Pages 5.0: The Promise and the Pain

Apple's long awaited updates for its Mac iWork apps are finally out, and one of the big new features they bring to the table are substantially better compatibility with their iOS counterparts. The tradeoff is that Mac users lose some functionality to gain that compatibility, and for Pages '09 users it may not be worth the price.

Pages is Apple's document design and word processing application. While it hadn't been updated for several years, it did prove itself to be a capable tool that held its own -- at least for some users -- against Microsoft Word. With Pages 5.0 out, there are new features that make the app enticing for at least some people, but for others the cost of what they give up may very well be a show stopper.

The Good
The new Pages fixes a big problem users who jump between their Mac and an iPad or iPhone have dealt with for years: compatibility. The new Mac and iOS versions do have parity, so the headaches that went along with designing files on your Mac that were broken, or at least only partially usable, on your iPad or iPhone are gone. That in and of itself is a welcome change and for some worth the upgrade.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that I didn't have any trouble working with graphics from all of the common formats cross platform. I'd expect formats like JPG and PNG to make the transition from the Mac to iPad without any problem, but native Photoshop documents and TIFF? That makes Pages on iOS truly useful when starting a document on your Mac and then editing on the go from your iPad.

Pages 5.0 for the Mac: Familiar, yet differentPages 5.0 for the Mac: Familiar, yet different

Pages 5.0's true magical new feature is live collaboration via iCloud. Start a new document on one device, and then open it on another. The changes you make in each place show up in the other within seconds, and your files really do look exactly the same on your Mac and iPad, or in Apple's Web-based Pages interface. There aren't any special settings to deal with; live collaboration simply works.

For as great as the collaboration features are, I did have to deal with a little frustration. I found that whenever I moved a graphic in a multipage document on my iPad, Pages always jumped to the first page on my Mac when the change pushed its way back there. That's an annoyance on a two-page document, but when your page count climbs higher that's a big pain in the backside.

For serious collaborators, Pages 5 also includes change tracking along with the ability to quickly show or hide document changes, inline comments, plus document highlighting. All very welcome, and make for a feature set that I wish had been available in Pages '09.

Pages 5.0 documents look and work the same on the iPadPages 5.0 documents look and work the same on the iPad

The familiar Inspector palette is a thing of the past, but instead of being a loss to lament, we have the new smart inspector in its place. The smart inspector is a dynamically changing panel built into the document window. Just click on text or an object in your document and the panel changes to show the appropriate settings and formatting options.

Formatting text and paragraphs is fairly straightforward thanks to the check boxes, pop-up menus, and sliders in the smart inspector. You can assign paragraph styles from here, too, which is a critical feature for anyone working with complex documents.

Applying new formatting to my documents was surprisingly easy and Pages handled the reflow that comes along with adding or removing text columns without skipping a beat. I never experienced any lag when moving elements around, and applying effects to images happened in an instant.

While you can't select every instance of a style in your documents, you can update every place a specific style is used when you make a change. For some, that may feel a little limiting, but it's good to know that if you do make a style change in one place it can still be used document-wide.

You can also rename a style after making changes to create a new style. You'll need to click the disclosure triangle next to the style name in the smart inspector, which wasn't clear to me at first.

Styles and other design elements live in the smart inspectorStyles and other design elements live in the smart inspector

Pages doesn't live in its own little isolated world and Apple gets that, so it includes a handful of file formats supported for exporting. Along with the requisite Microsoft Word format, it also exports directly to PDF, ePub, plain text, and Pages '09.

I didn't have trouble exporting to any of Pages 5.0's supported formats and my documents all opened just as they should in other apps without any problems. Actually, I would've been surprised had there been any issues with exporting considering how basic the formatting feature set is in the new version of Pages.

Importing, however, isn't quite as graceful. If your original document uses features that aren't supported by Pages 5.0, be ready for things to break or simply fail to appear once the file is imported. That's unfortunate when importing Word documents, but down right unacceptable when opening Pages '09 files. Apple is clearly in a position to know exactly how the Pages '09 file format works and should be able to find a way to gracefully import those documents even if elements need to be converted in some way to maintain the look of the original. It's as if Apple chose to use a sledge hammer instead of a scalpel during the import process.

The Bad
For all of the great features the new Pages has, it has plenty of serious limitations, too. For casual users that are new to Pages, that may not be a big deal, but for the rest of us it's enough to make you stop and ask, "What was Apple thinking?"

