Apple’s forgotten package – is it any good?
Regular readers of DisCONNECT (all five of you) will know that I alternate between loving at hating Apple. I’ve been stuck in Windows for two reason – PC gaming, and Office. The former is slowly starting to lose relevance for me – most AAA games come out on consoles now, and those that don’t also generally don’t need massive system requirements, while indie games are even further behind in that department. The latter is also slowly starting to lose its grip. I rely on Office primarily because of the file types I work with for university. For the most part I’m using Google Docs for my day-to-day document needs, only using Office to write up assignments. In moving towards a platform-agnostic workflow, I’m hoping to break Windows’ grip on my day to day activities… so I can move to OS X full time.
Google Docs is a great package, and it’s great for collaboration. I have a large number of paramedic study guides that I’ve written myself, which a lot of students have found useful for their own study. Hey, after 6 years in healthcare, I’ve learned a few things that the others haven’t! It’s great to be able to write them up in Google Docs and easily share them with the others. I’ve also used it a few times in group projects, since it has excellent collaboration features. With that said though, I think collaboration is overrated for most people. There are definitely times when it’s useful, but by and large it isn’t really that big of a deal.
Where Google Docs falls short is anything outside of documents, and anything with special formatting requirements. Google’s spreadsheets app has gotten better, but it’s miles behind Excel. And their presentation app… yes well, the less said the better. To be fair it does a decent job at importing most PowerPoint presentations, but it’s still laughably light on features. I’ve tried to make a decent presentation with it, but it’s just not up to the job.
iWork’s Forgotten History:
iWork has been around for quite a while in some form or another, and was once a pretty robust package for the Mac. Of course Windows won the desktop PC market back in the 90s and became the defacto standard, beating out even WordPerfect (which is still kicking around in some industries today). iWork’s last major update was in 2009, with Pages, Numbers, and Keynote largely sitting without significant updates until last year. Last year everything changed, and iWork was overhauled. Some will say they made it worse and everything went backwards. Their intentions were good though – the iWork suite (now really a confederacy of individual apps) was released on iOS and remains the best word processing, spreadsheet and presentation app for the platform, arguably the best on any tablet (Office hardly counts since it still demands a mouse for the most part). The last major update brought the OS X versions in line with the iOS versions in terms of operation and looks, and unified the two file types to avoid differences between the desktop and mobile versions. A commendable action, and something I’ve sorely wanted for my iPad. It’s not so much that I need to edit those documents, but I do need to view them reliably as they appear on the desktop – tables, images and all.
It also brought forward another significant update – iCloud apps. Keynote, Pages, and Numbers is available online through iCloud to anyone with an iCloud address. Much like Office Web Apps or Google Docs, you can only edit files that are stored in iCloud storage. Otherwise you can use it on any platform with a decent web browser (read: Chrome). The web versions are less feature complete than the iOS or desktop versions, but they’re still very competent apps.
Since I lack a Mac at the moment, I can’t really comment on the new version of Pages, but I can comment on the new iOS and iCloud versions. Pages remains a very solid word processing app. It’s not as good as MS Word in some ways, but it’s way more capable than Google Docs, particularly when it comes to complex document layouts. Images and special elements are still a chore on Google Docs, but Pages generally makes light work of them. In fact in some ways it’s even better than Word – text wrapping can be a pain in Word but often isn’t much of an issue in Pages. Pages also has a decent go at importing doc and docx formats – apart from Google Drive, it’s one of the more reliable methods of viewing Word files under iOS. The iCloud version is a bit slow but otherwise pretty damn competent – it can handle some fairly complex layouts and works well with inserting images and tables. It can’t insert generated graphs though – funnily enough, the iOS version can. I’d probably prefer to use Pages to Google Docs because the interface is a lot more natural and it just feels better. It’s much easier and more intuitive to work with graphics, and the text generally behaves as expected when trying to insert images (something that can be unpredictable even under MS Word). The iOS version is remarkably good, with full support for images, tables, and text formatting. It’s superior to Google Docs in that regard (which still can’t display or edit tables in Edit Mode). It’s no MS Word, but right now, it’s the next best thing. In terms of templates, Pages is lighter than Word but probably on par with Google Docs when it comes to useful templates. Google Docs by far has more, but the vast majority are absolute trash. The great layout tools however might not make this very important though – getting your document to look right is a snap.
