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Pages 12: Apple’s excellent free word processor

Apple Pages 12 word processor

If you use a Mac or an iPad, Apple’s Pages 12 could be the only word processor you need. It’s free, easy to master and, unless you are a lawyer or an academic it includes everything you are likely to need.

Pages 12 at a glance

For:Free, great for layout, all the features most people need.
Against:Native file format, fewer features than Microsoft Word.
Maybe:Collaboration with other iWorks users, iCloud app.
Verdict:Good looking, easy to use. Pages is great option for Apple users who don’t plan to do complex word processing
Rating:4.5 out of 5 – score is for Apple users.
Price:Free
Web:Apple Pages

You may already have Pages 12. Apple installs the software on new Mac computers. It doesn’t come preinstalled on new iPads or iPhones, but you can download it for free from the App Store.

There is a web version of Pages on iCloud that anyone can use, you don’t have to be an Apple customer. The web version works fine with Windows, ChromeOS or Android. You will need to sign up for a free iCloud account that comes with 5GB of storage.

Where iWork fits in the bigger picture

Pages 12 is part of iWork, Apple’s office productivity suite. It sits alongside Numbers, a spreadsheet and Keynote, a presentation app. The three are made to be used with each other and share many common ideas and controls. Learn to use one and you have learned them all.

For many Apple users Pages will be the only word processor you ever need. It integrates brilliantly across the various Apple devices and to iCloud. You can move from device to device and get the same user experience, Pages works much the same way everywhere.

The main alternatives to Pages are Microsoft Word, which is part of Microsoft Office and Google Docs which is part of GSuite.

Office and GSuite are not free, although there are free options. You may not find these free options enough for serious work. If you prefer free software there is LibreOffice.

Microsoft Office and LibreOffice offer more features, but many of these are not essential for everyday word-processing.

Is Pages as good as Microsoft Word?

The simple answer to this question is that it depends on what you want to do and who you work with.

Pages, Word and Google Docs each have a different central focus. Pages is all about putting words and pictures onto a printed or online page.

Its strength lies in layout.

You could produce an advertisement, a newsletter or a pamphlet faster with Pages than with, say, Microsoft Word and a layout app.

You might choose Pages as a low cost alternative to a professional design application like Adobe Indesign.

Compare Pages with Word

In comparison, Word has every conceivable word processor feature including many that you may never use. This makes it popular with large companies and professional users, such as lawyers.

It is a sprawling, complex comprehensive application. That makes it versatile, but it takes a long time to learn how to get the best from it. In comparison Pages is lighter and quicker to master.

Apple built Pages to work with its computers, tablets and phones. If you are familiar with these products, Pages will feel familiar. Microsoft developed Word for Windows computers. These days the Mac versions are far better than in the past, but there are times when that Windows heritage can confuse Mac users.

Is Pages better than Google Docs

Again, it depends what you want to do and who you work with.

Google Docs’s strength is in collaboration. Pages is great for collaboration if you only work with colleagues who use Macs. Otherwise it is not as good as Google Docs. Nor is Microsoft Word.

While Google Docs is good on a desktop or on a ChromeOS device, it is far from the best choice on a tablet or a phone. Google’s mobile apps are inferior to Pages or Microsoft Word. Pages works far better on Apple tablets and phones.

Likewise Pages is a long way ahead of Google Docs for layout and complex documents. In terms of features it sits between Google Docs and Word.

Using Pages 12

You can use Pages on multiple levels. Need to knock up a document fast? Pages can do this, it will guide you through adding typography and inserting images. You can power through the tasks in no time.

There are templates to help you get started. Pages has the best range of templates of any popular word processor and there are many more you can download from Apple and third parties.

When you first open Pages you’ll see a main window and a right-hand sidebar. This sidebar shows formatting and layout controls. If you want to focus on words, it is easy to hide the side-bar.

A second, optional left-hand sidebar can show comments and features like a table on contents.

Unlike other word processors, there isn’t a draft view. This can be annoying at first because, as the name suggests, Pages is organised around pages. And like every other word processor, that means it sees the world from a printed document perspective.

