The $79 iWork '08 is a solid deal for anyone needing an affordable office suite for the Mac. Apple has added the spreadsheet application Numbers, an elegant no-brainer for anyone migrating from Microsoft Excel. In the past, many Mac aficionados bought Microsoft Excel because iWork lacked a spreadsheet tool. However, with the addition of Numbers and the release of Microsoft's Office for Mac 2008 delayed until January, Mac users may stick to Apple's less-expensive option. We're also happy that Mac hasn't changed its file formats as Microsoft did with Office 2007. iWork applications can read Microsoft's new files, saving the work in the older format.
Setup and interface
The system requirements of iWork '08, thankfully, are gentle to users of older Macs. You'll need an Intel, PowerPC G5 or G4 machine with a 500MHz or better processor, in addition to a minimum of 512MB of RAM, running OS X10.4.10. Installation took about 10 minutes in our tests.
We like the sparse interfaces throughout the iWork package. Its features aren't as rich as those in Microsoft Office 2007, but iWork also hasn't changed radically from its last incarnation, unlike Office. iWork also covers much more than just the basic productivity tasks offered by online tools such as Google Docs & Spreadsheets or the Zoho suite, so it should be adequate for the vast majority of home and small-business users.
Apple seemingly tore a page out of Microsoft Office's book by creating a Contextual Format Bar that displays different features according to your task at hand. Select a block of text and the bar shows font options. Click on a picture and the bar displays image-editing features. Unlike the contextual formatting Ribbon interface within Microsoft Word 2007, however, Pages offers no live previews of font and image changes as you hover over them.
Pages '08 also adds Change Tracking, similar to the Track Changes feature adopted many years ago by Microsoft Word. We're glad that Pages gets this treatment rather than the often confusing revision and commenting history offered by the online Google Docs. Plus, Pages integrates tracked changes with those in Microsoft Word files.
Pages includes the usual must-have features for writers such as footnotes, bookmarks, dictionary, and thesaurus, as well as tables of content, in addition to integration with charts and functions from Numbers. Pages now detects when you're typing a list and formats bulleted points automatically. We just hope that this won't drive us batty, as it does sometimes in Microsoft Word. Plus, you can integrate Pages documents with an iWeb blog.
There are plenty of page templates for letters, resumes, reports, and the like to get started if a blank slate poses too much pressure. Page Layout mode lets you create relatively complex designs without software such as Adobe InDesign, great if you're throwing together reports for work. It lets you layer images on top of images too. The Instant Alpha feature, also found in Keynote and Numbers, lets you cut out backgrounds in images without dealing with alpha channels, a la Photoshop. And we prefer Pages' color wheel, crayons, and spectrum to Word's color options.
Microsoft PowerPoint 2007 may be richer, but Apple Keynote '08 adds some smart features that PowerPoint lacks. It's also a breeze to figure out from the get-go. Keynote offers 39 themes for whipping together a presentation.
New Action Builds let you create basic point-A-to-B motion animation, without needing to deal with motion tweens as in complex apps such as Adobe Flash. Smart Builds enable animation, such as rotating photographs, using images you can grab from the iLife media browser. There are new between-slide transitions and slide show themes too.
New voiceover recordings enable you to, say, narrate podcasts with pictures--but with few controls. If you mess up a narration, you'll have to rerecord it. At least if that error comes on slide 5 of 10, you can start the rerecording from slide 5 and on rather than from the start.
Our early look at the new Numbers reveals ease-of-use novelties that competitive tools don't provide. Microsoft Excel 2007 is more robust, particularly for number crunchers such as scientists, accountants, or engineers. Yet the majority of users who rely upon spreadsheets as one-size-fits-all tools for household and light office work should be pleased to have a new option for Macs. Apple has succeeded in getting Numbers to help you think outside the grid. With Numbers, you can pop little table grids and pictures onto a blank canvas instead of trying to fashion a canvas from a grid background.
Numbers comes with plenty of templates, including travel planners, business expense sheets, and school science lab reports. Of course, it can also save and export Excel-readable files. This application pleases the eye and can make attractive spreadsheets. We dragged around text boxes, images, and tables using alignment guides without a hitch. You can add 3D bar, pie, and other charts and even integrate maps into a spreadsheet.
The controls for working with tables were extremely user-friendly in our early tests. Slider bars allow you to adjust the numeric values within cells, handy if you're looking to add a range of values or make quick calculation estimates. Resizing columns and rows appears to be less of a hassle than with Excel. You can drag data from a file of contacts or into a Numbers table that will automatically partition information into the appropriate columns. And sorting a table smartly leaves the headers alone. Some 150 formulas appear to be the same as those in Microsoft Excel, but Numbers also has easy-to-find natural language shortcuts for common calculations, such as sums and averages.
The Interactive Print View offers more controls than in Microsoft Excel, which easily leads to unwieldy spreadsheet printouts. Numbers shows where a stray column might take up an unnecessary extra page. You can eliminate the overlap with a slider bar that instantly scales the tables, charts, and images on a page.
On the downside, Numbers doesn't support pivot tables from Excel spreadsheets. If you open these tables in Numbers, the data will remain intact, but they won't continue to pivot. You cannot use Visual Basic macros, either.
Service and support
We found the searchable help menus within iWork '08 to be thorough and to the point, and the video tutorials are good. Forums to interact with other users may be the fastest route to support. iWork buyers receive 90 days of unlimited free telephone support for installation, launch, or reinstallation. Three years of telephone support is offered for a hefty $49 per incident through AppleCare. Users can also seek help at the Genius Bars of Apple stores or attend free workshops offered by stores.
The inclusion of Numbers in iWork '08 makes this software bundle a stronger alternative to Microsoft Office for the Mac, which hasn't been updated since 2004. And although iWork lacks an e-mail application, Mail comes preinstalled on new Macs. Still, it's not as robust as Outlook. Yet unlike the iLife '08 multimedia suite, iWork does not eliminate features found in its earlier iteration. Instead, Apple has focused on making text files, spreadsheets, and presentations easy on the eyes and hands, both to create and to edit. The fledgling Numbers offers more than enough formulas for the majority of users. That said, workers who lean on heavy-duty spreadsheets for, say, engineering calculations should probably stick with Microsoft Excel.