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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.

Xero iPad app – small business accounting

When it comes to reports and intensive work, Xero’s cloud-based small business accounting works best in a web browser. The Xero iPad app is great for updating information while on the run.

Xero is modern, yet mature accounting software for small business. It lives in the cloud, has a crisp clear user interface and integrates with hundreds of other financial or business management apps.

It gives small business owners or operators the tools needed to stay on top of paperwork, GST returns and annual tax filing.

You could do everything yourself. Or you can use Xero for day-to-day bookkeeping then give your accountant access to the files where they can add their professional value to your data.

Living in the cloud

Living in the cloud means you can use Xero in a web browser on your computer, phone or tablet. That’s a huge advantage over more traditional accounts software.

Xero is a classic example of software-as-a-service or SaaS. You don’t buy an application with a one-off purchase, you pay Xero a monthly fee to use the service.

Other examples of SaaS that small businesses will encounter are Gmail, Google Docs and the web version of Microsoft 365.

The browser version of Xero works fine on any computer and can be good on a large screen tablet. It works fine on a 12.9 inch iPad Pro.

Away from the browser

Things get tricky with smaller screens. That’s where the iPhone and iPad apps are essential for anyone wanting to check or update Xero while on the move.

Here we’re looking at the iPad app, but Xero’s apps work much the same on iPadOS and iOS.

The Xero iPad app allows you to track important information, enter data and reconcile transactions. It’s fast and easy, but you don’t get all the Xero functionality.

That means you’ll still need to tackle more complex reports and reviews using the browser software. Yet you can do most things with the app.

Logging in on an iPad

Accounting software needs security. The last thing you want is for crooks to get their hands on your books.

Xero takes security seriously. It insists on a two-factor authentication – sometimes you’ll see this referred to as 2FA.

Two-factor authentication is a way of checking you are who you say you are when you log-on to the service.

With the browser version of Xero that means typing a name and password, then using an authenticator app – most likely on your phone – to enter a one-off security code.

Remember me

You can set the software to remember your log-in details for 30 days, but after that it resets.

In practice, it is best to accept the process when logging in as it means no-one can jump on your computer and get control of your money.

iPads handle two-factor authentication much better than most computers. You’ll still need to get an authenticator code the first time you load the app.

After that, iPadOS’s built-in face recognition system acts as your second factor. Look at the camera and you are away.

Older iPads do much the same with Apple’s Touch ID fingerprint reader. Your fingerprint becomes your second identification factor.

Xero iPad 1

Made for touch screen

One problem you’ll come across using the browser version of Xero on a small mobile screen is the touch buttons can be tiny and hard to navigate.

This is not an issue with the iPad app. The buttons are big, easy to see and hard to miss even when you have sausage fingers.

Xero has done a fine job of making the mobile app work sensibly in both portrait and landscape modes. That is you can use whichever way around you hold your iPad.

Simplified Xero

As mentioned, the functionality is simplified. There are four activity areas in a menu ranged across the bottom of the display: dashboard; sales; purchases and contacts.

Dashboard

Dashboard shows your bank accounts and the balance in each of them. You can see what invoices are unpaid and those overdue.

Likewise you can see what you owe and your unpaid invoices. There’s an indication of this month’s profit and a bar chart showing cash in and cash out over the last four months.

You can click on each of these to get a fuller report. Click on Profit this Year and you can chose from a chart showing the year-to-date, the quarter-to-date on the month-to-date.

Xero ipad 2

Going deeper

In some cases you can go down a level. Clicking on unpaid invoices tells you who owns money and lets you click through to the invoice details in case you need to answer a customer query while you are out and about.

You can’t dive deeper from all screens. For a full analysis you’ll need to use the browser app.

In effect the Sales takes you to the same information as the invoices section of the dashboard. It’s more a shortcut to the data.

The Purchases option gives more information, including an overview of recent spending. Again you can click through to get a fuller list of spending.

Much of the data is presented in Xero’s crisp, spacious design making it easy to read and navigate. A couple of options take you to an iPadOS style dialogue box – the reconciliations option does this.

