Note: originally published on January 1, 2010, due to popular request, this post was completely rewritten on February 7, 2012. Enjoy!
Are you a writer? A number-cruncher? A presenter? A Mac user? Then listen up, because this post is for you. We’re comparing iWork ‘09 and Office 2011, the two most popular productivity suites for the Mac.
Apple’s word processing app is called Pages, and Microsoft’s is called Word. Both are pretty much the same, but you’ll find some key differences. Pages is better at layouts (e.g. newsletters, brochures, flyers) than Word. Word, however, boasts greater compatibility and native support for .doc and .docx formats, which is crucial if you find yourself working with other Office users on a frequent basis. Pages can read and write these formats, but you need to “export” your document to Word format every time you save.
Both Numbers and Microsoft Excel have the basic functions that you would expect in decent spreadsheet applications. Numbers is geared more towards making pretty graphs and tables. For the heavy lifting, or especially if you have scripts to run, Excel is a better choice.
Keynote wins in this area, hands down. You can choose from a bunch of gorgeous themes and insert transitions and animations that are fluid and captivating. Plus, the late Steve Jobs, known for his oratorical and persuasive skills, used Keynote, so that’s a big endorsement. (Keynote was actually created for Steve Jobs to give his presentations.) PowerPoint isn’t that bad, however: you’ll just need to settle with mediocrity.
Email is not strictly part of the iWork suite, as it comes with Macs already (it’s an app called Mail). When you buy the Home & Business version of Office, you get the all new Outlook 2011. Office used to ship with Entourage, a hilarious, terrible attempt at an email client. With Outlook 2011, Microsoft rewrote the app to fit better with the Mac, and to bring over many of the features from the Windows counterpart. Both Outlook and Apple Mail have Exchange support, so you can’t go wrong with either. (If you’re a casual email user looking for a decent Gmail client, then Sparrow is for you.)
iWork and Office have completely different interface paradigms. With Office, Microsoft chose to port its Ribbon interface over. The ribbon is a thick strip of toolbar buttons that sits at the top of the screen, with tabs that let you select the task you’re looking for (e.g. “Insert”, “Review”). Supposedly, this ribbon interface lets you find commands faster. In iWork, Apple chose to go with the traditional Mac style: a customizable toolbar at the top of the screen, accompanied by a format bar right underneath, and an inspector sidebar window. I’m more accustomed to the Ribbon, but the toolbar and inspector are more native. It comes down to personal choice.
iWork’s pricing scheme is super easy to understand. There are three apps: Pages, Numbers, and Keynote, and each app costs just $20. So, the total cost for the suite is $60. Buying iWork is easy: you fire up the Mac App Store and you can immediately download Pages, Numbers, and Keynote after a one-click purchase. Since you are downloading from the Mac App Store, you are allowed to install iWork on up to five Macs. Just $60 for 5 copies of iWork? Sounds like a sweet deal to me.
Microsoft Office’s pricing scheme is slightly more complicated. Unlike Apple, Microsoft does not offer their suite in the Mac App Store. You’ll have to purchase it online from a retailer like Amazon. There are two versions of Office 2011: “Home & Student” and “Home & Business.” The only difference between the suites is that the Business suite has Outlook, while the Student suite does not. Prices vary. On Amazon, a single license of Home & Student is $100 and a family pack is $101.68. A single license of Home & Business is $145. Amazon also offers a digital download service, but it is not as convenient as the Mac App Store.
When Lion was released in the summer of 2011, Apple immediately added Lion support to its iWork suite. This means that the iWork suite has a full screen view, Auto-Save, and Versions, plus other user interface enhancements like overlay scrollbars. Office, on the other hand, has lagged tremendously behind in adding Lion support. While Office does offer a full screen view and automatic saving, it does not adhere to the native way of doing things. Plus, scrolling is not smooth in Office, and Office also puts a plethora of junk helpers in the Lion Launchpad. Microsoft claims that they are working on this issue.
In this era, no comparison would be complete without examining cloud offerings. Of course, the most well known productivity suite in the cloud is Google Docs, and they do an excellent job at that. Apple’s entry into the cloud has been half-hearted. Only the iOS versions of iWork support iCloud, which is Apple’s new method of document synchronization. Apple also runs iWork.com, a service that has been in beta for a while and seems to be abandoned. This precursor to iCloud let you upload documents to the cloud to share with viewers. Apple does not offer any online editing functionality. Microsoft does offer online web apps with their free Office Web Apps. All you need is a Windows Live ID, and you can then store up to 25 GB in your virtual hard disk in the sky. Office Web Apps currently are not as good as Google Docs, however.
There you have it: a comprehensive overview of the differences between iWork and Office. To be honest, you really have to make your own decision, based on the factors that matter to you, such as price and compatibility. I own both suites and use both from time to time. I favor Word for word processing and Keynote for presentations. You really can’t go wrong with picking one—both are mature and capable software suites that will get the job done.