Hands on: Getting down to iWork '08

Can Apple make even a spreadsheet cool? Our reviewer examines the new office productivity suite for the Mac.

Many lecturers give copies of their slides (either as Keynote or PowerPoint files or as PDFs) to people who can't attend a presentation or for reference to attendees. Being able to give someone a copy of the entire presentation, including the narration, is a huge step beyond that. And the ability to essentially give the presentation remotely by putting it on the Web or by sending someone the file makes Keynote a phenomenal education and training tool.

Keynote takes this feature and runs with it, giving you a wide range of video formats to export a presentation with voice-over. Like the new version of iMovie, it even includes direct publishing to YouTube. Or, if you want do more with your presentation, Keynote allows you to send it directly to almost all of the iLife applications for further editing or distribution. (Ironically, iMovie is the only one not included, though you can export a presentation as a QuickTime movie that can be imported into iMovie.) Particularly worth noting is integration with GarageBand, which allows you to turn a presentation into a video podcast with very little effort.

Numbers

Pages and Keynote both received noteworthy feature upgrades in iWork '08, but it is the addition of Numbers that has gotten the most attention, and with good reason. Numbers is unlike any other spreadsheet tool I've ever seen. The first time I used it, my first thought was, "This is so cool," followed by astonishment that I'd actually thought of a spreadsheet application as "cool." But that is what makes Numbers defy any prejudices one has about spreadsheets. It is intuitive and easy to use and, more important, gives users a chance for creative expression that is completely unexpected when working with a spreadsheet.

Numbers does this by moving beyond simply being a generic grid of blank cells on a worksheet. In fact, it doesn't use worksheets in the traditional sense at all. It's based on a concept of Sheets and Tables in which Sheets are pages that contain Tables, which in turn are essentially self-contained spreadsheets (complete with a grid that is only fully displayed when the Table is selected). Each Sheet can contain one or more Tables as well as text, graphics and charts, turning a Sheet into a complete information package.

The concept of multiple Sheets and Tables is as ingenious as it is attractive. A document for planning an event, for example, can contain separate Tables covering attendees, tasks to accomplish, a schedule for event activities, contacts for service vendors, and cost analysis. Each of these can be placed on a single Sheet, and you can drag tables around on the Sheet (or even from one Sheet to another in the same file) to organize and document the information.

The Event Planner is just one example of the wide range of templates that Number includes, from grade books for teachers to home improvement projects; they really help you begin to see everyday uses that you might never have thought of using a spreadsheet for. (There are templates for the less surprising budgets and expense reports as well.)

Adding text boxes or graphics to a Sheet is as easy as adding them to a slide in Keynote or a document in Pages. Simply click a button to get a new text box, complete with all the text formatting tools you'll ever need. For pictures, bring them in from the iLife media browser or via drag and drop from the Finder, and get the same 3-D effects, masks and resizing options found throughout iWork '08.

To add cell and table formatting as well as colors to a table, you can just select from a list of predefined Styles; you can also modify an existing Style and save it for later use. Formatting of individual cells is done through the Format Bar or the Inspector. You can't save a cell style, but you can copy and paste the formatting from one cell to another. Cell options include conditional formatting that changes the look of the cell if it meets specific criteria -- you can make a bill that's past due display in red, for example. One of the most fun options is the ability to use images as the background fill for tables. Talk about making a spreadsheet look good.

Setting up charts is beyond simple: Select a Table and choose a chart type. (And if you choose a chart without selecting a Table first, Numbers will create one appropriate to the type of chart.) Like Tables, you can move a chart anywhere on a sheet or onto a different Sheet from the Table that it is based on. You get an entire range of 3-D effects as well as predefined color sets (or you can drag color samples to specific pieces of a chart if you want to make your own color palette). You just click the appropriate tab in the Inspector palette to change from one chart type to another. Never has making charts and graphs that look this good been this easy.

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