No matter what you are working on, there can be headers and footers to navigate, even if you plan to build a single online-only document.

Working with others

Pages can opening and write documents for other word processor formats but has its own native format. Some features, largely to do with layout, don’t necessarily make it when converting to other document formats. And nothing else reads native format Pages documents.

This isn’t much of a problem in practice as long as you remember which features don’t translate. You can’t send a native Pages document to a colleague using Microsoft Windows and expect them to open it. There is a workaround, but it involves them signing up for an iCloud account and opening the document in the online version of Pages.

Life is far easier if you remember to save your Pages document in Word before sending. You can choose to send as PDF, text or RTF. Don’t expect your formatting to stay unchanged if you make a round trip where a colleague edits and returns the document.

The software picks up almost everything from other formats. You could, say, open a Microsoft Word document that has review comments and mark-up, then work through these in Pages.

Pages collaboration works fine if you work on the same document as a colleague using either Pages or the web app.

Pages for Mac, iPhone, iPad

Pages for Mac works really well. Yet Pages can shine on an iPhone or iPad, especially if you use one of them with a Mac. You’ll see a simplified view of the app, but all the desktop features are there. You may have to dig around to find them.

On the iPhone you can use a screen view designed to make editing easier. It hides the images and fancy features allowing you to focus on the text.

Apple has a feature on its operating systems called Continuity. It means that if you have Bluetooth switched on and both devices are on the same Wi-Fi network, you can move seamlessly from editing a Pages document on one device to another.

Another feature called Handoff means you can pick up on another device where you left off.

It feels like magic to work on a desktop document at home and continue to edit the same document on your iPhone while riding on a train or bus to work.

If Pages 12 has a weakness it is dealing with long documents. It’s fine if you are writing anything up to a few thousand words, say a long essay, magazine feature or book chapter. Things break down when documents get bigger than this.

Reviewer’s notes

  • The iPhone and iPad versions of Pages have a useful Presenter Mode which can turn your device into a teleprompter or autocue. Words appear in big text without any images or distractions and you can make it automatically scroll down.
  • A recent update adds support for Apple’s Shortcuts automation tool.
  • Pages has support for language translation on the fly.
  • You can use Apple’s Scribble software with Pages on an iPad. It works with the Apple Pencil to turn handwritten notes into typed text. This feature is powerful if you want to add text to a document while you are standing up.
  • Pages is a good option if you plan to produce Apple Books.

Pages 12 verdict

If you live and work exclusively with Apple devices Pages 12 is potentially the best word processor for your needs. There are simpler alternatives, Markdown editors are a good choice if you crave simplicity and minimalism. And there are more complex alternatives, Word had more features.

Yet for many users Pages 12 is a solid choice and it is free.


Apple Pages 5 review

This is an excerpt from an Apple Pages 5 review that was published July 8, 2014.

Many long-term Pages users were not impressed when Apple updated its iWork word processor from Pages ’09 to Pages 5 in late 2013.

People who invested time and effort learning and mastering the earlier Pages ’09 version of the software found key features were missing. If they had written scripts, many stopped working.

In time the features returned. Apple drip-fed updates restoring much of what was missing in the first version of Pages 5.

Pages: the name tells the story

Pages is not a standard word processor. The name is a giveaway. It is a page design tool first and a word processor second. It was first built to make works look pretty on the printed page. Later the focus shifted to creating good looking online documents.

It does this well. Pages is a low cost alternative to Adobe Indesign for people who need to make words and pictures look good, but who don’t need professional tools and don’t want to pay a lot for them.

It can deliver great looking designs. You don’t need to be an expert to get results.

As a word processor?

Apple talks about Pages as a word-processor. It is part of iWork along with the Numbers spreadsheet and the Keynote presentation manager.

Like it or not that puts it up against Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint or Google Docs, Sheets and Slides.

Pages 5 does not feature collaboration tools like Google Docs. Nor does it have the heavy duty tools you’ll find in Microsoft Word. It’s more basic in these departments.

Writing space

You get a clean writing space and easy access to the controls needed for adding styles. It’s productive and trouble free.