The contacts option takes you through to a list of everyone you have transacted with. Where appropriate you can click through and find details of transactions and notes. It’ll tell you how long a customer takes to pay their bills on average.

Xero updates

At the time of writing the Xero iPad app is on version 9.4.0. You can set your iPad for automatic upgrades, which can be a smart move if there is ever a security issue that needs addressing fast.

Xero makes a lot of changes to the software. The 9.4.0 version is upgrade 16 for 2021 and we are at the start of August. That’s an update every two weeks on average, which tells you the software is maintained.

Verdict – Xero iPad app

There’s no charge for the Xero iPad app. Apart from a demonstration company, the only way you can use it is with a full subscription to the Xero service.

If you run a business and use Xero, the iPad app is a great tool for handling enquiries, entering data and checking information while you are on the move.

The iPad user experience is as good as you’ll find in a small business application.

Please note: This is a review of the iPad app, not the full Xero product. If you’re interested there is an earlier review of this software written soon after it was first launched in 2015.  

A practical guide to writing on the iPad

Apple’s iPad is a great writing tool. For many professional and part-time writers it can be better than a laptop.

In this feature we’ll look at why the iPad could be the best option for you. We’ll examine which iPad model to choose, explore keyboards and outline the best writing applications.

You don’t need a high-end iPad for writing. The standard NZ$569 (mid-2020 prices) iPad has everything you need. It’s powerful enough and has a screen you’ll have no trouble living with.

You can write on any iPad

From a computer point of view, writing is an undemanding application.

Word processors, editors and other writing tools barely skim the surface of what a computer or tablet can do.

All you need is enough computing power for the screen to keep up with your typing and to display crisp, readable text.

Every current iPad meets that standard. Indeed, every iPad from the last five years will do the job and do it in style.

Hide complexity

When I’m away from my desk, I use a top-of-the-range 12.9-inch iPad Pro for writing. It has far more power than I need to put down words. In my case I use the extra grunt to run other creative applications.

Apple could have designed the iPad with journalists like me in mind. iPads are more portable than even the slimmest, lightest laptop. Their batteries tend to last hours longer than most laptops. And they do a good job of hiding complexity.

It’s no trouble to pull out an iPad and work on in a cafe, on an airplane tray-table, or, at a pinch, on your lap. Sure this is true of a good laptop, but it is more so with the iPad.

If you want to push portability to the limit, use the iPad mini. It has everything you might need in a smaller package, 

Why is the iPad a great writing tool?

When Apple launched the first iPad it pitched the tablet as a media consumption device. It was clear early on that it could do more. Today’s iPads are often better than laptops for many creative tasks.

When it comes to writing the iPad has advantages:

  • It has long battery life. Sure, you can find laptops that will go 12 hours between charges including the 2021 M1 MacBook Air. Yet, measure-for-measure, an iPad will last longer between charges than a conventional computer.
  • Focus. While you can now open two or more side-by-side screens in iPadOS, the operating system lends itself to doing one thing at a time. There is no clutter. With the iPad you can focus only on writing without other apps distracting you. Turning off notifications and concentrating is much easier. This is why you could view the iPad as the closest modern equivalent to a portable typewriter.
  • Portable. The iPad is more portable than any laptop. It can go places laptops don’t. There are fewer moving parts. Well, actually, there are no moving parts on the iPad itself. This makes it more robust. 
  • One aspect of the iPad’s portability is that you can work on it even when you are standing. It is possible to thumb type on the screen keyboard while your are standing. I’ve done this at press conferences. I’ve done this waiting in queues to board planes.
  • This means you can write in more places, more often. Yes, you can do that on a phone, but it’s not the best writing experience. It is not easy to write standing up with a laptop.
  • The same applies if, say, you are sitting cramped on a crowded flight. At a pinch you can tap out words holding the iPad in vertical or portrait orientation when there’s no room for a keyboard.
  • Being able to use the taller portrait orientation is an often overlooked bonus. There are subtle ergonomic problems with writing across a wide screen. This makes errors harder to spot. A narrow width is easier to proof-read. If you are writing words to print on paper, the screen orientation mirrors how your words will appear on the finished document.
  • iPads have glorious, well-lit high resolution screens. Higher resolution means your eyes don’t tire as fast. You can work for longer stretches and concentrate for longer.
  • No waiting. An iPad is always ready to go the moment you switch on. Yes, modern laptops can do the same, but you can always start writing in seconds on an iPad.

