OS X Lion: Using Preview to Open Office & iWork Files

An often overlooked feature in Lion is Preview’s new ability to open iWork and Office files. For people who don’t own document-creation applications like those, this is a huge upgrade from Snow Leopard’s options out of the box. Read on to find out how this trick works, what you can do with it, and how good of a job Preview does at mimicking Microsoft Word. (Even writing that sentence made me shudder.)

In Snow Leopard, if you didn’t have the appropriate software on your computer, your choices for viewing a Word document were checking it out with Quick Look or opening it into TextEdit. TextEdit, being the very basic editor that it is, tries its hardest, but it just can’t recreate a lot of the formatting that folks use, and it of course has no real clue what to do with embedded images. But you were stuck with that if you needed to copy text out of a Word document, for example. And if what you were working with was a Pages file, TextEdit wouldn’t even try, the lazy slacker.

Now there’s a better way, so grab any iWork or Office document you’ve got floating around. To open one in Preview, just drag the file onto the Preview icon in your Dock and let go, or you can Control- or right-click on the file and choose Open With > Preview.

You can then do all sorts of nifty things with your file, like copying text out, exporting it to a PDF, printing it, and even searching for text within it. Handy!

How good of a job does Preview do? Well, in my testing with Office 2011, things look fairly good, especially with text formatting. The fonts I’ve tried look the same or reasonably similar, and Preview pulls over formatting like bullets, colors, and so on. What it does not do well is any sort of formatted graphical element, such as an inserted photo with transparency applied.


So here’s a file I created in Word. Can you see why I’m not a graphic designer?


And here’s that same file opened with Preview. Um, yeah. 


With a Pages document, though, I found that Preview handled its job much better, which makes sense, I suppose.


A pointy Pages file.


A similarly pointy Preview file. Pretty close, eh?


I had similar results and discrepancies with Numbers and Excel. And I noted that opening a PowerPoint presentation into Keynote and saving it as a .key file made some previously missing elements show up perfectly when I viewed the document in Preview. I almost feel like there’s some hidden message here about how we should all buy iWork.

So I suppose what you can take away from this is that if you don’t happen to want Office or iWork or any similar applications on your computer, you at least have an easy way to view their documents and manipulate them a bit. With Lion, you’re likely to get closer to seeing what the creator of that file had intended you to see, especially where iWork is concerned. Progress is good! And if you use this trick just to avoid buying Office, I promise I won’t blame you one bit.