MacWorld's Frustrating Reviews of Apple iWork apps

MacWorld has been running a series of reviews comparing Microsoft Office 2008 to Apple’s iWork suite and they have been pretty bizarre in their perspectives. As someone who is a longtime Office user (both on Mac and PC) and who has been using iWork for the last few months for Keynote and Numbers, it’s been frustrating to read them as they seem to have missed the boat on some pretty fundamental things (and strangely for a Mac publication, in a non Mac friendly way).

Let’s just get this out of the way: I’m a fan of Apple products, but I’m not a “fan boy”, and I use XP with Parallels every day, as Outlook is clearly superior to Entourage and Powerpoint on PC is clearly superior for production on a PC than on the Mac (Mac version is better for presenting however).

I haven’t really used Pages so I’m not going to comment on that, but Numbers and, in particular Keynote, I’m now quite familiar with. Using my complaints about the MacWorld article as an excuse, here are some thoughts I’ve been meaning to write up for a while on these two applications.

Numbers/Excel

numbers.jpg 

I have to say that I’m not a big fan of Excel, but I know plenty of people are, and I work with many who are Excel power users and appreciate its capabilities for dealing with very complex analysis. My typical needs are much simpler, and I also often use a spreadsheet for personal use to collect and compare information about purchases, for example at the moment I have one going about different camera lenses (picture above). Excel also has some interface annoyances that I don’t like, for example:

  • When you “cut” a cell, it doesn’t actually get cut until you paste it, thus violating the rule that other apps go by
  • When you copy and paste a cell, it takes the style formatting of the cell, when 99% of the time all I want is the content. This usually then requires and additional step to fix the formatting for the pasted cell. (If cutting, I also have to go back and re-do the formatting for the one I cut from).

Numbers fixes these and goes on to address some other things:

  • Including pictures into Numbers is nice and simple, with the alignment guides present in all iWork apps, which makes using it more fluid. Pictures can live outside the grid so you can easily place them wherever you want in relation to data just by dragging the picture or the sheet itself around.
  • MacWorld complains about how Numbers doesn’t warn you if you try to drag a cell onto on already populated cell, as Excel does. Fair enough, but Numbers if far better about being able to drag stuff around on the sheet, whereas Excel again ignores typical drag/drop conventions. (And what other app warns you about replacing something with something else? How annoying would it be if Word did that? That’s what the undo key is for, it’s not a big deal.)
  • MacWorld complains that Numbers doesn’t have a keyboard shortcut for adding a line above a range of cells. True, but it does have a one-button click for achieving that. And how often do you have to do that anyway?
  • They complain about the automatic summing capability in Numbers, but I can’t see any difference in how they function
  • Last, and most significant, they miss the point entirely about what Numbers is trying to do, or rather not trying to do. It is not trying to beat Excel at the power-user game. It is explicitly intended for “average” users doing relatively straightforward things, and who have common tasks like home or small business budgeting, making purchase decision comparisons, etc. The templates it provides for this are infinitely better than Excels (and not just on aesthetics). The multi-table in a sheet concept that it uses is brilliant, and makes working with multiple types of data in a single view much more fluid. True, it does make freezing panes impossible (conceptually it’s hard to see how this will work), but it offers so many other things in comparison. The Excel reviewer leaves a comment to the review about how a “moderately sized” spreadsheet of 3000 cells by 40 cells bogged down Numbers. Dear God, how many people work with that size of spreadsheet other than power users? Completely misses the point of what Numbers is aiming for.

Keynote/Powerpoint

For all the valid bitching about Powerpoint presentations, I appreciate the things that this workhorse application does well. However, Keynote’s visual style and production capabilities have won me over and it is now my default tool unless I’m worried about some exotic compatibility issues with Powerpoint users down the road. Of the three iWork apps it’s the one that goes most toe-to-toe in terms of conceptually attacking the same goal.

The things I appreciate about Keynote are:

  • Despite MacWorld’s protestations to the opposite, I feel Keynote’s handling of themes and layouts is far superior to Powerpoint, and makes managing a lot of masters far simpler. It’s very easy to tell which pages have which masters (and to change them), and its method for grouping masters makes them conceptually simpler. I also like how I can apply master rules to just a single item on a page, not just the whole page.
  • The automatic alignment lines are a god-send and make putting together multiple elements on a page a snap and is a huge timesaver over Powerpoints finicky grid and snap capabilities. This was not even mentioned in the MacWorld article, but is one of those things that makes a big difference to someone who puts together decks almost every day like I do.
  • MacWorld did not talk about how Keynote allows subgroupings of slides in the “flimstrip” mode which makes crafting a narrative arc of a presentation much easier, essentially creating chapters. Powerpoint still has rather primitive story-telling tools. Again a seemingly small feature but one that is a big help if you use the app frequently.
  • Keynote’s thumbnails are much clearer, and making scanning the flow of a document actually possible in the light-table view, another workflow improvement
  • Per-paragraph line spacing and tabs (Powerpoint treats all text in a text box the same). Avoids having to create multiple text boxes in many cases.
  • Auto-flow columns of text
  • The article does mention Keynote’s  path animation tools, and I’ve used these to create quick and dirty UI mock-up animations.
  • The instant alpha tool is brilliant, and since I use a lot of images in presentations it is a big time saver by avoiding a roundtrip through Photoshop (though Leapard’s Preview tool can do many of the things I would have used Photoshop for in the past).
  • I’ve found PPT imports to be almost flawless, and almost equally flawless on export (assuming you’re not doing transitions that are not cross-compatible)
  • The flexibility of the presenter display is very nice, and the dual clock (actual time) and timer (elapsed time) are great, though I wish they didn’t have seconds, mostly I’m concerned just with hours and minutes. It’s also nice that the timer doesn’t start until the first mouse click (so that the title slide can be up for a while, which often happens before a talk). It would be great to pause the timer while in rehearsal mode, or to reset it. Skipping to other slides in the presentation is not as intuitive at Powerpoint, however it definitely can be done and is easy once learned.

Having said that there are some downsides to Keynote that bug me:

  • The page is always stuck to the top-left corner of the artboard, which is both visually distracting and means that objects getting animated in from the left or top can’t be accessed.
  • There are not enough zoom steps (MacWorld mentions this too)
  •  Items have to be ungrouped before properties (text size, fill etc.) can be adjusted, even if all the objects in the group have those properties in common. Also, I do miss Powerpoint’s “regroup” function.
  • Its image mask tool (cropping) drives me batty, and requires several steps for cropping a single side, which Powerpoint sensibly only needs one step to do.
  • I’d prefer it if drawing lines took place in the usual point-to-point drawing method, rather than dropping a default line on the page that is sure to be wrong, and always requiring multiple steps to get it how I want.
  • Music can be on one slide, or carry through a whole show, but it can’t be started on one slide and stopped on another. This is a pretty glaring omission given how well Keynote handles other multimedia functions.
Overall, however, the workflow and visual capabilities of both Numbers and Keynote outweigh their relatively minor (for me) problems. They have bumped Powerpoint and Excel off my dock, only Word still soldiers on (and I use Nisus Writer Pro for personal writing anyway…)