Pick an iPad, any iPad

iPads range in size. The smallest is the iPad mini, with a 7.9-inch display. That’s roughly 200 by 135mm. At the other end of the scale the 12.9-inch iPad Pro display measures 280 by 215mm. It has more than twice as much screen.

The Mini weighs 300g. That’s roughly the weight of two phones. The larger size iPad Pro is 640g, about half the weight of a laptop with the same size display.

Even when you add a keyboard, iPads are smaller, lighter and more portable than almost every laptop. Apple’s MacBook Air gets close. The nearest non-Apple competitor would be a Microsoft Surface tablet.  

If money is no object, you can choose the iPad that you find comfortable to read. If it is an object, pick the iPad you can afford.

Cellular or not?

Few writers need Sim-card models that can use cellular phone technology to connect to the net.

You’ll find Wi-Fi is available in many of the places where you will want to write. Where it isn’t, you can tether your iPad to your phone and connect that way.

Tethering works with both iPhones and Android phones. The experience is better and smoother if you have an iPhone, but don’t get hung up on this point, it isn’t a deal breaker. Android phones will work perfectly well. 

Cellular adds around NZ$220 to the price of a Wi-Fi iPad. That money can be better spent elsewhere.

iPad storage

The other option that adds to the price of an iPad is storage.

While you don’t need a huge amount for storage for written documents, you may want to store music, other audio, photographs and video. These are all storage hungry.

The iPad Pro has a terabyte storage option. This adds NZ$900 to the price of the base 128GB model. It will be overkill for many readers. I have a huge music collection, store audio and video files and struggle to fill a 512GB iPad. That amount of storage will add roughly NZ$500 to the base price.

It’s easy to overbuy storage

The exact amount of storage you need should take into account what other devices you own. If you have a computer and an iPad, then you won’t need to splurge on a lot of storage. Likewise, if you can offload files that you don’t need all the time to an external drive, you can save money.

Remember it is near impossible to upgrade iPad storage. It’s a decision you need to get right before you buy.

Based on my experience, I’d suggest you should budget for at least 256GB of storage and consider buying 512GB. That’s the amount I have on my own iPad, it has enough headroom for me to never worry about running out of space.

iPad keyboard considerations

A keyboard isn’t essential if you own an iPad. You can do a lot without one and there is always the Apple Pencil and handwriting recognition. Apple’s new Scribble feature can change the way you think about your iPad

But this post is about writing on an iPad. A keyboard is always going to make that easier.

There is no shortage of iPad keyboards to choose from. Any iPad will work with any Bluetooth keyboard.

When you buy an iPad, chances are someone will attempt to sell you a keyboard as an add-on. Apple’s iPad keyboards are the most straightforward choice, although your choice should be down to what you find comfortable. That’s both from an ergonomic point of view and from a budget point of view.

Whether you choose an Apple-branded keyboard or one made by another company, take care to match the size and shape with your iPad. Keyboards serve as protective covers and the ones that fit neatly do a better protection job. 

Magic Keyboard

At NZ$550 a pop, Apple’s Magic Keyboard is an expensive, Rolls Royce option. It’s good. When you use it at a desk or on a flat surface it is little different from a laptop keyboard experience.

The $320 Apple Smart Keyboard Folio is less expensive. It’s the one I choose for when I’m on the move. It has the best balance of function and price. Again, it gives the iPad a laptop feel. Yet it is more flexible and feels less robust than the Magic Keyboard.

Then there’s the NZ$260 Apple Smart Keyboard.

Not all Apple keyboards are available for all iPads. One aspect of the Apple keyboards that you might see as a negative is that they flex more than you might expect if you are typing on your lap. When used this way they are not as solid as laptops.

Two third-party brands to consider are Logitech and Brydge. You can save a few dollars when compared to Apple prices. Brydge makes hard shell keyboards that turn your iPad into something resembling a conventional laptop.

