iWork Tips

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On August 7, 2007, Apple released some significant upgrades to key parts of their product lines. A new brushed aluminum and glass iMac family was introduced. This is a speed bump and industrial design upgrade to the existing iMac line. However, I'll keep my older Core Duo iMac, thank you, as the new one isn't close to the performance improvement that I require to justify spending the money on a new computer. See my Upgrades page for that whole sorry story.

The other two announcements were for software, iLife '08 and iWork '08. iLife comes with every new Mac, iWork is available as a demo. Each costs $79 for the package which is truly a deal because the software is VERY high quality.

iLife is a suite of excellent tools to manage a user's "digital life." These tools are:

Enough of iLife because the subject of this page is iWork '08. In the late 90's, Apple got stomped out of the business market for a variety of reasons. Apple has since concentrated on the consumer end of the business and has done quite well at it earning themselves a pretty good overall market share considering that they participate in ONLY the high end of the consumer market which, in itself, is only a part of the overall computer market. For those users that need business like applications, there is MicroSoft Office. However, except for Excel, the MicroSoft Office tools just aren't very good. They are very big and are loaded with "features" but for light duty work, they are just too hard to use. Word is extraordinarily bloated and exasperating at times. PowerPoint is marginally functional, I used it extensively before I retired. Excel is pretty good, but inflexible in many ways. Entourage for the Mac reproduces much of the functionality of Outlook.

Apple was beholden to MicroSoft for many years to provide Office but I think that they don't want this situation to remain, hence they rolled their own, iWork.

iWork '08 has three parts:

This page is a very early review of iWork '08 and now '09, so that the opinions presented here are based on only a few hours of working with the software. I am clearly not an iWork expert, but I was able to determine some basic things pretty easily.

I've had years of experience with Office and I believe that I am pretty good with the whole suite. I know what I can do and what I can't and where I need to work around the software for something in between. I am also get pretty upset at Office when I STILL I run into some new "feature" of the software that just works oddly. These are BIG programs, I doubt that there is anybody that knows them all.

When Apple announced that iWork '08 would contain a spreadsheet, called Numbers, I bit and ordered it. I don't need a presentation generator at home at all and I have several word processors, including Word, that work well enough for what I do at home but I do want a native Macintosh spreadsheet that works. NeoOffice (and OpenOffice) just don't work well enough to suit me, I've tried to use them both. They try to look like Excel, but they just don't work like Excel. Since I have Excel, if I wanted something that looks like Excel and works like Excel, I'll just use Excel.

iWork '09, released in January 2009, is an update to iWork '08. The same three applications are still there, but each has been improved.


Keynote is the most well developed of the three applications. Keynote actually predates the iWork product suite. It is said that it was created at the behest of Steve Jobs so that he could do his keynote presentations for MacWorld and other conferences. It just wouldn't do to use a MicroSoft product to prepare the marketing material for Apple. Steve is a pretty tough customer, so his developer team had to be pretty sharp to please him and they've had sufficient time to produce a polished product. I've used PowerPoint a lot and Keynote just a little, but it is abundantly clear to me that Keynote simply blows the doors off PowerPoint. It appears to do all the things that PowerPoint will do, but in each case, it does it better and is easier to use. Further, it will read and write PowerPoint files and does a good job of it.

In iWork '09, Keynote just got better with more themes and a lot of new transitions. I haven't used Keynote '09 enough yet to determine if there have been any other major changes under the hood.


Pages is a word processor and page layout tool. Pages is a much younger product than Keynote and is not as fully developed. It does not do all of what Word will do. Word will open and render HTML, why, I don't have a clue as it does a pretty poor job it it anyway. Word is so fully bloated with "features" that just writing a one page letter can be a royal pain. However, in Word, you can, with some considerable pain, write a fully indexed and organized specification or other technical document. You can write a whole book, but I wouldn't want to.

Pages '08 has two modes, one targeted at traditional word processing, the other targeted at page layout. The word processing mode is good for much of the work that Word will do, but not all of it. The page layout mode will do much of what PageMaker or Quark will do, but it is not optimized for doing full magazines or newspapers. It does do an excellent job at flyers, advertisements and newsletters. Overall, it is much easier to use than the bigger, heavier and much more expensive software. Word can be fudged to do page layouts as well, but it does a pretty poor job of it.

There are other word processors out there too besides Word and Pages. If you don't like either of these for some reason, try these freeware word processors.

OpenOffice is an open source word processor that is an offshoot of Sun's StarOffice. It is cross platform, but requires an X11 host to run.

NeoOffice is OpenOffice ported to Cocoa. It runs natively in OS X.

