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Edit Word and Excel files on your iPad for free

Google Docs and Google's Cloud Connect toolbar for Microsoft Office combine to let you do simple editing of Word and Excel files on an iPad without having to pay for a separate app.

You have one more great reason to chuck your laptop in favor of an iPad when embarking on your next road trip. With only a few extra clicks you can edit Word and Excel files in the Safari browser on your iPad. The trick is to convert the files to the native Google Docs formats to make them available for editing on the iPad.

The easiest way to ensure the current version of your Word and Excel files are editable on your iPad is to use the free Google Cloud Connect toolbar for Microsoft Office, which I described in a post from last April.

Cloud Connect automatically syncs Word and Excel files with your Google Docs account, but when you open the files in their native formats on the iPad, you can view but not edit their content. To make the files available for editing on the iPad, open Google Docs on your PC before you access them on the iPad, click the Actions drop-down menu to the right of the file's entry, and choose "Make a Google Docs copy."

Google Docs "Make a Google Docs copy" option on the Actions menu
Make a Google Docs copy of Word and Excel files to allow the documents to be edited on an iPad. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

When you open the Google Docs version of a Word file on your iPad, you'll see an Edit button in the top-right corner. The Google Docs copy of an Excel spreadsheet will open on the iPad ready for editing.

Google Docs Edit option on the iPad
After converting the Word version of a file to the native Google Docs format, you can open it for editing on an iPad. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Note that if you haven't converted a Word or Excel file to the Google Docs format beforehand, you can make a Google Docs version by opening the file in Google Docs' read-only mode on the iPad, select and copy the file's entire contents, create a new document or spreadsheet in Google Docs, and paste the content into the blank file. The results are inelegant to say the least: most of the file's formatting is lost, but at least you can add, delete, and make other changes to its content.

While the results are much better when you work on the Google Docs versions on the iPad, your editing options are still limited, as you might expect. For example, you can't change or reformat fonts. You can copy and paste text and cell content, but unfortunately, the pasted material adopts the formatting of whichever cell you're pasting into rather than retaining the formatting of the source.

You can try opening the file in the desktop version of Google Docs rather than the mobile version, but the results are mixed at best. When I worked on a spreadsheet in the desktop version, I had more formatting choices, but the on-screen response to actions was herky-jerky. Trying to open Google Docs text files in desktop view crashed my iPad repeatedly.

If your editing is limited to simple additions, deletions, and corrections to a file, the default mobile version of Google Docs on the iPad will meet your needs well. When you're ready to return to the edited version of the file in Word or Excel on your PC, open the Google Docs version and save the revised version in the native Word/Excel format, either by giving the file the same name to copy over the old version, or a different name to make a new copy.

By the way, automatic versioning is another great reason to combine Word and Excel with the Google Cloud Connect toolbar. And sharing files via Google Docs couldn't be easier--not even by using Microsoft's free Windows Live and SkyDrive services, which let you view but not edit Office files on an iPad or other mobile device.

There will undoubtedly be improvements to working with Office files on an iPad--without shelling out for commercial apps such as Apple's own Pages and Numbers ($10 each), DataViz's Documents To Go Office Suite ($10), and Quickoffice Pro ($15). For me, Google Docs fits the bill without denting my wallet.