshows with a few basic themes and animated transitions.
Drive also has a few other tools up its sleeves, including a form tool, which lets you create online surveys and capture the results in a spreadsheet. There's also a large library of apps that you can connect to Drive, so you can do things like sign documents, create PDFs, edit photos, fax documents, and write code.
This suite's biggest strength is that anything you create is extremely easy to share with others, just by using the share button that's always at the top left corner of every open file. You can also edit together in real time, leave comments, and see where your collaborator's cursor is at all times.
Each app and all of the files you create live on the Drive Web site. That's different than the Office and iWork desktop apps, which live on your machine. That means you'll need to be online to create new documents. However, there is an offline mode, where you can edit existing files and move items around and your changes will sync when you're back online, but you need to install the Drive Web app for Google Chrome or have a Chromebook to use it.
Offline mode is also available in the new Google Drive apps for iOS and Android. There is one single Google Drive app, where you can access and organize your files, but you'll need to use the standalone Docs, Sheets, and the forthcoming Slides apps to edit existing files and create new ones.
Drive is complete free to use, but you'll need a Google account to access the tools.
Best for: Those who need to collaborate online, but doesn't need to create complex documents, spreadsheets or presentations.
Apache OpenOffice, and LibreOffice
LibreOffice was developed it based on OpenOffice, so both programs contain individual apps with the same names. Writer is the word processor, Calc is the spreadsheet tool, and Impress is the slideshow software. For most of your writing, editing, spreadsheet, and presentations needs, either suite will suffice.
However, you miss out on some of the more refined features of Office and iWork when using OpenOffice or LibreOffice. These features are noticeably missed in the presentation apps, where with the free software you only get a few bare-bones themes, layouts, and transitions, whereas PowerPoint and Keynote have many choices. Another small, but noticeable difference is that Office has customizable toolbars that adjust to your most frequently-used options. Neither OpenOffice, nor LibreOffice have that feature.
Best for: Anyone on a budget, but who still wants a desktop productivity suite. These are also good choices if you want to support open-source software.