Talking tech since 2003

When we look at modern-age computer programs it is often a challenge to think back to the “simpler” times when computers and technology revolved solely around the purpose of making our day-to-day lives easier.  Before social media and before online videos and Internet-connected games computers were primarily found in offices and businesses for processing data and handling other mundane tasks.  Sure, computer presence in office environment grows on a daily basis as we as society work towards a paperless lifestyle; but the reality is that many of the business features that we see in “modern” workplace computers existed ten, maybe twenty years ago.  Look at your standard office suite for example.  Word processors and spreadsheet applications have been around forever, and visual presentation applications such as Microsoft PowerPoint have become standard components of every office suite on the market today.

With office suites dating so far back, it’s amazing to see how the everyday productivity applications that we as computer users have woven deeply into our everyday lives have gone so far over the last decade or so.  But even with Microsoft Office being the dominant office suite, it’s not unusual for people to look at other suites and products simply to get a feel of exactly what else is out there.  Having been a user of Microsoft Office since I began using computers, I personally have never had that much of a reason to look at anything else.  Of course I toyed around with OpenOffice/LibreOffice while I was using the Linux operating system, but Microsoft Office has always seemed like more of a “standard” for me; something that could be used with ease for basic tasks yet offered the functionality to conform to whatever else was thrown at it.  The other day though I downloaded the iWork ’09 (the latest version) trial from Apple‘s website so that I could get a feel for Apple’s alternative after using Office for Mac for over a month.  But how did it hold up against Microsoft Office for Mac?

Text Editor (Microsoft Word vs. Apple Pages)

When I first tried Microsoft Office 2007 on the PC side a number of years back, the “ribbon” interface was a relatively new concept and had yet to really catch on with end-users.  For many, the ribbon was seen as a huge annoyance because of the space that it took up on the screen and the fact that it completely re-arranged an application that people had spent years familiarizing themselves with and learning in and out.  While I wasn’t a huge fan of it at the time myself, the ribbon UI truly has won me over, at least for Microsoft Word.  My reason behind this is the sheer fact that I as the end-user can access features and functions in logical menus with just a couple of clicks, whereas the Numbers product in the iWork suite requires me to dig into menus to do what many would consider to be simple tasks.

While the ribbon interface takes up a bit more space, it can be hidden away when not needed in order to give me more room when I’m doing simple writing tasks.

Microsoft Office Word with the ribbon bar in its default state

Microsoft Office Word with the ribbon bar tucked away

Now, I’m sure that many iWork users will quickly point out the “Inspector” in Pages that allows for one to access many of the features found in Word’s ribbon UI via a pop-out window.  And while I will admit that the Inspector offers more or less the same functionality, I am personally a fan of the “one window” interface, and the pop-out dialog is too cluttered from my liking; something that I wouldn’t have expected from a company such as Apple that has a notorious image for producing simple applications.

The pop-out "Inspector" seen in Apple Pages

Beyond the basic interface, there was really nothing that set either of the applications apart.  Both are excellent text editors that should fulfill all of your word-processing tasks.  In my opinion, though, Word is simply easier.

Winner: Microsoft Office Word

Presentation Application (Microsoft PowerPoint vs. Apple Keynote)

The next set of applications that I decided to put head to head was Microsoft PowerPoint and Apple Keynote.  At core both pieces of software are designed to allow the user to design presentations that visually outline or depict an idea or topic.  Again, like with the previous comparison between Word and Pages, the Apple product in this example has a much more minimal menu bar whereas the Microsoft counterpart has the more in-depth solution.

Interestingly enough, though, I think that Keynote (Apple) does a much better job at putting the user in control of their presentation; even without the full-on ribbon UI.  You see, Keynote takes better advantage of drop-downs than I saw in Pages, allowing for the user to select an option with ease.  This differs slightly from PowerPoint (Microsoft), where the ribbon UI implements the use of tabs that scatter the features all across the interface, making it a tad confusing.

An illustration of PowerPoint's use of tab-like options in the ribbon bar

Keynote's implementation of drop-down menus

Overall, I thought that Keynote utilized the “screen real-estate” much better than PowerPoint did by putting functions right at the users fingertips without over-complicating things.  As much as I liked Keynote’s implementation, however, there was still one thing that I really didn’t like.  The “Inspector.”  But after poking around this particular dialog I came to the conclusion that most of the tweaks that were located within the “inspector” were really things that one wouldn’t have the need to use all that often.  Thus, even though I think Keynote could use a better fine-tuning system the pop-out is livable.

