A Review of Apple Pages

Apple Pages icon

Note: This is a review of Pages 1 which ships with iWork ’05. iWork ’06 has since shipped with Pages 2. A review of this new version will arrive in the days ahead.

Pages is a 1.0 program with 2.0 clothes on. A survey of a its features shows that it has all the elements one would expect in a word processor and it smartly side-steps its 1.0 status with a philosophy of ‘fill in the blanks’ on already well designed templates. This approach results in great looking documents, but its deficits, namely its inability to export to Word and HTML accurately, will keep Pages from being your word processor of choice.

What Pages Isn’t

It may be better to start by telling you what Pages doesn’t have. Its toolbar at the top seems stark in comparison to Microsoft Word, containing only ten buttons as opposed to the endless string of 16×16 icons you’re used to seeing. Its main work window feels almost naked when compared to Word. By default, there is no ruler flanking your document, no guidelines displaying your margins, although they can both be turned on. In the end, the interface you are left with is the content itself and those tools that, hopefully, you will need during the course of creation. Oh, and if you’re wondering, Pages does not automatically capitalize the first letter of every sentence.

Over the years, Microsoft Word has explored just about every feature possible in a word processor for the sake of making sure the next version is “new and improved”. The result is a program so rich with features yet so unable to reform its past UI choices as to bury its most basic use. In contrast, Pages simply doesn’t have as many features for the user interface designers to contend with. It’s a blessing in that Pages feels like a breath of fresh air, a semi-fresh take on a document creation program. It’s a curse in that if you need a missing feature, features such as collaboration, revision tracking, grammar checking and others, then Pages isn’t for you. Pages does, however, have some things Word does not.

What Pages Is

Pages Inspector

Pages gives you control over all the rudimentary word processor elements you could list off: styles, bullets, margins, spacing, indents, tabs, pagination, spellcheck, etc. It takes advantage of Mac OS X’s text handling giving you control over things like tracking and ligature. You adjust most settings on the document in the Inspector, a panel that breaks down various element attributes across ten categories. The Inspector seems a bit crowded with features at first, but I have yet to find myself at a loss as to where a particular setting is. Pages responds quickly and feels more than solid enough to sit down with and write that novel/business plan/angry rant to your Senator.

Pages Media Browser

Multiple column layouts are easily done as is integrating photos, graphs, pie charts and even video. A built-in media browser gives you quick access to your iPhoto, iTunes and movie libraries so that you can easily drag and drop any of your content into a document. Charts and graphs are easy to setup and look very professional. If you’re working within a particular template, they’re already color coordinated.

For all of Pages’ smart choices, it seems to be lacking something very basic: three buttons for styling text to bold, italics and underline. You can customize the toolbar, but these don’t seem to be among your choices, although there are buttons for Superscript and Subscript styling. Instead, Pages wants you to use Mac OS X’s standard font dialog which is certainly capable but is overwhelmed with options. More seasoned users will certainly use shortcut keys, but there really should be simple buttons that can be added for when Pages needs to be in ‘mom mode’.

Pretty Pretty Templates

Template thumbnails
When you first start Pages, you are asked to choose a template. Aside from the blank document, you have 40 templates to choose from across multiple categories including newsletters, journals, invitations, stationary, resumes, menus, and materials for education and marketing. They’re all very well designed with intelligent choices of color, layout and typography taken care of for you. They’re pre-populated with pictures and fake copy with the hopes that you will replace the dummy content with your own and not mess up the already primped design.

This isn’t always easy though. If you replace a headline with one character too many, what is supposed to only take up a single line suddenly drops down to two, throwing off the design of the rest of the page. You can easily correct this by making the font size of the headline appropriately smaller, but you would think Pages would know enough to do it for you. A similar problem occurs when you replace their professional images with your own homemade ones. Some photo elements appropriately mask and rotate your image for you, maintaining the integrity of the template. Others, however, do not with the difference in size between their image and your image altering the layout of the template.

Pages new menu

None of this is a deal breaker though. It’s just something you have to be aware of as a part of the learning curve. The thing to remember is that what’s important is your content, not their template. The templates are helpful guides that lend an overall aesthetic sense to what you are doing and are easily altered to your needs. Moving images, changing the number of columns, all of these things are very easy to do. In addition, any given template may have more than one type of page available and they are all nicely coordinated. Odds are you can find a combination of layouts that fits your content. Some of the optional layout can quickly turn a newsletter into a mailer with space for a stamp and address label. After you get appropriately comfortable with Pages, you’ll be able to make the templates your own. I’m sure someone will start an online repository for Pages templates in pretty short order.

Importing Word Documents

I’m pretty impressed by Pages ability to import Windows-made Microsoft Word documents with accuracy. I dug out a bunch of old Word docs, many of which had tripped up TextEdit’s abilities, and opened them up in Pages. The result? I couldn’t once get Pages to do something ugly even with my more complicated documents. Very nice.

Exporting to Other Formats

Here’s where things get ugly. Pages lets you export to five different formats aside from its own native format: PDF, Word, HTML, RTF and Plain Text. I exported to each to see how accurate each one really is.

PDF

Export to PDF results look identical to the original document. Not a big surprise really since OS X has done a fantastic job of supporting PDF in the past.

Microsoft Word

Export to Word almost works, but almost isn’t good enough. Opening up one of the more complex templates, I changed nothing and exported it in Microsoft Word format. Opening it in Word on both Windows and the Mac was a disappointment. The content is all there, but the layout that looks so nice in Pages falls apart in Word. It’s pretty depressing since this will be a deal breaker for many many people.

HTML

Export to HTML does not work as advertised to say the least. The resulting files, an html file and a folder of supporting image and css files, does not even render correctly in Safari. If you’re looking for a program to output HTML, this isn’t it. If you were hoping that Export to HTML would output nice standards-based XHTML and CSS with CSS-driven layouts, well, consider yourself disappointed. The output is table-heavy and does not separate content from display very well at all. Export to HTML simply shouldn’t be used.

RTF & Plain Text

Both export to RTF and export to plain text seem to suffer from the same problem: the text exports just fine with an expected loss of formatting, but Pages gets confused about the order of things. For example, the Business Resume template starts off as you would expect with your name and contact information first followed by items like work history. When you export this as either RTF or plain text, suddently your name and contact information are at the bottom of the document below everything else instead of at the top where it belongs. In short, use this export only if you’re using a straight top to bottom layout. If you’re using one of the advanced templates, it’s probably best to steer clear.

So, Is it Worth It?

Pages is a very capable word processor and page layout tool with a price that’s very much in reach. It’s fast, it’s easy to use and it makes creating beautiful documents fun for the design challenged. You can easily discern Apple’s target audience by looking at the list of included templates. The templates are ideal for home use, school use (both elementary and perhaps higher education), and certainly for small companies and non profit organizations. What you don’t see are templates targeted at large organizations, which makes sense given Pages’ lack of other features required by the corporate sector, namely multi-user change tracking and the ability to export to Word format with 100% accuracy. As a result, Pages won’t be a threat to Microsoft Word in the corporate sector.

If you’re a home user, a student or a teacher, or a small business person and you need to create documents for either print or PDF format, then Pages is a great solution. For $79 US ($49 education), you get a very responsive word processor that, when combined with the well designed templates, overcomes its 1.0 roughness with one clear exception: exporting to Word or HTML. Pages’ inability to export to these two formats and retain the beauty of its designs is a big black eye for an otherwise well-done program. Let’s hope Apple tries to tackle this deficiency with a version 1 patch as these problems shouldn’t wait until a version 2 release.