Hands on with OnLive Desktop: Windows works surprisingly well on the iPad

I like my Macs(s aapl), but I also won’t turn my nose up at Windows(s msft). Sometimes it’s just what the doctor ordered, and with the new OnLive Desktop app for iPad, I suspect it’ll be the prescription I’m looking for much more often. OnLive Desktop brings Windows 7 to your iPad, streamed remotely from powerful servers. Here’s a detailed look at what the fresh new Windows virtualization app for iPad has to offer.

The price tag is the best part

Somehow, OnLive Desktop is free. It doesn’t cost a dime to download the app from the App Store, and there’s no subscription service to sign up for. The app also doesn’t require you to own a copy of Windows, as do Mac virtualization apps like Parallels and VMware. (s vmw) Windows 7 is already set up and running on OnLive’s remote servers. All you have to do is sign up for a free OnLive account (or use an existing one if you already signed up for OnLive’s gaming service) and connect.

Better than remote desktop apps, local virtualization software

Despite OnLive Desktop is working over an Internet connection talking to servers miles away (likely hundreds of miles in my case), it performs better than any remote desktop apps I’ve used on my own local Wi-Fi network. There’s very little lag; apps open and close speedily; and documents, spreadsheets and presentations are already setup by default to save to a synced folder, which auto-syncs at regular, frequent intervals.

In terms of setup time and ease of use, OnLive Desktop beats out both remote desktop apps and virtualization software running locally on Macs, in my opinion. This is especially true if your intended use is light editing of documents you need to access right away when away from home, since you can download from and upload to a web interface at files.onlive.com for your specific synced OnLive Documents folder.

Limited in scope, but should hit the right notes for most

OnLive Desktop has some limitations your own local installations of Windows won’t, however. Any changes you make to app or system settings won’t be there the next time you log in, for instance; OnLive does this to ensure speedy connections and easy jump-in, jump-out functionality for all users.

You also can’t install new programs or access anything beyond what OnLive provides, so this definitely isn’t a solution for Windows-based gaming. Still, those pre-installed apps include Word, Excel and PowerPoint 2010, as well as Windows Media Player and some basic utilities. You can’t access Internet Explorer, which would be a nice touch for people working remotely who have to access IE-only enterprise dashboards, for instance.

Finally, there’s the issue of not being able to use the iPad’s own software keyboard. Instead, you’ll get the Windows 7 on-screen keyboard. It pales in comparison to the Apple version, but it’s usable nonetheless. Also, know that if you exit the app mid-edit, you won’t be able to save your document when you jump back in, even if it resumes with the document open.

Despite those limitations, OnLive probably provides what the vast majority of its target audience requires: a quick and easy way to edit Office docs on the go. The extremely high-quality Windows Media Player streaming playback and other perks like the ability to use the touch-optimized Microsoft Surface Collage app, are just are icing on the cake.

Microsoft’s Office iPad apps are here

With Bluetooth keyboard support and the ability to connect over 3G (OnLive disconnects you after 10 minutes when connected this way, but that’s plenty of time to accomplish minor edits on the fly), I see little reason to go elsewhere for Office-compatible document editing. Plus, if this app eventually gets an upgrade to the tablet-optimized Windows 8, it should be even more touch-friendly.

Rumors occasionally crop up that Microsoft is working on dedicated Office apps for the iPad. With OnLive Desktop, I find myself happy to wait for Microsoft to take as long as it wants to get its act together.