When I last looked there were a dozen Logitech iPad keyboards. The range covers all iPad models. I’ve used a few, they are largely good. 

Protection

All the keyboards that are made to work with iPads offer a degree of protection. That’s important if you are mobile. The devices are not fragile, but once you start moving about the potential for dropping them or doing other damage increases.

Keyboards are a matter of personal taste. I touch type and find there’s a huge variation in what works for me. The only way you can be certain is to have a quick test drive before buying. It may make sense to shop online for an iPad, I recommend you visit a physical store before choosing a keyboard.

Much of the time I use a first generation Apple Bluetooth keyboard and a mStand tablet from Rain Design to hold the iPad. It’s a simple and elegant approach. There are many other options. Any store that sells iPads will have a selection. 

Buying an Apple Pencil can be confusing. There are two models. The one you buy depends on your iPad model.

It’s not realistic to use a Pencil for long writing jobs. They are great for jotting quick notes when on the move. My regret is that I can’t use shorthand to write with an Apple Pencil.

File the Apple Pencil under nice to have rather than essential. Although there are people who say they can’t live without them. It’s a good thing to ask someone to buy you as a present.

Writing apps

There are iPad versions of two best-known writing apps: Microsoft Word and Google Docs. While they may be all you need, there are a wealth of alternatives that may suit your needs better than the juggernauts.

It’s controversial, but I argue Word is a better experience on the iPad than on a Windows or Mac computer. It’s stripped back and has an elegance that’s hidden on a conventional computer.

If your iPad has a screen smaller than 10.1-inches, Word is free.

Otherwise you can buy Word for the iPad as part of any Microsoft Office subscription. If you use the software at work, or on a computer, you may already have a licence.

A Microsoft Office licence costs around NZ$130 a year, although you can find deals.

Word on the Web

There is a web version of Microsoft Word, which is handy if you need the software in a hurry and don’t have the app loaded.

One Word drawback is that it doesn’t dovetail as neatly into the Apple-iPad world as many other writing tools. It pushes you towards using Microsoft OneDrive instead of iCloud or Dropbox. And you sometimes rub up against Microsoft’s this-is-how-we-do-things attitude.

Say you try to mail a Word document. The software assumes you want to send it using Outlook, not the stock iPad Mail app.

Google Docs

Google does something similar with Google Docs on the iPad. You can use the app in its familiar web-based version. When you open a document, say from Google Drive, there’s an option to download and install a Google Doc iPad app.

If you don’t choose to download, opt to open the document in Safari, a second pushier screen pops up asking you a second time. Never forget that installing a Google app gives the company permission to spy on your iPad.

Google Docs works fine on a browser on the iPad. I’m hard-pressed to see any difference in the user experience when compared with Docs on a laptop or desktop computer. If you are all in with Google, the app might make more sense. Otherwise, stick with the web version.

While Microsoft Word has collaboration features, Google Docs is a better choice if you work with others to build documents. Better, not foolproof. 

Apple Pages

Apple’s own Pages word processor comes free with every iPad. It could be all the word processor you need. It will open documents created with Word or Docs and you can send Pages documents in the Word format.

As the name hints Pages is more page design oriented that Word or Google Docs. This works better than you might expect on an iPad, although you will need a larger screen to make the most of it. Pages is ideal, a better bet than Word or Docs, if you plan to create Apple Books or PDFs.

There’s one Pages feature I love, even if it is not my first choice for writing on the iPad. Presenter Mode turns the iPad into an autocue. When I’m on a long radio broadcast, presenting live or doing similar work I use it as a prompt.

Every writer has their favourite apps. Different writing tools perform different functions. What works best for you depends on what writing you do and what you are familiar with.

iA Writer

For my everyday work the best writing app is iA Writer. It may not suit you. iA Writer is not a word processor, it is a text editor. That means it’s a barebones writing app with few features. You can download it from the App Store for NZ$30.

iA Writer uses Markdown. This is a way of formatting text without lifting your hands from the keyboard. It takes minutes to learn and can speed up writing.

Byword is a good NZ$6 alternative to iA Writer. The developers neglected the app for a while, but are now back on the job.

Collabora Office is a promising-looking free iPad version of LibreOffice. I’ll write more about this soon. 

