iWork '08 full review

If iLife is ‘office for your home life’, then iWork is ‘iLife for your office’. It’s the older, grown up sibling of iLife that handles work stuff: writing documents and doing presentations.

Not that many people use iWork though. Earlier versions of the suite suffered on two fronts: the absence of a spreadsheet application and the lacklustre functionality of its word processing application, Pages. With the arrival of iWork ’08, both these problems have largely been eliminated. Apple has dramatically improved Pages as a word processor and brought a spreadsheet application called Numbers to the mix. Let’s take a look at the three applications one at a time…

Office keys
Apart from a tweaked interface and a few new templates and slide transitions, the major changes to Keynote are behind-the-scenes things that make it easier for users to put together a slideshow. Smart Builds for example are predefined animations using a drag-and-drop interface. Files are dragged from the Media Browser window (which includes your iPhoto library) and automatically form an animated slideshow.

One feature that is sure to become popular is the new Media Placeholder object. Instead of formatting each media file one at a time, Placeholder objects are formatted and then duplicated as required, and any images or movies dropped onto them instantly acquire the correct formatting.

In common with the other iWork applications, Keynote comes with two new tools called Instant Alpha and Mask. Instant Alpha removes certain colours from images, making that part of the image transparent. This is a great tool for removing backgrounds from photographs. The Mask tool is essentially a non-destructive way of cropping images down to size, so that only the part of the image you’re interested in will actually appear on the slide. Combined with the Adjust tools for changing things like brightness and contrast, these tools largely eliminate the need for third-party graphics apps when creating slideshows.

There’s some new eye-candy, too. Photorealistic picture frames can be applied to images and movies, and new Build Effects make it possible to create animated slides with objects moving, zooming, and fading. Spiffy animations come into their own when used on self-running animations, and a new Narration feature for adding a voiceover to the slideshow bolsters that element of the application.

Page boy
Like Keynote, Pages sports the new iWork interface with grey toolbars rather than white ones, but in the case of Pages this is so much more obvious because the toolbars are now chock full of new buttons and menus. It’s here more than anywhere else that Pages shows off its dramatically improved word-processing chops, by giving the user quick access to a variety of functions that were previously accessible only through floating palettes or menubar options. The bottom row of buttons and drop-down menus is especially useful, containing menus such as styles, character formatting, justification, line spacing, and lists.

Pages now features a Track Changes option aimed primarily at writers who need to collaborate with other workers. Edits are colour coded and connected to a comment box, from where reviewers can accept or reject them. Tracked changes remain correctly flagged and commented even when documents are exported to Word files, and vice versa, making it possible for writers to collaborate on a single document using either application.

There are also some new proofing and writing tools available. Pages finally shows the word count of selected text on the document statistics pane of the Inspector palette. As with many other OS X applications, non-contiguous text can be selected by holding down the Command key while choosing text. Proofreading tools spot things such as duplicated words and improper capitalisation, though compared with similar tools in Word these are very basic. Pages won’t, for example, spot fragments or the passive voice.

So while Pages is now an altogether better word processor, it still lags behind Word in some aspects. There’s still no equation editor, and the auto-correct tools remain very weak. The range of buttons on the toolbar is better than before, but you still can’t create your own for functions you happen to use most frequently. Styles are easier to access and implement, but they are still less flexible than those in Word (you can’t create a style that sets the font size to 14pt and bold but doesn’t change the font or justification, for example). Documents can still only be viewed in a single window at a time, and there’s still no tool for generating indices. But if you can live without these things, Pages makes a pretty good word processor.

Doing the math
Numbers was declared by Steve Jobs to be the “spreadsheet for the rest of us”. Put another way, Apple isn’t assuming that people who routinely use Excel in financial and scientific fields are suddenly going to switch to Numbers – they won’t. Numbers lacks too many of the high-end features these people need, like pivot tables, series fills, error bars on charts, customisable buttons and toolbars, macros, Add-Ins, and Visual Basic. Indeed, it’s perhaps arguable whether there really needs to be an alternative to Excel: while PowerPoint is definitely creaky and Word overly complex for many users, Excel, once you get the hang of it, is fast, powerful, and very efficient.

So who’s Numbers for? Anyone who uses a spreadsheet to perform relatively straightforward calculations such as working out loan repayments or balancing small business accounts. All the standard numerical functions are included, so its not as if Numbers can’t be used for some serious number crunching despite its lack of appeal to the Excel power user. Numbers is also supremely well designed as a tool for storing and presenting tables of data, where calculations are of secondary importance compared with being able to compare values across rows or columns.

If anything, Numbers feels less like Excel than it does an AppleWorks update. Each Numbers document is basically a blank page onto which arrays of cells can be added. From these, charts can be drawn and placed somewhere else on the page. Text and graphics can be added to the page as well, so that the final result is essentially richly formatted page layout document rather than merely a spreadsheet. In Print View, you can format, resize and move items as required to get the precise layout you want, and from there the document can be printed or saved as a PDF. A neat Content Scale slider lets you resize everything simultaneously so that you can fit everything onto a desired number of pages. Prepared documents can also be exported as web pages via the iWeb application (part of the iLife suite).

