iWork ’08 Review

After a week of playing with my downloaded trial copy of Apple’s latest iWork offering, purchasing the family pack was a no-brainer.

It is without doubt that I’ve been long hunting for a means to ditch the last remaining Microsoft product from my home computers, MS Office. For reasons of compatibility with the vast armies of MS Office users I have been forced to let Office live on my machines far too long.

Although I have been tempted by the iWork suite for quite some time, it was not until this latest release that Apple finally added the missing component I needed, a spreadsheet. With the addition of the Numbers application, I can finally move forward with my intentions to drag MS Office to the curb for the nice trash man to pick-up in the morning. Based on that, it would logically make sense to evaluate how iWork compares to the current version of MS Office.

The first thing to question is who can justify spending $599.95 (CAD) for Microsoft Office 2004, a three year old Office suite. Its age is really starting to show, specifically due to the fact that it is not even a universal binary and therefore rather sluggish within the confines of Rosetta. When you consider you can buy a base configuration Mac Mini for only $50 more, things start looking pretty outrageous.

At $79 for a single user license and $99 for a Family Pack license (up to five Apple computers within the same household) there is no denying that iWork delivers value closer in tune with sanity.

Price aside, iWork is quite capable of standing up on its own merits. The UI of the entire suite is very logically laid out and intuitive, within a few minutes anyone with moderate computer experience can become quite comfortable in navigating their way through the various inspector palettes. Some features like the alignment guides seen when arranging objects in any of the applications are much appreciated. One would think MS Office, a suite that is far more mature then iWork would have implemented such a basic, obvious and essential feature several revisions ago.

Anyone who has done any significant work with spreadsheets will immediately appreciate the annoyances and limitations the Numbers application has finally shed from the spreadsheet application genre. The flexible canvas allows placing multiple tables and other objects within a worksheet in a completely independent fashion while the interactive print view allows you to get your document on paper properly on your first attempt, without the pain of tedious and mundane tweaking typical for such a task. It is refreshing to finally see a level of innovation finally breaking free of limitations dating back to the days of VisiCalc.

The final question to look at when considering dropping an ageing office suite is how it will affect compatibility with legacy documents. In my testing Pages, Keynote and Numbers imported documents from their MS Office equivalents with relative ease. Any inconsistencies or limitations with the functionality are reported at the time the document is imported. Beyond a few minor quirks, the imported documents are very true to the originals.

Given the excellent import functionality in combination with the ability to export to PDF and MS Office formats iWork would be fully capable of working seamlessly in any environment without heavy collaboration or macro use. Trying to create a document as an iWorks user in cooperation with many Office users would quickly become a hassle due to cumulative inconsistencies from repetitive import export operations.

About the only real annoyance I have with the suite is it’s native document format. Instead of documents being stored as self contained file they are actually directories storing multiple files. The OS X operating system treats these special directories or packages as single files but the abstraction breaks down when manipulating the documents in anything but the OS X finder. They are bound to look odd when stored on a non HFS file system of any variety or on a foreign file server. In addition, e-mailing documents without first archiving them within a zip file or disk image will lead to some unexpected surprises as the resulting attachment is incomplete and not salvageable.

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