Apple’s iWork – a viable alternative to Microsoft Office?

Is Apple’s iWork a viable alternative to Microsoft Office? To find out, we asked Jeffrey Battersby–our go-to expert on word processing programs–to use Word 2008 and Pages ’08 to create the same project, progressing from the basics (text entry and formatting) to more-advanced features. Our questions: Which program is better at each stage of the job? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Which jobs (and which users) require which tool? (And for our experts’ take on alternatives to Office and iWork, see Word Processing Alternatives.)

To compare Microsoft Word to Pages ’08, I used each program to create the same four-page newsletter. I created my basic text and layout in each program’s word processing mode, and then added a variety of paragraph styles and some design elements, including columns, callouts, drop caps, and graphics.

Finally, I switched to each program’s page-layout mode to create a more sophisticated, template-based version of the same document.

Text entry, simple formatting
I started by creating the basic newsletter layout: title text, volume and issue numbers below that, a headline for my main article, body text for the article itself, and a page number in the page footer. I used each program’s default styles for the initial formatting and then edited those styles to alter the document’s look. Both programs make all these initial steps simple.

In Word, I created each element of the document in Word’s default paragraph style. To format those elements more distinctly, I then selected the styles I wanted to use from the Style menu in the floating Formatting Palette. I used Word’s new Document Elements tool to add page numbers to the document’s footers.

It’s only slightly tougher to do all that in Pages. Again, I used the default style and typed my text, and then adjusted my paragraph styles. But I couldn’t assign paragraph styles from a floating palette in Pages.

Instead, I had to open the Paragraph Styles drawer and choose the style I wanted from there. (I could also have assigned a keyboard shortcut to each style and applied it with a couple of keystrokes.)

Word’s styles editor makes it easy to go beyond the default styles: From the floating Formatting Palette, I opened the Styles palette, clicked to the right of the field displaying the style of the current paragraph, and chose to modify that style.

Word then opened a window where I quickly chose the text color, font sizes, indents, bullets, and other options. Once my edits were complete, every paragraph in my newsletter using that style updated to reflect the changes I’d made.Editing Styles: Because of Word’s style-formatting tools, modifying and creating styles is easier in Word than it is in Pages.

Editing and updating styles isn’t as easy in Pages. I had to use the standard formatting tools to adjust existing paragraphs, and then open the Styles Drawer and choose to either create a new style or redefine the current style. This isn’t necessarily difficult, but Word’s way is much more intuitive and easier to use.

Word 2008 has one other advantage when it comes to quickly changing a document’s overall look: Document Themes. These are collections of paragraph styles that change fonts, paragraph formats, text colors, and other document features with a single click of the button.

Word ships with over 50 of these themes; you can also create your own, but, oddly enough, you have to use PowerPoint to do it. Pages really has nothing that compares.

My verdict: When it comes to basic text editing, Pages and Word are perfect equals. But when it comes to editing and creating styles, and quickly overhauling the look of your document, Word is better.

Advanced document elements
With my basic text and formatting in place, I then began adding more-complex elements, such as sections, columns, drop caps, images, callouts, and tables of contents.

While both programs easily handle sections and columns, they use a somewhat different vocabulary to do so. For example, what Word refers to as a Continuous Section Break, Pages calls a Layout Break.

Adding a drop cap in Word was equally easy; it’s a simple matter of selecting a menu option. Pages doesn’t have a built-in drop-cap tool. Instead, I had to finagle my own drop cap by inserting a text box with a single character in it. This inelegant solution never really worked; the spacing between my drop cap and the rest of the text was always a bit off.

The first time I ran into any limitations in Word was when I started to add floating objects–such as pictures and callout text around which text flows. For starters, its image-editing tools aren’t very good.

More significantly, when I changed a column of text, the floating objects in it refused to stay in place. Instead they moved around as if tied to the text they were originally placed next to, destroying my layout. If I selected all the text in a document and deleted it or replaced it with text from the Clipboard, floating objects within the original text disappeared, too.

In other words, if you make any major changes to a document after inserting floating objects, you’ll probably need to completely re-create your layout.Moving Objects: Floating objects don’t float in Word’s word processing mode, so they wreak havoc on your layout if you make major paragraph-formatting changes.

Pages’ image-editing tools are much better than Word’s. You can, for example, change an image mask or add an alpha channel. And Pages treats floating objects much more intelligentlyas separate and distinct from the text that surrounds them.