You can work with documents that come from Word or Google Docs and you can send Pages documents back to these apps. You’ll even see many of the review marks from the other applications – although not all. There are few, if any, problems converting between document formats.

Tracking changes

It’s not the best tool for jobs where you need to track changes with clients, but it can cope.

Pages 5 is the best tool if you want to share and edit documents across a Mac, an iPhone and an iPad. There are apps for all three devices and they work much the same in each.

The big change in the move from Pages ’09 to Pages 5 is iCloud. You can choose to store documents on your Mac’s hard drive or to iCloud. This means you could start writing a document on an iPad at home. Pick up the document from iCloud on your phone while riding the train to work, then finish it off on your desktop Mac in your office.

Pages 5 verdict

Apple Pages 5 is free for Apple users. You can’t argue with the value. It is more than good enough for everyday writing jobs, can handle many, but not all, more difficult tasks and massively outperforms Word or Google Docs if you need to create a good looking layout.

If you are committed to Microsoft Word or Google Docs you may not want to switch, but the option is there should you need it.

Typora markdown editor review

Typora is a great Markdown editor that brings distraction-free writing to Windows and Linux.

There’s a smorgasbord full of Markdown editors for Apple users. Windows and Linux users who want to simplify writing have fewer options. Typora changes that.

It’s possible to run Typora on a Chromebook. While there are no versions for Android or iOS, that may change.

Markdown editors are stripped-back distraction-free writing apps. If you want to focus on getting your words onto the virtual page and nothing else, they are your best option.

Many writers swear Markdown improves productivity.

Typora offers a different Markdown take

Markdown editors have a limited range of type and formatting options compared to traditional word processors like Microsoft Word. Even Google Docs offers a wider range of choices.

That’s deliberate, it keeps things simple.

With Markdown editors you can enter formatting codes directly into your text. A pair of * symbols tells Markdown the next few characters are in bold type and so on.

Keep it out of sight

Other Markdown editors tend to keep these codes in sight. You type onto a blank pages and can see your markup codes. You can then switch to a second screen to see how they look after formatting.

Typora doesn’t do that. In normal use, it styles the text as you type. This takes us back to an acronym that we don’t hear much these days: wysiwyg – what you see is what you get.

There is an option to choose a view with pure Markdown codes. Yet, for the most part, Typora keeps this out of sight.

I’m not convinced this is an improvement, but you may feel otherwise.

Themes

The other departure from standard Markdown editors is that Typora offers a series of themes. Many allow you to switch from dark text on a light background to light on dark, or perhaps, format the output in different ways.

Typora takes themes further than that. There is a theme gallery, you can download more themes If you are handy with CSS, you can create your own custom themes.

While this is neat, it is a form of distraction. Instead of procrastinating over font choices and layout options when using Microsoft Word, you can now waste valuable writing time looking at these themes.

Document format

There are Markdown editors that store files in a proprietary format. Thankfully, Typora does not do this. Proprietary formats are a backward step.

The files store as .md documents that you can open with other Markdown editors and applications or services that accept Markdown input. This can be handy if, say, you have a WordPress blog.

You can save direct to Word format if you need to stay compatible with colleagues. Typora has HTML and PDF output too.

Typora verdict

If you already use a Markdown editor, Typora can make sense if being able to see formatted text as you type appeals. I find it doesn’t help, but it doesn’t do any harm.

Typora is the best Markdown editor I’ve seen for Windows and Linux systems. If you want to simplify your writing and you use one of these, it is the smartest option.

If you are a Mac user, take advantage of the free trial period to see if Typora suits better than the other Markdown options.

Typora costs a one-off US$15. There is no cheeky annual subscription to worry about. I couldn’t find it in app stores, you can buy direct from the Typora site.

Ten years of Markdown and iA Writer

It may not work for everyone, but switching from Microsoft Word to a Markdown or text editor boosted my productivity.

Almost every post written on this site over the last 13 years was written using Markdown.

If we want to be technical about it, Markdown is a simple, lightweight markup language.

At a pinch you can write Markdown using a plain text editor. It is better when you use an app. My favourite Markdown app is iA Writer.

