If you find Apple Pages 5 puzzling or you want to get more out of the software Michael E. Cohen’s US$20 Take Control of Apple Pages is a good starting point.

The 266 ebook is published by TidBits Publishing (ISBN: 9781615424320).

On one level Cohen has written a comprehensive user manual for the software. The user manual no software developer writes any more.

Cohen steps you through the app starting with something as simple as finding Pages on your device. If you read the book through to the end you’ll learn the secrets of collaborating with others to create joint documents.

Recipe book

Yet I doubt many will plough through the pages. This is not a novel and it isn’t written to be read sequentially. It’s more like a recipe book where you find yourself dipping in to learn how to cook specific dishes.

The book is well written. Cohen keeps things simple and clear. He has a light touch without being patronising or over-chatty, something that’s irritating in a technical book.

Take Control of Pages is neatly organised. That’s more important in an ebook than on paper where flipping through pages is a cinch.

Multiple headline levels, captioned figures and clearly marked breakout paragraphs break up the pages. This makes the book easy to navigate. You won’t have trouble finding the information you need in a hurry. And let’s face it, most of the time when you’re hunting for clues you are in a hurry.

A word processor…

Apple Pages 5 is often described as a word processor. It does that job well.

Pages is also a page layout programme. It does that job better.

On one level Pages 5 is easy to use. You don’t need much help getting started. Just type and characters, then words appear on screen.

Layout is trickier, but with trial and error you’ll get up to speed in no time.

Pages suits most people from beginners to expert users.

Beyond word processing

But there’s more to Pages than basic word processing and layout. Hell, there’s more to Pages than just the Mac or iPad or iPhone or whatever device you first used it on.

Pages lies at the heart of Apple’s productivity offering. The same programme works on Apple computers, tablets and smartphones. If you’re away from Apple kit there’s also a web version: iCloud Pages.

The nuances of what that means in practice and how you can benefit from cross-device integration isn’t immediately obvious. Nor is it obvious how to use the software this way.

And that’s where Cohen’s book scores. It’s the only book on word processing I’ve seen that covers writing on computers, smartphones, tablets and in web browsers. More to the point the book covers working across all four versions of the software. Cohen also deals with Apple Continuity, which can be tricky to use at times.

Likewise moving to Pages 5 after using, say, Microsoft Word or even an earlier version of Pages is no walk in the park. Take Control of Pages is a good investment for someone coming from another word processor facing a new user interface.

TidBits Publishing has made good use of the eBook format. There are PDF, EPub and Mobipocket versions which means you can read the book on almost anything. If, say, you download the book to a Mac, you can also read it on an iPad or iPhone. The publisher also promises readers will get updates if they become necessary.

Apple Keynote presentation app

Microsoft’s PowerPoint is better known, but many would argue Apple Keynote is the better presentation app.

Keynote (US$20 or free if you buy a new Mac) beats PowerPoint with features and ease-of-use. Those two departments are easy to measure. Less easy to measure is how it tackles creating presentations from a more graphical point of view.

And that makes for better presentations. PowerPoint almost forces users to build dull-looking, pedestrian slide shows. It all but text heavy and leaden slides.

Refreshing Keynote

After hours sitting in front of indifferent PowerPoint slides, I find Keynote presentations refreshing. So I was keen to try Keynote when I had to build a presentation last week.

It was my first time using Keynote to create a real presentation as opposed to just testing the software to write a review. Keynote is strikingly straightforward.

In the end I managed to build a simple, but good-looking 14-slide presentation in 30 minutes.

Ease-of-use

No-one gets ease-of-use quite like Apple. Yet even by that company’s standards, Keynote stands out.

There are dozens of pre-made templates you can use to get started.  Keynote ‘themes’ are, in effect, designs for an entire presentation.

There are 30 themes included with the software. Then within each theme there are 12 types of slide. Some do specific jobs: a front page, pages with big images, pages with lots of text, pages with bullet points and so on. Some of quite bare for you to use as you wish.

Presets

Each theme comes with preset fonts and colours. You can change them as much as you wish and edit either individual slides or alter the master slide from the layout panel on the right of the screen.

You don’t need to worry about placing images on slides. I just dragged and dropped the pictures I wanted directly into place. Resizing, cropping and reshaping take seconds.

Somewhere in the background Keynote uses gridlines to make sure things line up in the right places. I’ve used other presentation tools and spend ages nudging things around slides to get them looking right. It does this so well you barely notice it is happening.

Keynote on Mac and iPad

There’s full compatibility between the OS X and iOS versions of Keynote. That’s a powerful feature. I whipped up my presentation in 30 minutes using my MacBook Air and stored the file to iCloud.

The next day I took my iPad into town to present — in the event I had to send the file to another Mac for the actual presentation. What was noticeable is that I could make last-minute tweaks using my iPad or iPhone.