When I edited text within columns containing floating objects, those objects stayed where they were. Select and delete text and, again, the objects remain right where you put them.

I was disappointed with each program’s handling of tables of contents. While both programs use paragraph styles to gather information for a table of contents, neither would allow me to place the resulting table inside a text box; they insisted on putting the table on its own full page.

To get the table of contents I wanted, I had to create it manually in a text box.Table of Contents: Word and Pages don’t allow you to create tables of contents inside text boxes, limiting their value in page-layout or highly formatted documents.

Overall, when it comes to adding slightly more-complex formatting to basic word processing documents, I have to give the nod to Pages.

My next step was to switch from word processing mode to page-layout mode. Neither program allowed me to convert a word processing document directly into a page-layout document, so I had to start all over from scratch: I used a built-in template to create my page-layout document, and then copied over the text I’d created when in word processing mode.

Word and Pages each include a significant collection of templates, all of which you can modify and personalize to suit your own needs. But Pages offers a far more complete set, and it makes customizing them easier.

Templates in both programs are designed with placeholders for text and images. While both allowed me to drag and drop images onto placeholders, they handle placeholder text differently.

When I dragged and dropped text onto a Pages placeholder, Pages replaced the template text with my dropped text. When I did the same thing in Word, the dropped text appeared in a new text box. In both cases, it’s far easier to copy text from the original document and then paste it into a text box in the new document.

Flowing Text: Microsoft Word provides excellent visual cues for viewing the way text flows between text boxes.If the text I pasted into a text box was too large for the box, both programs provided visual cues to let me know there was an overflow and both allowed me to link text boxes so that the text would flow from one box or page to the next. In Word, each text box is color-coded and numbered in sequence to make it obvious where the text flows.

If I held the cursor over a text box, the other linked boxes popped into view. Pages also shows how text boxes are linked sequentially, but I had to click on an existing text box to see how it linked to the next box in the sequence. The program then displayed a thin blue line that started on the first text box and connected in sequence to the last.

Both programs enable you to rearrange the pages in your document by dragging and dropping them into a navigation drawer. When I moved pages, the page numbers automatically updated. If I already had linked text boxes in the document, neither of the programs reflowed the text in the proper sequence.

When it came to more-advanced word processing chores, I again found Pages to be more capable than Word.

The final word
Microsoft Word may well be the standard for business word processing programs, but Apple’s Pages ’08 presents an excellent alternative. If you find that you’re constantly changing the way a text document looks, then Word’s document themes offer a distinct advantage over Pages. For all other types of documents, however, from basic word processing files to sophisticated page layouts, Pages is equal to or better than Word.

Alternatives: Word Processing
Word may have most of the market share, with iWork a distant second, but there are still some other alternatives for Mac word processing.

If all you need is basic text editing, TextEdit offers everything you need to create a good, basic document. It’ll let you create bulleted or numbered lists, adjust line spacing, change text alignment, or fiddle with your font formatting; it can open Word .doc files; and it’s free with any Mac.

Some of my favorite text editors–BareBones Software’s TextWrangler (free) and Peter Borg’s excellent Smultron (free)–are good choices if you need a bit more than TextEdit. They have no formatting tools, but they’re great for quickly typing and manipulating basic text, particularly if said text is bound for the Web. For editing HTML or CSS files, they both provide colored text-formatting options to help you see keywords in your code.

Among true word processors, one of my personal favorites–enough so that I used it to write most of this article–is Hog Bay Software’s WriteRoom ($25). It’s a great text editor, with autocapitalization and spelling and grammar checking. It’ll do basic text formatting in Rich Text Format documents. Best of all, it creates a distraction-free, full-screen writing environment that I find to be nearly perfect for just cranking out words.

If you need a little more heft, either Mariner Software’s Mariner Write or Nisus’s Nisus Writer Pro ($79) is worth a try. Both can open Word documents and save in formats that Word can read. And they have some powerful searching tools. They also have many of the text-formatting features found in Word and Pages; both allow you to use paragraph styles to quickly change your document’s look.

Finally, if you find yourself composing documents from many different Macs, you should consider either Google Docs (free) or ThinkFree Online (free). Both are Web-based applications that you can use via any browser, and they include high-end word processing features and support for Microsoft document formats. Google Docs is the faster of the two, but ThinkFree’s interface is very Word-like and offers more document-formatting options than Google.

[Jeffery Battersby is a regular contributor to Macworld. You can read his blog at]

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