Other writing apps

Two other apps worth considering are Scrivener and Ulysses. I’m not familiar with either beyond testing them both many years ago.

Scrivener, NZ$19 in the App Store, sells as a writing tool to help novelists. That means it has a database to help track characters and other novel elements.

Fans swear by the app. It goes in the opposite direction to where I want to go with writing on my iPad. That is, it adds complexity.

Ulysses has the same Markdown formatting as iA Writer and Byword. It adds more word processor-like features. This sounds contradictory, but it marries a minimalist look and feel with background complexity. You’ll either love it or it will bewilder you.

Pricey subscription

The app is a free download, you can test it without paying. After that it costs NZ$11 a month or $92 a year to use. That makes it expensive if you don’t expect to tap into its complexity.

You aren’t restricted to using a writing app. Many general applications include editors that may meet your needs.

There are iPad users who write everything in the Notes app that comes as part of the iPad operating system.

Tools like Evernote are popular with iPad writers. Bear is another app that comes up in conversations about writing on the iPad. It is more a note-taking app than a text editor, but it covers all the bases. Simplenote is a free alternative.

macOS 11 Big Sur review: Homage to iPad

Last week Apple released MacOS 11 Big Sur. The latest version of Apple’s desktop operating system is most significant update in two decades.

In part this is timing. MacOS 11 Big Sur arrives as Apple is moving Mac hardware from Intel processors to its own chip technology.

The first Apple Silicon computers launched earlier in the same week the OS dropped.

Discontinuity

Apple Silicon is beyond interesting. It marks a once-in-a-generation discontinuity on price-performance curves.

The ARM-based M1 processors are part of the same family as the A14 chip found in the latest iPhones and iPads.

While Apple is converging its hardware designs, something similar is happening with operating systems.

iPad fingerprints everywhere

MacOS 11 looks a lot like the latest iPadOS. The two share a similar translucent menu bar, dock, icons and other key parts of the user interface.

Apple has moved the on-off switches found on iOS and iPadOS to macOS. Likewise the full height sidebars will be familiar to anyone who uses iPadOS 14.

There’s a Control Centre that has more than a passing resemblance to the iOS or iPadOS Control Centre.

Here you can find settings for common control such as the volume, screen brightness and other things. In earlier versions of MacOS you could get at these through the menu bar. If you choose, you still can.

Apple has given the Notification centre a similar overhaul. Again it looks like iOS. The Mac Messages app is now much the same as its iOS or iPadOS counterparts. The Maps app has been given the same treatment.

Safari

Safari has been through a similar makeover. It looks markedly different in places. You can now see favicon on tabs, these are the little icons used to identify web sites. Pop-up previews let you know what to expect when you hover the cursor over a tab.

There are more customisation options. You can now roll-your-own Start page. And, very Apple 2020, there’s a built-in privacy report. It shows which websites are tracking you and how they watch you as you move around the web.

Much of the initial customer reaction to the update centres on this user interface redesign. There are high profile long-time Mac users who don’t like the changes. A handful hate them.

iPad convergence

The convergence is deliberate and strategic. Apple may not merge its operating systems in the foreseeable future, but it will be possible to run iOS or iPadOS apps on a Mac in ways that look and feel natural. Moving between the different devices won’t be a jarring experience.

While this is important for many Apple customers, the underlying MacOS remains much the same as before. The same features are there, in many cases they work as they did before.

One thing I’m now acutely aware of is how the new look and feel help with accessibility. This might seem counter intuitive. In places fonts are smaller and skinnier than before. The menu icons are also smaller.

Yet macOS 11 Big Sur arrived as I was recovering from an eye condition1 that, at times, meant I was down to 20 percent of normal vision. In practice I found the newer operation system is easier to see and navigate than before.

The more vibrant colours help. There’s more transparency than before, this can be bad from an accessibility point of view, but you can turn it off if you find it a problem. Oddly, and I find this hard to articulate, I didn’t. Even when my vision was at its lowest ebb, macOS 11 Big Sur was readable.

Likewise, while Big Sur has less contrast than early versions of macOS, it wasn’t an issue.

