To compete with Google Drive and Microsoft Office in the cloud, Apple is bringing iWork to the browser through its iCloud service. We went hands-on with Pages, Numbers and Keynote, currently available in beta, to see how it compares to more established online offerings.
Editors' Note: iCloud is in limited beta and not yet widely available. We will perform a full review once the software is finalized.
Apple recommends using Safari 6.0.3 or later, Internet Explorer 9.0.8 or later, or Chrome 27.0.1 or later; the company warns that earlier versions of those browsers, as well as Firefox, may result in some features not working. Upon navigating to icloud.com, you're prompted to enter your Apple ID and password. You're then presented with seven icons (Mail, Contacts, Calendar, Notes, Reminders, Find my iPhone, Pages, Numbers and Keynote) that are large versions of what you'd find on iOS. Simply click on the app you wish to use, and it will open in that tab.
Upon first opening Apple's cloud-based word processor, the other iCloud icons float away and a document manager takes it place on top of the company's signature textured backdrop. From there, pressing the giant plus symbol will open a window within your browser tab that shows 16 templates. Choosing a template then creates a new document in a new tab or window.
The Pages editor makes use of a contextual sidebar known as the Format Panel, meaning its contents change depending upon what type of content you have selected. This allows for far more room for each tool, which makes things much easier to find than in Google Drive, which hides many of its tools behind drop down boxes and tiny icons.
Up top, users will find a series of options that don't change much across the iWork suite, including zoom, undo/redo functions, text and shape creators along with an image uploader tool. Clicking a Tools button reveals Find & Replace, Spell Check and formatting guides. Of course, all of these features are accessible via the expected hotkeys.
It's clear that Apple is set on mirroring the premium look and feel of its dedicated iWork apps in the browser, but currently offers the bare necessities for word processing: alignment, margin sliders, lists, header/footer creation and other features that we often take for granted in competing offerings. There are also a respectable amount of fonts and colors available for use, but right now it's not even close to what's available in Google Drive. (For instance, Helvetica, Arial and Times New Roman are accounted for, but where's our Comic Sans?) Another bummer is the lack of change tracking in the current release, though Apple promises that this feature is coming soon.
Adding images to documents was as simple as click and drag. Once an image is selected, the side pane of tools changes to a number of image-related tools, such as effects, borders, sizing, alignment and more.
Pressing the share button in the upper right corner allows you to convert your project into either Pages, Word or PDF format and send it as an email attachment -- no inviting fellow users to a document via email, a la Google Drive, unfortunately. (Though, Apple has a similar feature, known as "sending a link to a document," in the works.) After creating the document, a separate window opens through which you can send the email with the document attached.
Users can send feedback directly to Apple through a dedicated button. This opens a separate webpage with a series of fields through which you can submit bug reports. While this is a welcome feature, it would be nice to have this built within the app rather than have it redirect to another page.
MORE: Best Apps 2013
All in all, Pages on iCloud should get the job done for basic word processing needs, but its beta stage doesn't yet match Google Drive. For instance, we could not find an option to print documents directly from the Web-based Pages app. Printing directly from iWork for iCloud is yet another feature that Apple will release soon. Until then, you must download your documents and print them locally.
Opening a Numbers document is nearly identical to the experience found in Pages. Just click the plus symbol, choose a template and you're ready to go. Following the same format as Pages, Numbers users will find their spreadsheet to the left of the contextual Format Panel. From here, users can select table styles, text sizes and fonts, and format data at the cell level. A data formatting tab that presents only a single tool at the moment; we imagine this tab will be fleshed out in the future. Like Pages, the black bar up top features a zoom tool, an undo/redo function, text, shape and image tools as well as the same sharing, feedback and other tools.
While we're not exactly spreadsheet pros, Apple's Web-based version of its spreadsheet generator offers more than enough to fulfill our basic needs. However, we didn't see a tool for creating, editing and executing macros. Even Google Drive is capable of importing scripts and features its very own script editor, while Excel through SkyDrive boasts a plethora of functions users can find in the dedicated program. And while you're able to create templates with charts, you cannot yet edit those charts--this is a feature that's also "coming soon."
Keynote's layout is the same as Pages and Numbers, with a number of popular templates to choose from, but takes the contextual Format Panel to a new level with tabs worth of tools and options for each type of content.[
Apple has already proven that it can create a presentation app, and it didn't have to do much to prove the same on the Web since iWork for iCloud seems intended for visually-oriented apps such as Keynote. However, do not expect the fancy features you're used to in the dedicated Keynote, such as 3D chart modeling and heavy graphical features. While users can run through presentations in a full-screen mode, it's doubtful that you'll be generating animations any time soon.
How Well Does iWork Work?
If you're on a Mac, at least, iWork for iCloud works very well. Animations rendered smoothly and our changes saved instantly as we worked while using Pages for iCloud on Google Chrome with the latest MacBook Air. However, it seems that Apple prioritized the beta version of iWork for iCloud for Apple machines, as performance on a Windows 8 Lenovo ThinkPad Helix through the latest version of Google Chrome was rather sluggish. Most notable was the fact that documents would only save upon closing our work, rather than save as you go on. Apps like Numbers had trouble keeping up with our typing. We experienced even worse performance while simply typing in Pages on a brand new HP Pavilion TouchSmart 11 notebook, also using the latest Chrome, leading us to believe that the premium, app-like experience in iWork for iCloud is quite hardware dependent.
The biggest disappointment here is that iWork for iCloud doesn't yet feature the robust sharing and collaboration features that have made Google Drive a killer Web app. While Apple is working on a sharing feature through links, there's no telling whether Apple will offer real-time editing and commenting from multiple sources.
While iWork for iCloud currently leaves some features on the cutting room floor, it offers a premium app feel that Google and Microsoft can't match. We especially enjoy the contextual Format Panel.
If you'd like to try out iWork for iCloud for yourself, all you need is an iCloud account. Chances are, if you've purchased an Apple product within the last year or two, you already have one. If not, you can sign up for one right here.