It’s often said that its the little things that count, and Numbers certainly has lots of small but useful features that make it a very pleasant application to use. Suppose you have an array of cells containing numbers. In Excel, if you wanted to calculate the sum of these cells, you’d need to enter a calculation into another box referencing whichever cells you were interested in summing. But in Numbers this is done automatically: select a group of cells (even non-contiguous cells) and the sum automatically appears in a box at the lower left of the document window.

As well as the sum, the average value, the minimum value, and the maximum value, a count of the number of selected cells is given as well. Even better, these calculations can be dragged from their window onto a cell on your spreadsheet, saving you the work of having to type them in.

The document toolbar contains lots of useful little features that reveal simple ways to perform common tasks. The Sort & Filter button either arranges the columns in ascending or descending order (sorting) or shows only cells matching certain criteria (filtering).

The Tables button lets you place not just plain arrays of cells onto the document, but also tables that are formatted with header rows and columns or pre-configured to perform particular tasks.

A row of formatting buttons along the bottom of the toolbar works broadly similarly to the formatting buttons on the Pages toolbar, but with some particular functions of value to spreadsheet users. One button will display the cell contents to two decimal places (ideal for financial work) while another pair of buttons lets you add or remove decimal places on the fly (very useful for scientific spreadsheets containing data at different levels of numerical accuracy). The formatting down menu lets you format cells for dates, currency, fractions, and so on, while other menus are provided for setting cell borders and fill.

Even filling in cells has received a little of the Apple magic. Type ‘January’ into a cell, and then drag the fill handle to the right or downwards, and the rest of the calendar will be filled into the adjacent cells. Type ‘1’ into the first cell, “2” into the second, and then after selecting them and dragging, and the rest of the cells will be contain 3, 4, 5, and so on. True, Excel goes well beyond this, intelligently recognising more complex series, such as cells that contain twice the value of the one before them – Numbers has no such ability.

On the other hand, one of the places where Apple ‘thinks different’ in terms of spreadsheet usability are the graphical interface objects. Spreadsheets are often used to predict how variations in one particular number will cascade through any calculations based upon it.

So an analysis of loan repayments will vary depending on interest rates, for example. With a normal spreadsheet program, you’d need to type in a new value every time you wanted to change the critical value in question. By contrast, in Numbers you simply add a graphical interface object such as a pop-up menu, slider, or stepper. Decimal places, increment values, limiting values and so on can all be configured on the Inspector palette, and once done, all you need to do is move the graphical interface object to watch all the numbers and charts on your Numbers document change.

Other interface objects can be used in different ways. Pop-up menus are useful for choosing between different text items from a selection, while check boxes work well on tables based around lists, such as itineraries. Indeed, Numbers generally reveals a great effort on Apple’s part to break away from the flat, array-based format standard among traditional spreadsheets. Rooting about the Templates Chooser window underlines this emphatically, with templates being provided for all sorts of different home and office situations. There are beautifully prepared templates designed for use as travel itineraries, product catalogues, budgets, and invoices. Students and teachers are provided with a couple of very useful templates as well. Users can create their own templates of course, to be either accessed through the Templates Chooser or set as the default template to appear automatically when the New Document command is used.

If Numbers was merely pretty and easy to use but didn’t actually perform many calculations, its utility would be limited. Fortunately, Numbers is provided with a nice variety of standard formulas, ranging across all the usual statistical, financial, logical, and trigonometric fields. The basic mode of operation is identical to that of Excel, so jumping from the one to the other is easy. But there are some very welcome little tweaks.

The Function Browser that appears when you start to enter a function is searchable, so you can more readily find a function even if you aren’t completely sure of its name. A hyperlink at the foot of the Function Browser sends you to some explanatory notes in the Numbers Help window as well, offering help to less experienced formula users. Formulas can be nested, just as with Excel or any other spreadsheet, so you can craft calculations as complex as you want.

As well as the Function Browser, there’s a Function Button on the document toolbar that gives quick access to the most used functions as well as a shortcut to the Function Browser itself. Select one or more columns of numbers, click on the Function Button, choose a function, and results of that function appear in a new row underneath the chosen cells.

An unusual aspect of Numbers is that cells can be addressed not just by their cell co-ordinates but by ‘name’ as well. So a cell on one particular chart could be addressed as ‘=Sales 2006 :: Shoes October’ – in this case a cell on the row given the header ‘October’, the column under the header ‘Shoes’, and on the table named ‘Sales 2006’. This approach makes reading formulas much easier than when using Excel.

Numbers will import Excel files (including Office Open XML Excel files) as well as CSV, tab-delimited text and Open Financial Exchange documents. Whether you will actually want to switch from Excel or some other spreadsheet application to Numbers is a different matter. But while Numbers lacks some of Excel’s functionality, it is by no means a lightweight spreadsheet program, and the balance of simplicity and power certainly makes it a solid alternative that’ll be attractive to many home and small business users.

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