Can iWork on the iPad really compare to a Mac?

Apple's iPad is vastly different than a Mac running OS X, so how does its office productivity suite compare when used on both of these platforms?

Apple offers versions of its iWork suite (Pages, Keynote, Numbers) for both the Mac OS and iOS platforms, and given that the new school year is right around the corner, students might be weighing the options for creating and managing projects using either iPads or Macs.

While having been a fan of Apple's iWork suite in OS X since its debut and enjoy having the apps available for other platforms, I have been somewhat skeptical of using the iPad or iPhone to write a full report, a formatted resume, or managing calculations in a spreadsheet. Being a touch-only device, I've considered the iPad in large part as a viewing tool where you can look up information and browse through it, rather than buckling down and creating intricate and detailed content, especially with regard to office-related tasks. While Apple's touch-based input panels in iOS have made entering strings of text relatively easy, and along with gestures it provides a unique approach to drawing and arranging objects in applications, the question does arise as to whether this approach is adequate for more-detailed work such as word processing, presentations, and spreadsheets.

Overall the differences between Pages, Numbers, and Keynote on both platforms is in the capabilities of the two platforms, and herein lies the main determination of what will suit the end user's needs. When using iWork on the iPad, for the most part the iOS' limitations are a bit of a drawback when it comes to many office-related tasks, but Apple does make the best of these and offers at least usable approaches.

Platform differences

While it is easy to simply focus on the individual program when looking at word-processing and spreadsheet management, the computing environment as a whole does play a very important role, and there are three significant drawbacks to the iOS platform for these purposes.

Many times when composing documents you may have other programs open that you need to quickly reference, so multitasking capabilities are almost a requirement, and here is where iOS hits its first major hurdle. Since iOS apps are full-screen, you cannot have a Web browser and file browser open on the same screen to help organize ideas and content with the immediacy of a simple glance. You also cannot have multiple documents open in the same iWork application, so when putting together complex ideas you must constantly switch from one full-screen view to the next, and this can be a bit tiresome.

iOS Keyboard input options
iOS does offer multiple keyboards for access to different characters, but it would be nice to have these and other characters more readily available. Screenshot by Topher Kessler/CNET

The second limitation is input options. These days people are quite proficient at touch-typing, and Apple provides full keyboard layouts and split layouts that may be comfortable for some and will largely suffice for entering text; however, there are two missing features that do affect office-related tasks: quick cursor management and access to special characters.

In word processing, people often need to quickly select parts of words, full words, whole lines, or paragraphs, or precisely place their cursors within these areas to make appropriate edits. While Apple's touch-based inputs can do this, it takes extra steps to tap-select items, and then drag the selection limits, and these options pale in comparison to the precision and speed of either a mouse or primarily arrow keys combined with modifiers (Shift, Command, Control, etc.). One way for Apple to implement this would be to have an additional input panel containing arrow and modifier buttons to allow quick cursor management for selecting and moving items, but this is currently not available.

With regard to special characters, while the iOS key trays provide access to most language-specific characters, it does not have default easy access to special characters including, for instance, a degree symbol and math symbols, among others. Unicode fonts offer a plethora of math, currency, arrow, music, and other technical symbols that can be exceptionally useful in word processing. While these are available in OS X using the system-wide Character Viewer panel, this option is limited in iOS. You can add new international keyboards in the iOS preferences that may include some of these desired characters, but this is not the same as a full character palette and also sometimes requires activating multiple keyboards to have the desired characters.

The last hurdle in iOS is its document management options. Apple's integration of iCloud makes synchronization of changes between devices a breeze; however, whether you use iCloud or store documents locally, Apple allows you to only organize documents in folders that are one level deep. If you are managing a few documents then this organization can be useful, but in environments like schools where one might have multiple classes each with different projects, the inability to create subfolders for these projects might result in a bit of a cluttered organization.

I contacted Apple regarding some of these limitations asking for alternative approaches and wondering about the potential for improving them, but Apple understandably could not comment on future directions of the program.

Despite these inherent limitations to the iOS platform, Apple has found ways to make Pages, Keynote, and Numbers on iOS be useful and in some cases meet or even surpass the capabilities of their Mac counterparts.


Pages in iOS
Apple's touch-based text management options will work, but they are a bit cumbersome in comparison to using modifier keys with arrows. Screenshot by Topher Kessler/CNET

Pages in iOS is best described as an enhanced version of TextEdit for OS X. It offers a simple approach to the page layout and quick options for adjusting the font, font size, text style, justification, and indentations. As with other iWork on iOS programs, Pages has object management buttons at the top-right of the program where you can access formatting details for text like lists, styles, and columns. These options are also contextual, so if you select an image it will provide details like rotation, shadows, and outlines.

As a result, when managing the visual aspects of a Pages document, the iPad is a nice tool to have; however, the lack of a direct cursor management option like arrow keys means text management itself is not as fast as can be done on a Mac. With practice you can get relatively speedy at selecting and moving text around, but for those used to a keyboard, the arrow keys and combinations of modifiers such as the Shift, Command, and Option keys are invaluable options when organizing ideas and document structure.

Overall, while Pages on iOS is fun and can be used with iCloud to view and add basic edits to Pages documents created elsewhere, for true word-processing speed and detailed text organization, your best bet is to primarily use Pages on the Mac OS.


