A review of Pages ’09, from a writer’s perspective

With the new release of OS X Lion, my old word processor is defunct. Even Shakespeare had to upgrade his ink well, so I’m on the hunt for a new program with which to write the next Great American Novel. First up, Pages ’09!

Pages '09

To start things off, I watched the Pages ’09 introduction video, and the presenter made an important distinction between “word processing documents” and “page layout documents”. Word processing documents are docs where you write things like papers, letters, or resumes. You are then able to format your headers and titles and add pictures if you want. Page layout documents on the other hand are things like newsletters, brochures, or flyers. In other words, documents with lots of pictures and graphical elements laid out with text.

For page layout projects, there are a number of templates from which to start or you can choose what Pages calls a blank canvas. It’s not a blank document, and there’s a big difference. You start with a white piece of paper and anything you want on it you have to add. If you want text, you add a text box. If you want a photo, you add a photo.

Available templates

And the beauty is, in the words of Steve Jobs, “It just works.” I make a text box and fill it with text. I drag in a photo. I choose how the text should wrap around the photo, and as I drag it around the document the text gets out of the way. There’s no pause, no struggling with the text to get it to fit around the picture. If you’ve ever tried to add photos in Word or do anything artistic, you’ll know what I mean when I say that Word is awful when it comes to putting in pictures. Granted, I’ve been used Word 2004 for years, so maybe Word 2011 does a better job. I sure hope so. I avoided using Word for design docs and always gave an inward sigh when my mother asked me for help. With Pages it’s a piece of cake.

But that’s not why I’m looking at Pages. Maybe some day I’ll need to design a newsletter, but I’m more interested in the word processing documents. Like page layout docs, there are different templates for word processing including, to my surprise, a screenplay template. In college I wrote all of my screenplays in Word using tabs and indent markers, and having a template already set up for that purpose would have saved a lot of time.

Before beginning my search for a new word processor, I wrote down six things I need in a program. After using Pages ’09 for a couple days, here’s how it stacks up:

  • Launches quickly. From first clicking on a document to being ready to type, Pages takes about three seconds. It’s not as fast as TextEdit, but then it has a lot more to get ready. But it’s much faster than Word 2004, so I’m happy.
    UPDATE: It does indeed launch quickly, but it depends whether you are launching it after a fresh reboot or not. If you’ve just rebooted your computer it takes around 15–20 seconds to open. But that still is far better than Word 2004, so again, I’m very happy.
  • Word Count. A word count isn’t a lofty goal, and Pages has one. No surprise there. What I like about Pages’ word count is it is visible at all times at the bottom of the document window; I don’t have to select it from the Tool menu. It is also visible when in full screen view, which some programs only show when you move the mouse. I can keep track of where I’m at word count wise, which will be helpful for meeting daily writing goals and for things like blog posts where I’m aiming for a set word limit.
  • Customizable Keyboard Shortcuts. Pages does not allow you to change the keyboard shortcuts from within the program. To change them, you have to open the System Preferences and in the Keyboard section manually make your own shortcuts for Pages specifically. Not a big fan of that, but at least there’s a way to get the shortcuts to which I’m accustomed.
  • Able to save/export in compatible formats. There is an option to “Save copy as” a Word or iWork ’08 document, but it’s the export function that gives you the most options. You can choose between five different formats: PDF, Word, Rich Text, Plain Text, or ePub. Having the ability to export to a Word document is important for me, because I’m still not comfortable with moving entirely away from that program. The ability to export an ePub file is also intriguing because I think I’ll be able to do some tests and see what my book would look like in iBooks.

    Export options
  • Good design. Like later versions of Word, the tool bar is connected to the document (in my version of Word it floated separately), and right below the tool bar is the format bar, where your basic text formatting options reside. By default a ruler across the top of the document is turned on, which I like because it gives me a sense of the dimensions of the physical page. You can turn off each or all three bars, and the result is a window clean of distractions. Pages also has a full screen view that works well. The page moves into the middle of the screen and you can choose the color of the backdrop. A gray scroll bar appears on the right side when you mouse over it, and if you move the mouse to the left side of the screen, a drawer will slide out showing you a thumbnail list of the document’s pages. Pages isn’t advertised as a minimalist writing app, but with some tweaks it can do the trick.

    Full screen view w/ a white background color
  • Robust enough to handle a novel. The robustness must not only be the ability to smoothly handle a document over 50,000 words but also the ability to open Word documents. Pages is fully capable of both. My Word documents opened without any problems, and Pages will even alert me of any problems in the converting process. My test document was 84,000 words, and Pages scrolled through it like butter. In full screen view, the thumbnail list and scroll bar didn’t lag at all. I even copied the entire document, which it did instantly, and pasted it on the last page, which took about one second. Everything still scrolled as smooth as a two-page document. Even my old version of Word with which I wrote the 84,000 words had a little lag while scrolling. So Pages is able to effectively work with a 215-page, 168,000-word document. If that’s not robust, I don’t know what is.

Final verdict: Pages is a great Word processor. I even used one of the templates this week. I needed to make an invoice for a freelance project but had never written one. My first thought was, “I wonder if Pages has a template?” Sure enough it did, and I emailed it off twenty minutes later.

The added bonus is that a friend recently gave me iWork ’09 for free. Does this make me biased towards Pages? Perhaps, but most of the programs I’m planning to look at are already free: OpenOffice, Bean, and Google Docs. Regardless, even if I had to pay for Pages it would still be at the top of my list. Paying for a well made program with continued support from an established software developer would be worth it in the long run.

UPDATE: I had planned to review the other word processors I listed above, but five months later I have yet to do it because I really like Pages ’09. Even if I had to buy it for $19.99 in the Mac App Store, I think I would still do it. Thus I haven’t had the need to look at any of the other word processors. I apologize to anyone looking forward to further reviews, but I think Pages ’09 is great and so that’s what I’m going to use.

Also, I’ve had to go back and forth between MS Word a couple of times and haven’t had any problems. In fact, since newer versions of MS Word save with the .docx file extension, it’s actually been easier to import those files into Pages ’09 than it is to “download the software upgrade” for my copy of MS Word 2004. So my biggest fear of being on the outside of a MS Word world isn’t a big deal at all.

It feels weird to say it after using MS Word ever since I could type, but if you use a Mac and you’re looking for a word processor, I highly recommend Pages ’09.

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