How to use Google Docs on the iPad

Learn how to use the mobile version of Google Docs on the iPad.

Matt Elliott Senior Editor
Matt Elliott is a senior editor at CNET with a focus on laptops and streaming services. Matt has more than 20 years of experience testing and reviewing laptops. He has worked for CNET in New York and San Francisco and now lives in New Hampshire. When he's not writing about laptops, Matt likes to play and watch sports. He loves to play tennis and hates the number of streaming services he has to subscribe to in order to watch the various sports he wants to watch.
Expertise Laptops | Desktops | All-in-one PCs | Streaming devices | Streaming platforms
Matt Elliott
3 min read

Odds are, you didn't buy the iPad as a productivity tool. Aside from sending brief e-mails and making the occasional Facebook or Twitter contribution, you likely aren't doing much writing on the iPad. Should the need arise to put your thoughts down in writing, however, there are a number of ways to do so. You could spend $9.99 on a word-processing app such as Documents to Go or Apple's Pages, or you could skip the App Store, open the Safari browser, and use Google Docs. In this brief tutorial, I will show you how to use Google Docs on the iPad.

In the mobile version of Google Docs, simplicity takes precedence. Screenshot by Matt Elliott

First, open Safari, type in docs.google.com, and sign in. You'll see in the address bar that a "/m" gets added to the URL, which means you are viewing a stripped-down mobile version of the page with large, legible font. From the Google Docs home page, you'll see your list of documents, along with a button along the right side to create a new doc. Compared with the Web version, your options are limited to two types: Document or Spreadsheet.

The mobile version of Google Docs lets you create either Documents or Spreadsheets. Screenshot by Matt Elliott

To view a previously created doc, simply tap on the name of it. Then you will need to tap the Edit button on the right to edit it. In edit mode in the mobile view, you cannot access any formatting options, nor can you rename the title of the document or delete a document.

Formatting options are available in the mobile version of Google Docs, but writing is a fairly easy task when the iPad is in landscape mode. Screenshot by Matt Elliott

You can switch to the desktop view by tapping the button next to the edit button on the right, or by tapping on a link at the bottom of the page. Unfortunately, there isn't a clear way to toggle back to the mobile view from the desktop view. The best way I found was to save my work (if Google hadn't already done so in one of its frequent autosaves) and then hit the back button in Safari to return to the previous page. It's doubtful you'll spend much time using the desktop version. Although you can access the formatting options, there is no way to highlight portions of the text. Using the Edit menu option, you can Select All, which allows you to apply a formatting change to the entire document. It's all or nothing with formatting with Google Docs on the iPad.

Navigating a spreadsheet probably wasn't the first thing Steve Jobs had in mind for the iPad, and for good reason. Using Google Docs to create and edit a spreadsheet was an exercise in frustration. The mobile view is entirely worthless, and the desktop view isn't much better. In the mobile view, you must enter your values in each cell, tap the Submit button, and then reload the page to see the changes. And each time the keyboard comes up on the screen, it brings up letters, forcing you to tap again to access numbers. It'd be better if the iPad knew I was in a spreadsheet and using many more numbers than letters. To view the desktop version, click the spreadsheet view link at the top of the sheet. It provides a fairly smooth viewing experience, but making edits is nearly impossible. I found it difficult to call up the keyboard consistently, although through all my frantic tapping in an effort to call up the keyboard, I discovered that double tapping lets you zoom in slightly and back out again.

A lot of tapping is required to enter data in a Google Docs spreadsheet on the iPad. Screenshot by Matt Elliott

Google Docs provides a way to print documents to HP's line of its Internet-connected ePrint printers or an old printer on your network. I explain how to print to an old printer in a separate tutorial.

In the end, Google Docs provides a convenient method for creating word documents that require no formatting. You might also try to use Google Docs to view small, simple spreadsheets, but I would caution you against attempting to make many edits.