I tend to work alone, but if I was part of a team, iCloud makes it easy to collaborate with others.

Verdict

Long-time Keynote users were not happy when Apple refreshed the OS X software bringing it more in line with the mobile iOS version. I can’t comment on that because although I tested the earlier version, I’ve only ever used the latest Keynote 6.0 version for a real job.

Keynote has a clean user interface. It’s powerful yet simple to use. The software integrates beautifully with the rest of Apple’s technology including Pages and Numbers. You can create fantastic looking charts from numeric data in next to no time.

It’s hard to argue with the price. For many people the presentation software is free, for the rest it costs just US$20. If you use a Mac or an iPad it is the best way to go when creating presentations. It may also be a reason for Windows users to take another look at buying a Mac.

Microsoft Office

Apple rebooted iWorks early in 2014 with versions for both OS X and IOS. The software runs much the same on Macs and iPads although there are feature differences.

iWorks is free if you buy a new Mac or iPad. If you have older devices, you can buy the apps — Pages, Number and Keynote — from the app store.

Although iWorks is a suite in the sense that the individual apps play nicely together, Apple sells the components individually: the Mac apps are NZ$25 each while the iPad versions are $13.

Mac Office 365

On a Mac, Microsoft’s Office 365 means the four-year-old Office:2011. Microsoft promised a new version of its OS X software in 2014, at the time of writing it is overdue. I’m now told to expect it in the next few months.

Microsoft sells Office 365 subscriptions. There’s a NZ$119 per year personal subscription which buys just one copy of the software. A better deal is the $165 Office 365 Home which gives you the right to put the software on up to five computers and five mobile devices.

There are iPad versions of Microsoft’s main Office apps: Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. Although they are free to download, you need an Office 365 subscription to unlock them for serious work.

Apple Pages, Microsoft Word

Although Apple’s Pages is often described as a word processor, it is also a page design tool. In some ways it is like having Microsoft Word and Microsoft Publisher in the same package.

Pages comes with lots of layout tools. All the formatting stuff displays in a context-sensitive Inspector panel taking up the right-hand quarter of the screen. You only get to see the things that you need immediately.

As you’d expect, Pages does a great job of making words look pretty on a page.

Word processing purists will consider Pages lacks the power of Word. Lawyers and people needing to create complex documents may find Pages can’t meet all their needs.

Moving smoothly from Pages to Word

As someone who writes for a living, I like Pages’ simplicity. I hide everything and work on a big blanks screen hiding the Inspector screen and the tool bar from sight. That way the software stays out-of-the-way.

Many of the keyboard commands in Word work in Pages. In fact I can move smoothly between Pages and Word barely missing a beat.

Most of the people I work for expect to get Word documents from me. Pages can save in Word format, so that’s easily done. I’ve never had a problem with this, nor do I have a problem loading Word documents into Pages for editing. However, not everything comes across from complex Word documents, so you may run into problems if you are, say, asked to use Word’s tracked changes feature to edit someone’s work in Pages.

Numbers, Excel

Word may have more features than Pages, but there’s not a huge conceptual or practical gap between the two apps. In comparison there’s a huge gulf between Apple’s Numbers spreadsheet and Excel.

In the same way Pages has fewer features than Word, Numbers offers less complexity than Excel in terms of calculations. But what it lacks in computational power, it makes up in layout flexibility. You can have multiple tables on each spreadsheet tab, then move them around to make things look great on the display.

Because Numbers lets you mix text, graphs and numbers on each page, you can quickly create attractive-looking presentations based on your numeric information. Numbers is a great tool for business planning and even better for presenting plans to others.

Keynote, PowerPoint

Apple’s KeyNote and PowerPoint each have their fans. The two apps are more or less on a par in terms of what they do. KeyNote is the more flexible and some people find it easier to use than Microsoft’s presentation tool. It has some great features including the ability to mask out image backgrounds without the need for Photoshop or similar, expensive apps.

Mac users who rarely create presentations might do better with Keynote than PowerPoint thanks to the sample slides and layouts provided with the app. The Microsoft templates are so familiar to many of us that inexperienced Keynote users get a creative head start with the less familiar images, clip art, designs and backgrounds.

iWorks ahead for now

To get the most from iWorks, you’ll need an iCloud account. It’s the only way to store iWorks documents from an iPad, on a Mac you can store locally or in iCloud.

Office 365 and iWorks were both showing their age at the start of 2014. Apple’s suite now has the edge, but that could change when Microsoft refreshes Office. The iPad Office apps are excellent so are the latest Windows apps. This bodes well for the next Mac version.

If you only need some office apps, say, just a word processor, then a one-off NZ$25 — or possibly nothing — for each iWorks app is a better deal than the NZ$119 a year for the most basic Office 365 subscription.