The "inspector" used for fine details in Keynote

What’s more, one of the things that I really liked about Keynote was the fact that it came with a huge selection of pre-defined templates; each of which sporting its own unique look and feel.  As a Microsoft Office user I am, of course, more than aware of the fact that PowerPoint has a number of templates included with the application and available for download on the Internet.  However I must say that as someone who up until recently engaged in PowerPoint presentations on a regular basis I haven’t seen a PowerPoint theme that hasn’t been overused.  The fact that Keynote has a number of lesser-use templates really gives users the ability to produce presentations that stand out a lot more; all without that much effort on the part of the end-user.

Winner: Apple Keynote

Spreadsheet Application (Microsoft Excel vs. Apple Numbers)

Last but not least, I decided to see if Apple’s Numbers spreadsheet application could hold a standing chance against the legendary Microsoft Excel.  Now, because of the nature of my employment I actually use Excel on a more or less daily basis.  Ever since I was introduced to Excel, I have seen it as a “number crunching” utility meant to sort, organize, calculate, estimate, and predict data; and that is exactly what I use it for.  In fact, I work with spreadsheets that have at least forty columns and easily reach over two-thousand rows.

Because of my use for Excel, I have rarely taken advantage of the fancy graphs and diagrams that the utility offered.  After all, if I were going to visualize and present data I would use an application such as PowerPoint or Keynote.  This, however, doesn’t seem to be the logic used within Apple Numbers.

Rather, Numbers is designed as more of a free-form application that allows for mixed tables and visual aids to be combined easily and efficiently on the same document.  For example, one can easily add a table with five columns and twenty rows and still have a clean white background that for a bar or pie chart to be placed.  And unlike Excel where one would have to cut, paste, and reformat cells in order to move them, moving around tables to better express a point in Numbers is really a snap.

In terms of actual number crunching, it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that the two applications are pretty much identical.  Math is, after all, always going to be the same.  All of the built-in formulas and functions that I frequently use in Excel worked just fine in Numbers, making it a viable alternative.

One thing that I really liked about Numbers was that the formula bar color-coded my formulas, making those more complex calculations easier for me to read and understand.

A highlighted formula bar

At the same time, Numbers simply isn’t Excel.  While I understand that its interface makes it ideal for home (and some workplace) users, it seems to be a bit more bloated than a number-crunching and spreadsheet application should be.  But with its wide array of templates, layouts, and simple formatting tools it really is more of a multipurpose application that I think more users can more easily take advantage of.

Winner: Depending on your needs, Numbers will probably be the best option.  But because it still lacks the simplicity of Excel, I’m really up at arms with this one.  It’s a tie.

Pricing

When it comes to pricing, Microsoft Office 2011 for Mac is available in both a non-commercial “Home and Student” version with an MSRP of $149.99 and a commercial “Business” version (sporting Microsoft Outlook as well) with an MSRP of $249.99.  With the baseline version, a qualifying user pays about $50 each for the three included applications (Word, Excel, and Powerpoint).

Available through the Apple Store for $79.99 (about $27 each for Pages, Keynote, and Numbers), and Apple does not limit their product for non-commercial use.  Alternatively, users of the Macintosh app store can purchase electronic versions of each iWork product (Pages, Keynote, and Numbers) for around $20 each.  For those that can do without the paper packaging and documentation, this is an awesome deal not only because of the lower price but also because users can choose to buy only the products that they need or will use.

So when it comes to pricing, Apple is a clear winner.

Conclusion

I’m not going to lie; I like Microsoft Office better.  Right now it provides what I feel to be more robust features that meet my particular needs.  However, for your average non-workplace user, I really feel that iWork is a more user-friendly product and a much better buy.  Because iWork has not seen an update in nearly two years, I am personally hopeful that Apple gets a move on releasing a new version sometime this year.  In doing so I think a few fixes, improvements, and new features will make iWork a better product that I would probably end up converting to.  For now, though, Microsoft still has the best productivity suite in my eyes.

Edit: It has been brought to my attention that I failed to specify that this post compares the latest versions of both Microsoft Office (Version 2011) and iWork (Version ’09) in order to provide a fair head-to-head comparison.


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