Swiss Army knife

Microsoft Word is the writing equivalent of a Swiss Army knife. It aims to cater for every possible need.

In comparison, Markdown and iA Writer are like one of those extra sharp Japanese cooking knives.

They do far less, but what they do, is done better with greater efficiency.

If you don’t know what life will bring you, the Swiss Army knife makes sense. But a chef would choose the latter to prepare a meal.

Simple, minimal, that is the whole point

The beauty of Markdown is there are a mere handful of commands to remember. There are few features.

That is a good thing. It means you can focus on writing words. Nothing else.

In this sense it is the closest thing to using a typewriter.

A few good commands

You can type out the commands for, say, bold text. That would be a couple of * symbols before and after the words you want in bold.

In a Markdown app you could also use Command-B (on a Mac) and the symbols are inserted for you. That’s the same code used in word processors like Microsoft Word.

This means there is almost nothing new to learn. You can be up and running with Markdown immediately.

Zero distraction

The advantage of this simple, minimal approach is you are not distracted by things that don’t matter.

There is no dithering over font choices or layout options.

Trust me, you can spend hours wondering if that editor waiting for your latest story prefers to get copy in Arial or Times Roman.

Faster

Simple means fast. A moment ago I fired up Microsoft Word on my state-of-the-art Apple M1 MacBook Air.

The app took three minutes to check for and download upgrades. Then it did something in the background before opening.

There are times when I have waited much longer to get started.

A Markdown editor is there immediately with a blank page ready to go.

Sure, there are times when I use Word. I have clients who expect to receive Word files or Google Docs. It can be easier to go there from the outset.

That said, converting Markdown to Word or Google Docs is no more than a mouse click away.

Comfortable

Markdown has another advantage. It is all about text.

If, like me, you can touch type, it means you can spend more time with your hands on the keyboard and less time mousing.

I find that over time Microsoft Word needs extra mouse activity – or touch screen action. That can give me overuse pains in my hands and arms. The more time you stay with the keyboard, the less discomfort.

It’s easy to miss this point, but if you find yourself cutting text from PDFs or web pages, pasting them into iA Writer is a cinch. Compare that with the fussiness that can happen when you past text into a word processor.

Markdown apps

Many of the posts on this site were written with iA Writer. A handful were written using Byword.

Byword is a Markdown Editor for Apple users. There is a Mac version and an iOS version that will also run on iPadOS.

iA Writer started life in the Apple camp. There’s a reason for that1.

Today there are Windows and Android versions of iA Writer.

iA Writer and Byline

For me two apps run on iOS, iPadOS, which for a long time was, in effect, the same as iOS, and they run on MacOS.

My first iOS version of iA Writer cost NZ$2.59 at the end of 2011.

It was, and remains, a bargain. That was the best $2.59 I ever spent on software. In 2016 iA charged a further NZ$5.99 for an upgraded app.

I’m not complaining. Even after buying MacOS apps, iA Writer works out at a fraction over one New Zealand dollar a year.

Phone, tablet, laptop, desktop

Because both apps store files in Apple’s iCloud, you can switch between Apple devices without missing a beat.

I can, and have, started writing on a phone, edited on a desktop, polished on a tablet and send from a laptop.

iA Writer and Byword are both solid apps. I recommend iA Writer over Byword because it has had more consistent attention from the developer over the years.

Although there is not a lot in it.

At the time of writing the most recent update of iA Writer was three months old. The most recent Byword was six months ago.

In my longer review of the latest version of iA Writer I explain why it can be better than a word processor.

Ten years on

After a decade with iA Writer, it remains my main writing app on iPhone, computer and iPad.

There are a few minor niggles. iA Writer works best for my journalism and blog posts.

Once a story needs to go longer than a few thousand words it can be unwieldy. Last year I wrote around 4000 words for a book chapter using iA writer.

If that happens, I find it best to break the text into smaller chunks.

There is no question I’m more productive with Markdown than with any alternative. I get more done with less mental and physical strain.

That has to a killer feature by any standard.


  1. Markdown has a strong Apple lineage. One of the authors is John Gruber who runs Daring Fireball, a blog about Apple products and services. ↩︎