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iWork 1.2 Review Update: Almost There …

We were all impressed with Apple’s iWork suite for iPad when it came out in April. But then, as many of us tried to incorporate the apps into our daily workflow, we began to encounter severe limitations — primarily the lack of MS Office compatibility (for Numbers and Keynote) and lack of cloud support.

Yesterday, Apple put out significant updates to all three apps. These updates go a long way towards making the iWork suite into the productivity giant it should have been upon launch. However, there’s still one important thing missing — full cloud support — and the apps still have some problems reading MS Office docs.

App Chronicles is going to wait until the release of iOS 4.2 to revisit and update our official reviews of the iWork apps. In the meantime, here’s a short review of the improvements, and what they mean for your workflow.

Pages: Already a 4-star app, Pages gets a number of small tweaks. The most noteworthy is a word count feature, which Pages was fairly ridiculed for not having at launch. It can be switched on and off in the Tools menu. Unfortunately, it displays in bold black between the text and the keyboard, putting it right in the eyeline, instead of being tucked up in the toolbar, so you probably won’t be leaving it on.

Other improvements include object grouping; the ability to open TXT files from Mail; support for ancillary elements like footnotes, section breaks, and tables of contents (but no ability, still, for creating them in-app); and some improvements for porting tables from Pages 09. These are all relatively minor changes, though they all help with problems that Pages had in document-sharing. For Pages to really sing, it needs to be able to share nicely.

Overall, these improvements are welcome. They make Pages, already a solid tool, into an even more noteworthy choice for your iPad.

Numbers: Numbers can now export to Excel. Do I need to go on? This was a huge issue with Numbers at launch, and it probably directly fueled sales of third-party competitors like QuickOffice and Docs to Go. Apple has fixed that glaring error, and they’ve done a fair job of it, too. In our trials, spreadsheets created in Numbers look almost perfect when opened in Excel 2007.

The same cannot be said of XLS files transferred to Numbers, which still suffer from formatting and (much more importantly) function problems. One key spreadsheet I use in my job still won’t transfer into Numbers with its formulas intact. When I recreate those formulas in Numbers, they transfer back out just fine, and even – is unaltered – back into Numbers. Essentially, with Numbers, you must use older XLS-style formulas (e.g. “SUM=A2:F2”) instead of the more dynamic XLSX formulas (e.g. “=SUM(Table1[[#This Row],[January]:[December]])”) in order to maintain compatibility.

Of course, this same limitation affects all of the other Office apps, as well, and those apps don’t have the excellent alternative keyboard that Numbers has. So if you’re willing and able to properly format your formulas and spreadsheets, then Numbers has just become a powerful workflow tool.

Beyond Excel compatibility, Numbers also earned the same sort of small tweaks that Pages did, with various fixes to better import and share files, the introduction of object grouping, and CSV file support (yay!). But these all pale in comparison to Excel exporting, which easily places Numbers above any of the third-party options for spreadsheet work on the iPad.

Keynote: I gave Keynote the lowest rating of the three iWork apps, in large part because of its lack of PowerPoint exporting, which made it practically useless as a workplace tool. That’s no longer a problem. With this update, Keynote, like Numbers, can export in MS Office format. In a few trial ports to Powerpoint 2007, we found this feature to work almost perfectly. Presentations created in Keynote look great in PowerPoint, preserving graphics, formatting, and text very well (though not always animations and transitions).

The same cannot be said for Powerpoint files imported into Keynote. While the update boasts “improved reliability and performance when importing Microsoft PowerPoint presentations,” there’s still a lot of formatting errors. Simple Powerpoint files survive fairly intact; but anything with a preformatted slide design, transition animations, or even the standard Calibri font, is going to be negatively impacted by importing into Keynote.

The other Keynote improvements all move towards making it a better presentation-level design and management tool, which was my other big complaint. Object grouping, applying transitions to multiple slides, inserting hyperlinks, and other improvements to creation and sharing are all welcome, though none of them major. Still noticeably missing is any way to create or import a custom slide design.

All in all, the Keynote updates are welcome, and the Powerpoint exporting makes it, finally, usable. It still stands as the least of the three iWork apps, though.

Cloud Support: Perhaps the most significant update to all three apps is — finally! — some sort of cloud support. I had plenty to say about this back when the iWork apps came out, because it had such an enormous impact on their usability. A mobile device that couldn’t share documents in any way except e-mail was almost archaic.

Now, the iWork apps all support iDisk, as well as any WebDAV system. It’s nice to see that Apple finally put in some of the features that should have been there from the start. With these changes, files can finally be synced and shared wirelessly, making all three apps much more workplace-friendly than they were without it.

While this is welcome, there’s a caveat: it still doesn’t work with major services like Google Docs or Dropbox, neither of which have WebDAV support. It also does not allow for file transfers into other apps, like, say, GoodReader, which DOES support those services and which could act as an intermediary. In the case of Google Docs, this is especially damning, since Google Docs itself will soon officially support editing on the iPad. Limited cloud support is better than no cloud support, but it still leaves these iWork updates feeling a day late and a dollar short.

App Chronicles will wait until the iOS 4.2 update before revisiting the reviews of the iWork apps. As it stands, however, the conclusions from our head-to-head comparison of productivity apps still stand: if you’re working exclusively on the iPad or in a Mac-based workplace, then iWork is an excellent choice. If you need to work within a standard workplace, however (i.e. Windows-centric, cloud-supported), you’ll may want to look at other productivity solutions first.

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