Back to School 2007: iWork '08 Review


It’s been a few weeks since Apple announced the new iWork suite and I’ve had some time to play with it while writing and editing for this site and my other gigs. When I started using it, my question was this: Is iWork ready for the average user. The answer, as you can imagine, is pretty complex and multi-faceted but, if you are using OS X in your office and you don’t want to spend $500 on an long-in-the-tooth copy of Microsoft Office, you can safely take the plunge. Here’s why.


Pages – Pages is a strong word processor with Word compatibility. I know that you get this same compatibility from Open Office and I wouldn’t dream of telling you not to use OO if you rarely use page layout functions. OpenOffice is great. Heck, if you’re only editing text, you might as well just use TextEdit. It’s usually strong enough.

That said, Pages is an entirely different animal. Those familiar with Adobe Pagemaker — InDesign is a bit more complex than Pages at this point — will immediately understand Pages. While you can just begin typing, it also supports multiple templates and styles and can create column-based documents with ease. In fact, I would say that this program, along with a GIMP, could make a very inexpensive DTP suite for an office assistant to use — at least until he or she revolts and begins requesting Photoshop.

The workflow is simple. Open the app and pick a file or a template. There are six default functions on the top, including Word-compatible change tracking, and there are a number of inspectors including colors, fonts, and general positioning. The Styles box appears on the right side of the window, in a tray. If you don’t know where to find it, it will take a moment to dig up. There is a dynamic bar at the top of the window which shows you the potential commands and settings for each function, although it usually sticks with paragraph settings.

In Word Processing mode you simply type, tab, and spellcheck. In Page Layout Mode you have a more complex set of tools, including textbox autoflow from page to page as well as a page management feature that is very reminiscent of more powerful apps. Creating a newsletter, for example, is dead simple in Pages. Unfortunately, the default newsletter has fruit all over it and it will take the average user a bit of time to figure out how to modify and improve these documents. The learning curve on the Word Processor is flat. The curve on the Page Layout system — especially to those who have never used this sort of application — is quite steep.

Features like image wrapping and text rotation add quite a bit of fun to the process but as a general word processor I found myself returning to Word quite a bit. If i need to read something and edit occasionally, Pages was perfect. If I was writing on deadline, I kept using Word for one simple and silly reason: the “Send To Mail Recipient” function. Seriously. I could not find that feature in Pages and it drives me nuts. This is a private pet peeve, so don’t let that sway you.

Overall, Pages is a worthy competitor to Word and is far batter than similar word processors out there. Granted, there aren’t many, but for $79, Pages might just be worth the investment.

Numbers — Like most Apple products, Numbers takes the status quo and turns it on its head. This is not to say that I can unequivocally recommend it to hedge fund managers and rocket scientists — it’s missing some features Excel excels at (HA!) — but it you make household budgets and maybe want to put together a soccer team roster, you’re in luck.
Numbers’ workflow focuses on templates and styles and not specifically on spreadsheets. Each layout creates windows on top of the data, showing only the information you want to express. For example, look at this mortgage layout. Each of the spreadsheets on that page is a separate part of the document that can be moved at will. Instead of a monolithic series of boxes, spreadsheets are initially tiny and you move and connect them at will.

This system is quite unnerving at first, but once you figure it out there is little to stop you from making clever worksheets. The program isn’t for calculating missile velocities. Instead, it’s for making lists and budgets. If you need scripting and other features, stick with Excel. If you use spreadsheets once in a blue moon — and Numbers is compatible with Excel, by the way — you’re in good hands.

Keynote — If it’s good enough for Al Gore, it’s good enough for us. Seriously, though, it does include some improvements for hard core presentation makers. The product is definitely a must for design and graphic arts students and could make and MBA presentation a bit more interesting. The graphics are crisp and clean and the transitions are all amazing — I just did a “thumb through” transition on a few photos and they moved like a stack of photos someone would hand you to go through — but then you already knew that. Apple put a lot of thought into this product and it’s definitely the star of this three ring circus.

You can export presentations to a number of formats, including PowerPoint, and you can even send them to your iPod for kicks.

On the whole, at $79 you really can’t go wrong. If you don’t want to invest in Microsoft Office and aren’t comfortable with Open Office, this is a strong application suite that is nominally compatible with Office and works flawlessly in OS X. My real test of a text editor is if I return to it after using it once. I’ve returned to Pages with regularity and Numbers may soon supplant the bloated Excel on my dock. I don’t make many presentations, but when I do they’re in Keynote. You could say I’ve switched.