Here's a quick rundown of some of the features that are gone from Pages 5.0, but were part of Pages '09:

  • Customizable toolbar
  • Duplicating pages
  • Facing pages
  • Linked text frames
  • Drag-and-drop page reordering
  • Selecting noncontiguous text
  • Customized autocorrect library
  • Outline view
  • Images in headers and footers
  • Mailmerge

A few other things that are problems for long time Pages users include hobbled Applescript support, the vertical ruler is gone, the selection of templates has been trimmed down, remembering the Zoom level doesn't seem to work reliably, and the thumbnail page view is useful for little more than just jumping to a specific page.

Some features that were easy to find before are now buried away. Take superscript and subscript, for example. You previously could select some text and click the superscript button in the Pages toolbar. Now it involves a trip through your menus to Format > Font > Baseline > Superscript.

Keep in mind this is a partial list. If you've been using Pages before the new version came out and you have documents you don't want to risk breaking, you aren't upgrading to the new version. Full stop.

The Ugly
Apple's Autosave feature in OS X can be a life saver because it lets you avoid breaking your concentration to save files while you're working. Remembering to save isn't a big deal, but over time that quick Stop-Command S-Start routine adds up.

In the Pages 5.0 that's a big problem when you open a Pages '09 document because your file is converted to the new format and then autosave overwrites your original file. Unless you have a backup of the original, it's gone forever and you're stuck with a file that's very likely broken.

Considering how much doesn't translate from the old Pages format to the new, this is flat out devastating, especially if you've created even moderately complex layouts.

If you rely on Pages as your page layout tool, and not just basic word processing, this is not the upgrade for you. Without linked text boxes, and easy way to reorder pages, support for images in headers and footers, and mailmerge, Pages is hobbled and simply not an option. That's a horribly sad loss because Pages '09 was a fine alternative to InDesign and QuarkXPress for people that don't need the horse power that comes along with professional page layout applications.

Look to the Future
Apple pulled a lot out of the new Pages, so much so that many people see it as an unusable app. While there does seem to be a surprising number of features that have been pulled, Apple doesn't make decisions on a whim. There's always a reason behind the company's actions, and I have to think that holds true here, too.

To bring true file format compatibility, Apple needed to get feature parity in the Mac and iOS versions of Pages. To do that, Apple had to cut features from the Mac, and ultimately ended up with something that's really a port of the iOS app.

Now that the first painful step has been taken, Apple can start working towards bringing features back in, but only if they're available on both platforms. I think that's coming, although it may take some time.

Apple has a track record playing the cut-and-bring-back game. The company did that when it rewrote Final Cut Pro, and lots of professional video editors found the new version unusable. Over time, however, features found their way back into the app and it's become more useful.

Until that magical update day, there will no doubt be wailing and gnashing of teeth from long time Pages users that are faced with an tool that gives them very little of what they expect from an app bearing that name.

The Bottom Line
If you've been using Pages '09 for more than basic newsletters, holiday announcements, and fliers designed from the built-in templates, upgrading to version 5.0 may not be in the cards for you. Missing features that leave you with broken documents abound, and if you aren't careful you may find your originals are lost when they're opened in Pages 5.

For new Pages users, and people that don't need much more than one or two page documents, version 5.0 may be just fine. It's easy to use, the included templates help you make eye catching documents, and working with the same file on your Mac and iPad is surprisingly simple.

Comparing Pages '09 and Pages 5.0 seems natural because, well, the apps share the same name. That goes something like this:

Apple essentially gutted Pages when it moved from '09 to version 5.0. The new version is missing so many features that it's not worth the headaches it causes. Keep Pages '09 handy because that's what you'll be using for the foreseeable future.

If you look at Pages 5.0 as a new app -- a version 1.0, if you will -- it goes a little like this:

Apple is off to a fine start with Pages. It's easy to use, isn't bogged down with feature bloat, and offers great support for working on the same files regardless of whether you're on your Mac, an iPad, or even a Windows PC using the iCloud-based interface. It's missing some key features that power users want, like linked text frames and mailmerge, but hopefully those will be coming soon.

Either way, Pages 5.0 isn't a replacement for Microsoft Word, and depending on your needs, isn't a replacement for Pages '09, either. It does, however, include some great new features for document collaboration, and thanks to iCloud support it's surprisingly easy to jump back and forth between your Mac and iPad when working on your files.

Pages 5.0 is a nice start and hopefully is just the beginning. But just to be safe you better keep your copy of Pages '09 handy, too.

Product: Pages 5.0

Company: Apple

List Price: $19.99



Easy to make great looking documents, iCloud syncing for collaboration works like a charm, excellent file compatibility between OS X and iOS.


Lots of critical Pages '09 features are missing, converting old documents to Pages 5.0 may leave you with broken layouts.