Microsoft Office 365 has the edge if you work with Macs or iPad and Windows devices. And Office makes life easier if you need to work with others who are on Windows devices. If you are committed to Apple, you may prefer iWorks. As a bonus, it integrates nicely with other Apple software like iPhoto.

Image from Microsoft.co.nz website

Google Docs had the online collaboration game to itself for years. Then Apple added collaboration to the cloud versions of its iWorks apps. A few days later Microsoft pulled similar features into the Office Web Apps.

All three competing software suites now allow co-workers to co-operate on the same documents, making real-time changes.

Although I’ve investigated the iCloud version of iWork’s – or more accurately Pages – and the Word web app, I’ve not needed to use either yet for serious production work. I have worked extensively in the past on collaborative Google Docs documents.

Collaboration

The collaborative approach is well suited to modern publishing where colleagues often work from home or remote offices. I’ve filed stories from overseas hotel rooms, then worked with editors to tidy them up for publication.

Significantly all three online suites are free – which means publishers get full access to advanced tools for no more than the cost of a computer, phone or tablet and a data connection.

It’s partly a matter of taste and partly to do with practical matters, but I’ve always found, collaboration aside, Google Docs is a second-rate tool for serious writing. It is fine for short snippets of writing. 

In comparison, Both the iCloud version of Pages and the Word Web App are powerful, elegant writing tools. I know of friends and colleagues who are perfectly happy with Google Docs.

Either way, publishers, editors, journalists and bloggers now have real choice when it comes to online collaboration.

Last month Apple rebooted iWorks. The apps are now free on iPhones, new iPads and OS X computers.

Apple has rewritten Pages, Numbers and Keynote so that users see similar software no matter what device they use. Along the way, it stripped back the OS X apps — they now have fewer features.

From my point of view that’s a good thing. I write for a living. That means putting words on a screen.

Most of my freelance work is paid by the word, so the more words I write in a session, the more money I make. Playing around with fonts, layouts – all those other features found in modern word processors – makes me less productive. All I need is a blank display, basic editing and a word count.

Well for most of the time, that is.

Trouble with tables

Yesterday I wrote two stories that needed tables. An article about Android’s market share and another comparing the price New Zealanders pay for the new iPad Mini with Retina display when compared to US prices.

A plain HTML table iWorks
A plain HTML table

You’ll notice the two tables look different on the web pages. That’s because I had to handcraft the HTML directly in the WordPress online editor.

This isn’t ideal. One of the basic rules of successful publishing is to make everything consistent. I normally get around this by creating my online tables in Microsoft Excel on the Mac, loading the table to SkyDrive then embedding the online Excel app table directly into a WordPress story.

Embedded Excel table on WordPress page
Embedded Excel table on WordPress page

You can see how this works on my guide to iPhone 5S prices. I think this is an elegant way of publishing tables.

Yesterday I created my first table using Apple’s Numbers app. My plan was to produce something similar to the Excel table embedded in the post. It quickly became clear this wasn’t going to happen. Still, I thought it might be possible to create a good looking table, turn it into HTML and use that code on the web page. Again, Numbers doesn’t do this. If it can generate HTML, I couldn’t find any documentation. I left messages on Apples Community Forum, but it doesn’t seem that Numbers to HTML is doable.

Excel does this better

Never mind, I’ve had success in the past with Excel turning tables into images. Even that doesn’t seem to work with Numbers. I could have taken a screen capture of the table, but that’s a clumsy, horrible way of doing that job.

My other fallback for making nice-looking tables is to use a tool like PowerPoint – or in this case Keynote. In PowerPoint you can make a table then either embed the single page or turn the table into a graphic and post that.

It’s easy to make a pretty table using KeyNote, but once again there’s not simple way to embed the result on a web page.

In the end I couldn’t even easily extract the table from Numbers or KeyNote in a way that simplified making the HTML tables you see on the two examples. I tried playing around with the table in DreamWeaver – but in the end, I had to handcraft the two tables.

Not a deal-breaker, but…

OK, so none of this is a big deal. The tables are adequate, even if they are less than elegant. The job got done, but I’m surprised something trivial like creating a nice-looking online table isn’t easy in iWorks.

Of course in the real world, I could just copy the Numbers table into Microsoft’s Excel web app and get the job done. On the other hand, this is the first practical barrier I’ve bumped up against in my project of trying to stay in the Apple technology stack.

All of this had me reflecting on the nature of what people in the business call ‘office productivity suites’. Are they still relevant in a world where people switch from phone to tablet to computer?

The answer depends on what you want. Office is huge and let’s face it bloated. It comes with thousands of features you may never use, but it does make creating nice-looking tables easy. iWorks is stripped down in a way that’s great for day-to-day productivity, but every so often a task comes along that means downloading another app. In this case, I couldn’t even find an app for creating pretty tables in Apple’s app store.