There are a couple of minor niggles. Since the upgrade, I can no longer use an Apple Watch to unlock the desktop iMac. If there’s a setting that needs tinkering with I can’t find it, not have I found help in the support forum.

Something strange is going on with Apple’s Continuity and the new OS. This could be linked to the Watch issue.

In the majority of cases Continuity works as before. Yet if I, say, go to Safari on the iPad to open a browser window that shows on my Mac, I can’t see the current batch of tabs. Instead I get a set from a few hours ago.

These problems are tiny. Apple may fix them in an update or it could be my settings aren’t right. They are not deal breakers.

Big Sur verdict

There’s a lot that’s new in macOS 11 Big Sur. Much of that is out of sight to everyday users.

Apple has been preparing the ground for this upgrade over the last year or two, which means it is not as jarring as major upgrades were a decade ago. You won’t get lost although you may need a degree of adjustment. A month from now this will be as familiar as your last macOS.

The iPad’s influence is everywhere. It feels as if Apple is using the iPad to push its vision of computing forward, then adopting these features on the Mac as they mature.


  1. Much better now. Thanks for asking. ↩︎

Scribble changes how you use iPad

The first few paragraphs of this review were handwritten on an iPad Pro running iPadOS 14. Apple included a new feature in the operating system called Scribble.

It allows you handwrite in any iPad text field. Scribble then converts your handwriting into text.

Scribble works with the Apple Pencil. If you don’t own one, this a reason to buy the Pencil.

It doesn’t have to be the Apple Pencil, any powered iPad stylus will work. Scribble doesn’t work with fingertips or with passive styluses.

If you’re old enough and spent a lot of time with Apple hardware you may remember something similar was possible with the Newton MessagePad.

Impressive performance

Scribble works better than you might dare to expect.

It is fast enough to covert handwriting on the fly. Using it feels natural enough over the short haul. After a while writing with the Pencil can get more tiring than typing, although that may be unfamiliarity.

That could also be because I am a touch typist and have never been great at handwriting. In my case Scribble is an accurate description.

Either way, I gave up trying to write this entire post using Scribble at the sentence you are reading now. In other words, it’s good for a couple of hundred words.

Don’t plan on using it to write your magnum opus.

Scribble quick notes

To date I’ve found Scribble is excellent for making quick notes, filling in forms, compiling lists and the like. It excels if you need to pen a fast reply to an email.

While you can use Scribble in any text field, certain iPadOS apps have full support. The first paragraphs of this post were written directly into the Apple Pages word processor. If you own an iPad, Pages is free.

When you touch the screen with your Pencil while in a Pages document, the draw palette shows up. To choose scribble, you have to pick the leftmost pen tool, it has an A on it to make things clearer.

Reading my handwriting can be challenging at the best of times. Scribble got almost everything right for the first paragraphs. We’ll discusss the word almost in a moment. Where it doesn’t recognise your writing, you can quickly fix the text using one of four simple pen gestures. Newton owners might find them familiar.

Gestures

To delete a written word, you scribble over it. That’s straightforward enough and needs no training. You can select a word by drawing a line through it or by circling it. In practice the circles are easier and more accurate, although you may find otherwise.

Inserting text works when you tap and hold the pen tip at the insertion point. A gap opens in the text and you can write in your extra text. Drawing a vertical line between text characters will either add a space to separate two connected words or open a space when two words are closed up.

It doesn’t take long to pick up these gestures, I was doing them all without a second thought before I stopped scribbling this post.

There is one glaring omission. You can’t go to a word and, say, capitalise it. With the Newton you can turn a lower case character into a capital with an upward swipe. With Scribble you have to delete and write the word again remembering to use a giant initial letter.

You can’t Scribble everywhere yet

Scribble doesn’t work with all iPadOS apps. The software has to be enabled by the app developer. It doesn’t work with Microsoft Word or Google Docs. If history is anything to go by, third party app developers will embrace it over time.

Other Apple iWorks apps can use it. I was pleased to find it works with iA Writer. And, as mentioned earlier, it does great service with the iPadOS Mail app.

