Unlike Office, iWork is a virtual suite – in other words, you buy the individual products. So if you're a Mac user, how does iWork stack up?
iWork was once a Mac-only suite, and not a great one at that. With too much of a focus on making documents pretty, and too little on slipping into the background so users could get on with their work, it was a textbook case of Apple preferring style over substance.
Not any more. Pages, Keynote and Numbers are now the best productivity tools on the iPad, and although they barely changed between 2009 and 2013, the latest revisions show that Apple is serious about taking on its office rivals on the Mac, tablet and web.
Meet the apps
The iWork apps were released one by one, with Keynote appearing first, in 2003. Initially developed as an in-house application for building Steve Jobs’ annual product presentations, the first release trounced PowerPoint, with better typography, more flexible layouts and more engaging transitions. PowerPoint has since caught up, but Keynote remains an extremely flexible and easy-to-use application, with great features such as Instant Alpha – which lets you mask out image backgrounds without using third-party tools – and Magic Move, which animates object movements, Flash-style, as you flip from slide to slide.
Pages is a cross between Microsoft Publisher and Word, with the top-down writing environment encompassing a series of flexible object-based layout tools such as shapes, lines and textboxes. If you’re used to working with nothing more complex than a blank page and a cursor, this may sound daunting, but – as with other iWork apps – it’s easy to get to grips with, since all the formatting options are corralled in a context-sensitive sidebar that shows only the options relevant to the object selected on the page. It’s a neater solution than the ribbon – newcomers should find it easier to identify the settings they need to tweak, since they won’t have to click between tabs.
Numbers, the most recent addition to the suite, is a novel and effective reimagining of how a spreadsheet should work. It uses regular Microsoft Office formulae, but it doesn’t confine you to a single table on each tab. Instead, you can position multiple discrete tables wherever you choose, drag them around for optimal layout, and reference between them when constructing formulae.
With your data on view the whole time, this is far easier to get to grips with than when it’s split across – and thus selectively hidden behind – separate tabs, as in Excel. Furthermore, since you can mix in floating textboxes and charts, you can quickly knock together attractive and meaningful financial presentations. These are often more attractive and meaningful than those created using Excel.
Apple’s products are rightly lauded for their design credentials. As such, it’s no surprise that each of the iWork apps ships with a range of templates you’ll actually want to use.
As well as looking great, these are genuinely useful: Pages is bundled with layouts for posters, menus and newsletters; Numbers features sample spreadsheets for working out mortgages and savings; and Keynote allows you to build on less familiar sample slides that make a refreshing change from the PowerPoint defaults your audience may know all too well.
Apple made much of the fact that it rewrote the latest updates from the ground up to be 64-bit applications that exhibit flawless cross-platform compatibility, and true enough, you can open any Keynote, Pages or Numbers file on OS X, iOS or iCloud. That said, you can’t always edit the results, and fonts aren’t embedded within the documents, so obscure faces selected on the Mac may be swapped out temporarily when the document is opened on iOS or online. They’ll reappear when you return the file to the Mac for further editing, however.
Each application uses its own file format, but you can import and export common Microsoft Office documents. You can also export to PDF and – in the case of Pages – RTF. The actual text of embedded WordArt is retained in Word documents, but the formatting is removed, and some of the more esoteric options in both Excel and PowerPoint don’t transfer entirely smoothly. Apple is upfront about this, though, and maintains a complete list of compatible (and incompatible) document elements at http://tinyurl.com/lw2sqdq.
The latest upgrades aren’t backwards-compatible, which is why installing them on a Mac doesn’t simultaneously wipe the 2009 versions of iWork from your drive. Also, there are no native tools for Windows, so PC users are able to use the web versions at www.icloud.com. Android users are locked out altogether, as the Android Chrome, Opera and Firefox browsers aren’t supported.
You can store documents wherever you want if you’re using a Mac – including Box and Dropbox – but if you’re working through the browser, it’s iCloud all the way. This is also the only online storage option for iOS users, although if you prefer, you can at least opt out of it altogether and work locally on the iPad or iPhone and never sync through a server at all.
Imported Microsoft files arrive with existing comments (although not Ink annotations) intact on OS X, but not on iOS or the web. Also, while you can track changes on both the Mac and iPad/iPhone, this feature is missing from the web app. However, you are able to collaborate with colleagues via all three platforms, and changes made remotely using the iCloud and iOS editions spawn a new revision of the document in OS X’s core versions system. This gives Mac users the ability to roll back a document, spreadsheet or presentation to its previous state just in case something goes awry in the editing process on an iPad, iPhone or browser.
To buy or not to buy
Unlike Office, iWork is a virtual suite – in other words, you buy the individual products. Numbers, Keynote and Pages are purchaseable from the Mac App Store and the iPad App Store for older devices – so buying each one on each platform adds up quickly, thanks to a per-user cost: with Office 365 Home Premium, you can install the latest version of the desktop version of Office (including the Mac version) on up to five PCs and laptops in your household.
Of course, there’s a counter-argument: if you buy a new Mac or iOS device, iWork is bundled, and you can pick and choose which apps you require. Also, you only need to pay for what you use. However, now there is an iPad-optimised version of Office, you should consider that too.