Apple iWork '08 review: Apple iWork '08

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.

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