Scribble is one of those features that you can overlook. Yet it has the potential to upend the way you work with an iPad. My favourite aspect of this is that Scribble makes it much easier to write on an iPad when you are standing. As a journalist this is something I need to do when on reporting jobs.

How the iPad made lockdown productive

An enforced stay at home meant a change of emphasis for personal technology. The Apple iPad proved the best tool of all.

Here in New Zealand we spent five weeks at lockdown level 4 and two weeks at level 3.

For most of us that meant staying at home apart from exercise, trips to buy food or urgent medical appointments.

Above all it meant working and being entertained at home. For that you need a computing device, the right software and decent connectivity.

iPad ticks all the boxes

Phones, tablets and personal computers all fit the bill, but the one that delivered best on all counts turned out to an iPad.

It could be any iPad. In my case it was the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, but most of what I’m about to say could equally apply to a basic NZ$600 model

The iPad has the perfect combination of features for working at home. The screen is much bigger than on a phone.

Videoconferencing is a breeze. If you are lucky enough to work with other Apple users the FaceTime app is excellent. We used it for three way catch-ups with our daughters who were locked down elsewhere.

Not everyone you deal with chooses Apple kit. Zoom and most other popular videoconference tools work fine on the iPad. In fact I find they work better on the iPad than anything else.

That’s entertainment

The iPad is also great for watching Netflix and other online entertainment. Sadly there was no sport in the lockdown, but it’s great to cuddle up warm in the wee small hours to watch matches beamed in from the other side of the world.

All iPads are good for video, the 12.9-inch screen is better for older, weaker eyes. It’s also possible to wirelessly connect the iPad to a big TV screen. In our case we use a Chromecast.

Add a keyboard to an iPad and it becomes a basic computer. You can surf the web, read and compose emails, write blog posts like this one or even wrangle Office apps like Microsoft Word and Excel.

It’s possible to write without a keyboard. I’ve posted elsewhere about my keyboard-free iPad writing experience.

Yet a real keyboard is better. I have an Apple Magic Keyboard, the iPad Pro Smart Keyboard and a couple of older Logitech Bluetooth keyboard. All work a treat.

iPad creativity

There are creative apps. My iPad doubles as a music workstation, photo editing terminal and games machine. Apple’s Pencil helps when it comes to fine drawing or other on screen work.

I also download magazines, books, audio books, podcasts and music. It’s a great reader.

Yes, you can do all the above with a phone. Yet the bigger screen improves everything, except portability, which isn’t a huge deal in a lockdown.

Best of all the iPad’s form means you can do all these things from a desk, from the dining room table, from the deck, sofa or the bed.

Value

Apple iPads can be good value. As already mentioned the cheapest full size model costs NZ$600.

That’s much cheaper than an equivalent phone and, by the time you’re added a keyboard, the price is on a par with everyday laptops.

That basic iPad will done everything, although it may wheeze a little with more demanding create apps.

While the basic iPad is a bargain at $600, you may be reading this and thinking you could economise further with a cheaper tablet. There are pitfalls with that plan.

A cheaper tablet will have a lower quality screen. In general it will be slower than the iPad and may not be so flexible with software choices.

You’ll need to budget extra for a keyboard. There are excellent Logitech keyboards for around $170. These will also protect your iPad. The Apple Magic Keyboard doesn’t hook up direct to the iPad – I use a stand when I wrote on the iPad with this keyboard. It costs $150.

Apple’s Smart Keyboards are pricey. The 11-inch model costs NZ$330 while the 12.9-inch iPad Pro Smart Keyboard costs $359. I find they work the best, but they bump up the entry price a lot.

Storage

The other cost to consider is buying more storage with your iPad. The basic model comes with 32GB. That’s fine if you are at home and have an external hard drive or a cloud account with plenty of storage. I’d recommend finding the extra $180 to get the 128GB model.

Adding a keyboard and storage takes the price up to around the $1000 mark. If you don’t have a specific need for a laptop and there is maybe already a more traditional computer at home, this would be good choice.

Is it good value? It depends on how you use technology.

It clearly is good value for me. Apple recently added an iPadOS app that tells you how much time you spend with the device. During a typical lockdown week I was spending about 45 hours on the iPad and less than an hour on the iPhone.