If you need to create professional-looking documents, but can't face the learning curve — or the cost — of Microsoft Office, then iWork '09 is an obvious choice at a bargain price. Limited Office compatibility makes it best-suited to environments where there's little need to collaborate on documents with non-iWork users though, and pure writers - rather than fledgling page designers - will be better served by a word processor other than Pages.
Creates professional-looking documents with ease; simple user interface belies powerful features; fixes many shortcomings with iWork '08.
Some standard productivity suite features still missing; patchy Microsoft Office compatibility.
iWork '09 is the latest version of Apple's productivity suite for Macs. This fourth major iteration adds several long-awaited features to the trinity of applications — the Pages word processor, Numbers spreadsheet and Keynote presentations tools — including some that have long since been standard issue for the competition.
Perhaps the most notable new feature is mail merge. Until now, Pages could only pull contact information from Apple Address Book, which did little to lure business users to the suite. Pages '09, however, can now use a Numbers spreadsheet as a database for mail-merged documents, opening up a far richer world of personalised template documents.
Pages still doesn't offer anything other than a full WYSIWYG view for people who want to work with words rather than entire pages, but the new Full-Screen View offers a partial solution. This displays one or two full-screen pages side by side on a black background to hide potential distractions — although this also hides any other documents you may be referring to.
Also new is an Outline mode that makes it easy to organise a document's content hierarchically. Although other word processor users may scoff at the late addition of such a standard tool, it does make Pages a viable alternative to applications like OmniOutliner for many users.
Apple cites over 250 formulae and a handful of new 2D chart types as notable additions to Pages '09, but of more interest is its new Table Categories feature. Pages still lacks pivot table support, but Table Categories perform a similar function by grouping rows or columns of data into content categories. Summary calculations such as subtotal and average can then be inserted for each category, and categories can be quickly reorganised, making Table Categories an effective way to work with large data sets.
The feature works more like Excel's Group and Outline tool than true pivot tables, but it's considerably more intuitive.
Also new is the ability to embed linked Numbers charts into Pages and Keynote documents, although each must be updated manually if the source data changes. Keynote itself gets little more than a polish in this edition and while new themes and sophisticated slide transitions are welcome, they're hardly killer features. Sound handling hasn't been improved though, and there's still no straightforward way to synchronise multiple sound clips to different slides in a presentation.
Across-the-board improvements include a new document format that consist of a single file rather than a combined package, and better Microsoft Office file handling. Word, Excel and PowerPoint now appear as file types in the appropriate application's Save As dialog boxes rather than as an Export option, but Office-format files can only be saved as a copy alongside the original iWork file.
Actual Microsoft Office document compatibility is a bit hit and miss. Pages handled a Word document containing a table with aplomb, unlike rival open-source productivity suite NeoOffice, but Numbers badly fumbled a large, complex Excel sheet. This was the result of its inability to handle Excel's conditional formatting, despite offering its own take on the same tool, and grouped data – Pages just deletes grouped data that has been condensed.
Obviously, iWork '09 also strips out features that aren't supported in Office when saving documents in that file format, which means that cross-editing in iWork and Office is best done using simple documents that don't exploit their respective parent applications' potential.
Productivity suite power users won't find much to tempt them in iWork '09 and Apple does appear to be playing catch-up with the competition when it comes to certain basic features, but this isn't a set of applications designed to compete with the likes of Microsoft Office. By focusing on ease of use rather than an endless list of little-used features, iWorks '09 makes it easy to create slick, sophisticated documents with the minimum of effort – although the unbelievable lack of an auto-save option might mean some documents end up being created more than once.