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Originally published September 1, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 1, 2007 at 2:05 AM

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Practical Mac | Glenn Fleishman

iWork suite is sweetened

Pages. Numbers. Keynote. Hardly inspiring names. However, Apple's taken the quotidian and made it something more. The three applications that...

Special to The Seattle Times

Pages. Numbers. Keynote. Hardly inspiring names.

However, Apple's taken the quotidian and made it something more. The three applications that form the iWork '08 suite of business programs are poised to make real inroads in small-business and home use.

The previous iWork suite, released in 2006, included just Keynote and Pages; Numbers was added in the latest go-round, released a few weeks ago.

Keynote was designed to replace the awful PowerPoint. Pages is an alternative to Microsoft Word, a successor to the word processor in AppleWorks (officially discontinued), and now a decent page-layout program for nonprofessionals.

Numbers is a spreadsheet program that has a bit in common with Excel, but an entirely different philosophy.

The three programs are bundled for $79, are not available individually and Apple offers no upgrade pricing from previous versions. A five-user family pack is $99.

All three programs share one thing in common: You have to work hard to make an ugly document. This contrasts with Microsoft's counterpoints which, although exceedingly powerful, are rather difficult to convince to provide a pleasing appearance.

Both companies provide templates from which to customize your own designs or documents without starting from scratch. Microsoft's are bad; Apple's good.

That may be too harsh. Microsoft's templates were designed around the limitations in their programs, particularly in adding media; Apple designed software to not be limited in this fashion, which allows the templates to shine, as well.

Each application has something to offer both casual and more serious users of their individual "genres"; professional users will find them lacking the subtle controls and options they need. And that's Apple's intention, not an accident.

Keynote

Presentations made in PowerPoint are often an endless series of slides containing bullet points, with a legibility-reducing color gradation ruining the background.

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In contrast, Keynote's ease of integrating visual material, including movies, pictures and audio, has been its strength since its introduction. PowerPoint can bring in media, too, but that's grafted on to earlier features. Keynote's intent is rich communication.

The latest release adds a few needed improvements, although there's room for more. One key feature in making presentations that involve more than static text is a feature called "builds," found in all presentation programs.

A build is like a step in an animation. A "build in" brings in an element; a "build out" removes it. This allows a single slide to contain many elements as overlays or replacements as you walk through a given explanation or process.

Keynote '08 offers some additional features for builds, including an improved ability to slide around the sequence in which a build occurs, and highlighting to show a pair of build-in/build-out settings for an object or group.

Apple also added the option to record audio with a presentation, either while you're giving the talk or in advance. Unfortunately, they didn't offer any editing tools or real controls.

Pages

Pages is vastly improved over its previous releases, which I found essentially unusable. Pages '08 feels thoroughly reworked and is easy to get started with.

Most page-layout programs have too high a learning curve for anyone who can't devote dozens of hours to mastering the software. Pages is designed to let you create a blank document or begin with a template and start editing.

Just start typing for documents of multiple continuous pages, like a letter, résumé or essay. For composed documents, like a menu, newsletter or photo layout, use tools at the top of the page to add text boxes, shapes, tables and charts.

Image handling is rather lovely in the new Pages. Add an image by dragging it onto a page or using the media browser. Apple includes adjustment tools in the Adjust Image palette that mirror those in iPhoto.

Pages also added Track Changes, a feature that allows different people to edit a document sequentially by passing the file around, while any emendations to text — not graphics, tables or images — are tracked and visually displayed, noting which person made which changes. You can also add comments readable by other editors.

Microsoft Word has included change tracking for well over a decade, and among professional writers, it's the most-used feature. Microsoft significantly improved this feature in Office 2004. Pages can import and export Word files while keeping compatibility with Word's change tracking. This might convince some to use Word for heavy lifting — tasks that only Word can handle, like mail merges — and Pages for writing and editing.

Numbers

It takes a bit of getting used to Numbers. I expect to open a spreadsheet and have a single essentially infinite set of rows and columns, to which I can apply some formatting.

Apple decided that that's not what most people need, and turned the idea on its head. Numbers is very much a page-layout program like Pages, but focused on numeric values.

Spreadsheets, almost like tables, are elements on a page; you can have more than one, and mix charts, images and text, while linking values from one cell to another. Numbers allows multiple sheet documents, like Excel.

Because of this standpoint, you can't easily have extremely wide or tall spreadsheets, because the spreadsheets can't scroll within a confined space.

Nor can you use split-screen views or another method to have fixed column and row headings.

Any serious spreadsheet user won't find Numbers a reasonable choice compared to Excel, but that's not its audience.

Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to gfleishman@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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