If nothing else, and there is a great deal else, Apple gives its users a real bargain with iWork '08. While not as dazzling as its multimedia cousin, this package of word processing/layout (Pages), and presentation (Keynote and Numbers) brings to work that extra Apple tang. At $79, it's a steal.
While Apple word processors have always been about fancy layouts, the new Pages has a pure word-processing mode that just lets you type as you would in Microsoft Word. A clean, icon-driven design enables users to plop in tables and charts and even track changes in real time in a left-hand pane. For straightforward word processing, Pages offers a nice balance of uncluttered interface and easy-to-access options that give your documents some flair.
Pages is still strongest for more advanced layout and formatting tasks. The template pool is remarkable: You get everything from business cards for specific professions to financial newsletters and even For Sale posters with tear-off labels formatted on the bottom. You can drop images into templates and use an integrated editing tool to adjust the masking and size. Of course, everything is integrated with the media library, so you can pull in photos and other files.
Pages '08 has a ton of new features, including change tracking, a contextual format bar, a flexible search view that gathers all occurrences of a phrase in one place, and a mail merge that's integrated with the Mac OS X Address Book. We appreciate the text-wrapping power, which lets you move an image around on a page and then watch the text make room for it. Such features remind you how cool Apple designers can be.
Keynote '08 has become more of a multimedia presentation-building tool. The interface makes easy work of adding transitions and animation with a pop-up window that previews the effect on a thumbnail of the actual slide. In a matter of seconds, we were able to build a slideshow that ran in a picture-in-picture box. A slick voice-recording tool lets you narrate the slideshow in sync with the slides--all within two or three clicks. Much of the effects and overlay processing is handled from a single Inspector tool that efficiently aggregates almost every slide effect in a single tab-driven console.
Numbers '08 is the new addition to the suite, and it isn't your older brother's spreadsheet. While Excel may be more powerful in terms of raw calculating options, Numbers opens the platform's possibilities by offering templates that leverage a spreadsheet's database capabilities in more pleasing everyday formats such as an event planners and personal budgets. These are spreadsheets you can use and make easily without having to obey grid rules. You insert tables within and around visual elements that give the numbers some meaning.
The 3D charting tools are amazing. You literally shift a chart's axis on the fly and apply any number of visual textures to them. While Excel jockeys may complain about having only 342 available cell functions, that's more than enough for most people, and the shallower functionality is more than made up for with the easy-to-use interface. Adding functions to cells and even adding rows and formatting is easier with the drop-down context menus attached to most elements. Numbers '08 is a spreadsheet program that doesn't send you screaming from the room in terror.
Sure, iWork '08 is no Microsoft Office (the 2008 version for Mac launches January 15th and starts at $149 for the Home and Student Editions), but at $79 we don't expect it to be. It lacks the equivalent of Outlook--an e-mail and personal management client--and Numbers and Pages aren't as feature-rich as their Windows counterparts are. But the fact of the matter is that iWork, like its iLife counterpart, makes more operations more accessible to a wider variety of users.
Apple asks (and provides a solution to) the right question: What good is depth if users can't find or imagine the creative possibilities a program can offer?
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