Keynote in iOS
Keynote in iOS encourages a more visual approach to presentations. Screenshot by Topher Kessler/CNET

When it comes to making presentations, unlike Pages where the iOS input options can be a burden to the workflow, presentation creation may benefit from the touch-based input. Even though as with Pages the lack of arrow key inputs makes managing text and aligning objects a bit harder to do, one thing it does do is dissuade people from resorting to presentations of endless bullet points. The touch-based input almost encourages you to make more-visual presentations by drawing objects and arranging graphs and pictures instead of resorting to text fields.

One issue with Keynote that is more of a desired enhancement than a drawback is its lack of ability to control or run presentations on a nearby Mac, and instead requires you to either connect the iPad to an AirPlay device, use a video adapter, or transfer the presentation to a Mac that is attached to a projector. Unfortunately in many cases, the latter is the only available option (especially in schools), and having a Bonjour-like feature where Keynote on iOS could detect a Mac running Keynote and then request to use it for running a presentation (similar to how one can request Screen Sharing in iChat or Messages), would make the iPad far more useful for running presentations rather than simply creating them.

Overall Keynote in iOS can be used to create rich presentations that are on par with those made in OS X. While the lack of multitasking prevents the use of some shortcuts like drag and drop, the program can be used very well either independently or in conjunction with Keynote on the Mac OS to make well-done presentations. The main benefit it brings to the table is the touch-based input opening doors to making richer and more attractive presentations rather than just typing in text.


Numbers in iOS
Multitouch input for Numbers results in a very pleasant and intuitive spreadsheet experience, especially when using Apple's specialized input palette. Screenshot by Topher Kesslet/CNET

The last program in the iWork suite is Numbers, and while the previous two programs either worked well or had some limitations with the touch-based input, Numbers on iOS came as a surprise in that it was an amazing program to use on the iPad. Spreadsheets for the most part do not require much (if any) text management and instead content is managed through selecting cells, entering data, and managing formulas. For these purposes the touch-based input in iOS seemed to excel and truly fit the workflow.

Data in spreadsheets is inherently object-based, either as whole tables or as individual cells within them, and as such most tasks for spreadsheets are inherently built around selecting these objects and apply changes to them. In Numbers, creating a table is as easy as tapping a button and then resizing it accordingly, and then double-tapping a cell brings up a unique entry panel, which, like a fancy calculator, offers options for entering data as text, time, general numbers, or as functions.

From this panel, entering text or assembling the desired calculations by tapping and dragging is exceptionally simple, intuitive, and fits the classic paradigm of using a spreadsheet.

Oddly, unlike Pages and Keynote, Apple's inclusion of this unique input panel is what makes Numbers flow so nicely. Had Apple relied solely on the standard input panels as it does for Pages and Keynote then managing data entry in the spreadsheets would be as cumbersome as managing text. However, this panel offers quick access to the functions needed to manage data in the spreadsheet. Two of the options in this panel are a couple of "Next" buttons that move the spreadsheet cell focus to the right or down to a new line, very similar to what arrow key inputs in iOS might provide, and outline how well Pages, Keynote, and perhaps iOS in general would benefit from them.

Forms in Numbers for iOS
The Forms feature in Numbers for iOS is especially useful, and can easily interface with most tables to supply a quick way to enter data in your spreadsheet. Unfortunately this feature is not supported in OS X. Screenshot by Topher Kessler/CNET

Even though creating tables and entering data is simple and straightforward, Numbers for iOS does have one feature that stands out in its utility: its entry forms for managing spreadsheet data. People often use spreadsheets to manage database-like information such as a row representing a person and columns detailing aspects about that person such as name, age, height, gender, and other items. While you can enter this data in the standard spreadsheet view, this approach can be a bit of a burden. To tackle this, Apple has introduced a new Forms view where you can select a table and create a quick entry form for it that appears in a separate sheet tab and contains fields for the various columns in your table.

Using Forms, you can essentially turn Numbers for iOS into a simple database and greatly facilitate data entry into your spreadsheet.

Unfortunately, even though this feature is quite nice to have, it is not currently supported in Numbers for OS X. Therefore, if you share your Numbers document or synchronize it using iCloud to a Mac, opening it will strip away the form from the document. While this will not result in lost data, and while it is easy enough to re-create the form and continue your data entry, this may be frustrating to deal with if you use both platforms.

Despite this one drawback when used with Numbers for OS X, Numbers for iOS is a great option and really suites the touch-based input of the iPad. It also demonstrates how both Pages and Keynote would benefit from more unique input panels that are tweaked for word processing rather than simply entering lines of text.

The bottom line

The decision for which of Apple's iWork offerings are best comes down to determining which computing environment suits you best. Each program on its respective platform will open the others' documents and the overall capabilities of each are quite similar, so the main difference lies in which input and multitasking approach is best for you. In my opinion, there is room for improvement for text management in iOS, and the platform's lack of multidocument views on the same screen can be a frustration for true office work, but despite these details, the iWork suite on iOS at least complements iWork in OS X.

Ultimately, even though iOS has its drawbacks, Pages will give you a means for viewing your work on the go and creating basic edits, but is limited by iOS' approach to multitasking. Likewise, Keynote will allow you to work on existing presentations made on a Mac, or create new ones, and while it also would benefit from enhanced text management features, it inherently encourages a more visual approach to presentations. These two programs will have their places in various work environments, but the real star in the suite is Numbers, which has the potential to be exceptionally useful for entering data and performing calculations on it in a variety of different situations.

Pages, Keynote, and Numbers can be purchased for $19.99 each from the Mac App Store in OS X, or for $9.99 each in the App Store on iOS devices.

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