AbiWord is a stand alone word processor that is native to OS X.

Bean is an interesting item. It is purposely stripped of everything unnecessary so that it's response is virtually instantaneous. For what it does, it does it very well.

I have not yet used Pages '09 at all so I don't have much to say about it.


The newest, and least well developed part of iWork '08 is the spreadsheet, Numbers. Right now, I'll have to classify Numbers as a lightweight spreadsheet program. Excel sets a pretty high bar as regards to functionality and there are lots of things that you can do in Excel that you can't do in Numbers.

However, for what it is, it is a smooth program that makes it much easier than Excel to produce GOOD LOOKING spreadsheets. What it lacks under the hood, it tries to make up for in user interface. I assume that the lower level functionality of Numbers will improve with time. In the meantime, for light duty work, it is MUCH easier to use than Excel.

Excel's basic interface is the spreadsheet itself, rows and columns of cells, just like all the spreadsheets before it, VisiCalc, SuperCalc, Lotus 1-2-3 and others like OpenOffice.

Numbers is different. In Numbers, the basic sheet is a blank canvas onto which you place "tables" (which are the actual spreadsheets), graphs, other graphics, text or even movies. You can move these elements around to make visually attractive presentations of the data in the tables themselves. In Excel, if you dice and slice rows and columns to make a table look right, those same formatting rules apply to all the impacted rows and columns. You can make different formats on different tabs of a workbook, but then you can't seen them at the same time. Each table on a Numbers sheet can have it's own formatting.

Each table can have header rows and columns with real names. Formulas can be written using these names instead of A1*B2. This makes the final formulas a little verbose but much more readable as you don't have to keep looking back as the table itself to determine where a particular entry in a formula came from.

Numbers will also read and write Excel files, but the Excel stuff that Numbers cannot handle are not converted. At least Numbers gives you a very readable explanation of what stuff didn't make it over.

Even with this good stuff in front, Numbers current weakness is in the back end. This is not nearly a complete list, but I found these things that Numbers cannot handle in only a few hours of working with it.

Numbers '09

The largest change in iWork '09 is Numbers. In it's initial release, Numbers was good, but clearly incomplete. There was lots of things that it could not do. It would appear that the Numbers team has been hard at work and now it good enough to let me give Excel the heave ho. There is probably some stuff that Excel will do that Numbers will not, but as of yet, I haven't found it.

I have Excel X, Excel 2004 and Excel 2008. I was unimpressed with Excel 2008 as it didn't appear to implement a lot of the add in functions, at least in the version that I have. Excel 2004 is getting long of tooth and makes deprecated API calls. Eventually, it will bit rot and fail to work. Excel X is even older and is somewhat buggy. I don't trust MicroSoft to come out with a version that works properly so this is the driving force in my interest in Numbers.

The biggest change to Numbers IS under the hood. The function set is now virtually complete and the charting is vastly improved. It will now do a good job at scatter plots, especially vs. time. It will also do advanced curve fitting including running averages. It imports most Excel sheets with little need for manual touch ups. I do not know how it deals with macros. I never did use Visual Basic in Excel, I used to long lost dialect of the Excel 4.0 macro language. I am pretty certain that Numbers doesn't implement either macro language. I have not been able to determine if it implements ANY macro language, so I suspect that this is still a missing feature.

Numbers can be frustrating to an Excel user because it does stuff differently. Except for macros, you can do in Numbers what you can do in Excel, you just have to do it differently and finding where the different stuff is can be a challenge. Take advantage of the Help feature in Numbers to find out how to do what you want. Help is pretty complete but in some areas, like adding a new series to a chart, the description in the Help files didn't work but I found the easy way to do it.

To get what I wanted in Excel, I often had to resort to inelegent Excel hacks. I know where the skeletons are in Excel and I hack around problems before I actually run into them. When I try to convert these oddly hacked sheets into Numbers, it has trouble with them and they convert poorly. I have found that I don't have to resort to some of these hacks in Numbers but to do it cleanly, I have had to start with a new sheet and do it the Numbers way from the outset.

Excel, even the PPC version running on an Intel iMac, still seems to be faster than Numbers in doing floating point calculations. Many moons ago, I had built a sheet that does several floating point calculations in each cell including some RAND and SIN function calls and then does it on 50,000 cells. Excel takes about a second to recalculate this sheet. Numbers takes about 7 seconds. The actual formula is just busy work.


Where $L$2 just contains a constant that can be changed to easily force recalculation.

I'll be adding to this list as I stumble across stuff that I find.

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© 2007-2009 George Schreyer
Created 12 Aug 07
Last Updated February 17, 2009