Keynote is your only real alternative to PowerPoint, and depending on who you ask it might even be better. Again I haven’t used the latest version of Keynote but I did use the prior version a little bit, and it’s remarkably good at setting out slides. Then again, so is PowerPoint, so really I’d put them on par with each other. Keynote is easily the slowest in the pack in Chrome, and it’s fairly light on features. You have a number of different templates to pick from, but the selection is fairly limited (especially compared to PowerPoint). Otherwise it maintains the nice, easy layout tools that Pages has, and generally is okay to work with. Performance is the thing that annoys me the most – it just feels laggy. It’s also here that I find there’s a more crippling limitation – it doesn’t support copying and pasting images from outside the presentation. You can drag images in from your desktop, but you can’t copy one from online and insert it in. Otherwise its cropping and arrangement tools are quite good. Each theme has a number of different slide options to choose from, but in the browser you can’t define your own layouts. You can setup slide transitions and everything like that, but otherwise Keynote feels pretty limiting in the browser. Under iOS the story is much the same – remarkable for a mobile platform, and it offers you the ability to present using nothing but an iPad and a VGA adapter (or whatever), but it still feels a bit limited. Of course it’s also pretty much your only alternative, since there’s no PowerPoint for anything except Windows, and Google’s presentation app is so far behind this that it isn’t even worth a mention. There’s more work to be done here, but it’s a decent start.
This is probably the most ‘backwards’ of the lot, although it’s not too bad. Excel still holds the fort as one of the best consumer-level spreadsheet apps, although anything for statistical analysis beyond simple things is still out of its grasp. Numbers is even more behind and probably sits about on par with Google’s offering. It’s okay for doing basic spreadsheets and basic charts, but anything more than that and it’s just not going to do the job. The number of expressions is still fairly limited compared to something like Excel. If you’re just looking to set up a budget, it’ll be okay. If you’re looking to do some basic statistical analysis, Excel will work better. If you’re doing more than that… well, shouldn’t you be using MATLAB by now? For my part I have little use for spreadsheets, but I did set up a very simple spreadsheet that calculates drug doses for various paediatric weights as a learning aid. Google Sheets and Numbers both do a decent job of it, although Numbers is just a nicer package to use in general, with a better UI (although it still feels a bit laggy). Under iOS though Numbers is king – it’s very easy to use and it’s quite quick.
Other things to consider:
- iCloud storage is goddamn expensive, and if you’re backing up your iOS device to iCloud, you’re already likely running out of space (5GB free maximum). To get the most out of this service, you’re going to need to use iCloud for your files. iCloud also has some pretty questionable reliability.
- If you’re not on a Mac, there’s no local offline storage for desktops – Google Drive however does offer this capability.
- Also in comparison with Google Drive – for iOS at least there’s no editing of files while offline, you can only view them. In my experience, this can also be kind of fiddly and prone to breaking without warning. iWork apps on the other hand do allow offline editing – just be sure to open them up to let them sync, since there’s no background syncing that I can find.
- Outside of Safari, Chrome is the best browser for using the web apps.
- Office also has a load of web apps that are free to use for any OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive) user, and they can also (somewhat) work within Safari on iOS, although there’s no offline access.
- Pages, Keynote, and Numbers are free on iOS to anyone who purchases a new iPad or iPhone, and free to OS X users who purchase a new Mac. Owners of the existing products are upgraded to the new versions.
- Collaboration is offered but it’s fairly weak and I wouldn’t even bother.
- iCloud’s ‘folder’ storage is one level deep – there are no nested folders.
Verdict: Compelling in part.
I can’t say this is a great package but it’s definitely not bad. I hope to update this with OS X apps in the not too distant future, but for now I can say that under iOS, it’s the best office suite available. That’s not saying much though. Pages is very good, Keynote is decent but needs more work, and Numbers is still a long way away from challenging Excel. They’re competent, and for new Mac users who aren’t beholden to the MS Office file format standards, they’re excellent replacements for the most part. But iCloud is expensive, and not quite as reliable as Google Docs in some ways. Google Docs isn’t quite as feature rich, but it offers much better storage (in fact Google Docs uses no storage space at all for its own file formats). That said, it’s still a pain to use on iOS, and it’s not that much better on Android either.
My current system for document editing sees me doing most things under Google Docs, purely because the storage is free and the package is good enough. But when it comes to presentations or spreadsheets, I prefer Keynote or Numbers. For the big jobs though I’m still using Office – the iCloud web apps just aren’t quite there yet, although they’re getting better by the day. If I was using a Mac though, that situation might be a little different. It’s worth watching what Apple do with the suite that it neglected for quite a while, although Office still rules the desktop and Google have captured most of the cloud market. As I see it, iWork offers a nice in-between niche, and if you got it for free with your new computer, then why not use it? Where things change considerably is with iOS – the iOS apps are outstanding, and compatibility between desktop and mobile device took a big leap with this latest update. That’s where the significant gain is, and where iWork beats out Google Docs. There’s simply no better office suite for a tablet around.