Best office suite for OS X: 6 tested
30th Jun 2013 | 13:00
We help you choose the best suite of productivity applications for your home or office Mac
Best productivity suites for your Mac
Aside from a browser and an email client, the must-have apps on any Mac are those found in an office suite. TextEdit is fine for tapping out quick notes to the milkman, but you need a more weighty solution for complex business documents.
The same can be said of quick sums: Spotlight provides a rudimentary calculator, but falls short when it comes to the family finances.
In your workplace, a comprehensive business bundle is less a luxury and more a necessity, but which one you settle on depends on what you need to do. It's like trying to choose between a smartphone, a tablet and a Mac as your daily working platform. Each has benefits, but are communications options and portability, for example, as vital for you as data storage space or sheer computing muscle?
The six leading office suites we test here all offer significantly different packages. If you want to work on your files on an iOS device as well as a Mac, iWork offers the most seamless experience, with iCloud integration and iOS versions of all three apps. If you want to share documents and files with other users, you should weigh the benefits of Microsoft Office's 'standard' formats against Symphony's Open Document Format or the ease of sharing files over Google Drive.
With the realities of today's business world in mind, we're emphasising two key factors. First is compatibility with the most up-to-date Microsoft formats, because like it or not, these are the cornerstones of modern business communication.
Second is how easy each suite makes it to live the cloud dream of accessing your data in any place, on any device. Other factors include how easy it is to find the tools and options you want and how easy it is to use them, so you can focus on your work and not on the tools themselves. Design is an only slightly lesser factor - after all, who wants to spend every working day wrestling with a clunky interface?
How we tested
To test each suite's compatibility with the established office formats, we created a set of documents using Microsoft Office 2011 and saved them in the latest DOCX, XLSX and PPTX formats.
The Word document was a single page of text set in the Cambria and Arial fonts, with headings in Calibri. We added a table with alternating coloured rows and embedded a PNG image, set to float to the right with text running around it. A line and a half of text was highlighted, two prices were coloured red and some numerals superscript. Three blocks of text were set as columns.
The Excel spreadsheet test was a single sheet with an embedded image and a selection of regular formulae, plus some date-based calculations. We added a 3D chart and some Sparklines in order to test compatibility with the newest features.
The PowerPoint document used a standard template, with some skewed text and a rotated image. We set different transitions between the slides and added handout notes to some of the slides. Finally, we embedded a table and an organisation chart created using the built-in SmartArt tools.
Let's take a look at the suites.
Test one: Compatibility
How well does it work with Office docs?
iWork apps have excellent Office compatibility. Pages had no problems. Numbers opened our Excel document with very few glitches, losing only the Sparklines and in-cell bar charts. Keynote had a bit more trouble, straightening out angled text and cutting transitions.
ThinkFree Office coped well with basic formatting, though Write increased line spacing, Calc swapped dates from UK to US format and Show turned half of our transitions into basic fades. Symphony also fared well, though the Sparklines vanished and our 3D graph lost its x-axis labels.
In our presentation, all but one of the slide transitions had been removed. LibreOffice shares its codebase with Symphony, but had different problems. It rendered the in-cell bar charts and dates, but converted the 3D chart to mono.
Google Drive made a hash of our Word document. It has only eight fonts, so used Times New Roman instead of Cambria. It did better with the spreadsheet, losing only some formatting, and the slide transitions became regular fades.
On the next page we test features, design and connectivity.
Features, design and connectivity
Test two: Features
Do the bells ring and the whistles whistle?
Microsoft Office comprises three core tools: Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Word is the most powerful consumer word processor around. Excel, too, boasts many unique features. Apple's Keynote was streets ahead for a while, but PowerPoint is fighting back, with the ability to edit photos and broadcast presentations online, and a first-class Presenter View.
Apple's iWork apps take the pain out of creating attractive documents, particularly at their bargain price. ThinkFree Office aims to replicate Microsoft Office and focuses on accommodating the work patterns of MS Office users. It's a very cost effective alternative.
Symphony is a traditional office workhorse. It may not be perfect, but it's stable, reliable and, perhaps most important of all, free. It's just pipped by LibreOffice, though, which also throws in database, drawing and maths capabilities.
Aside from word processor, spreadsheet and presentation tools, Google Drive also offers a basic vector drawing program.
Test three: Design and use
Is it easy to get things done in the suite?
The ribbon-based approach of MS Office 2011 can take a little getting used to, but there's a wide range of templates on hand. All the iWork apps come with a generous selection of templates, and it's easy to make your own or find third-party extras. The apps are powerful and a joy to use.
Despite aiming to mimic the Office interface, ThinkFree lacks the flair and grace of Microsoft's or Apple's suites. Symphony's interface is well designed, with a Properties panel keeping the most useful options close at hand to help you make quick changes to your formatting without having to dig through the menus.
LibreOffice lacks this, but then it doesn't cluster your documents in tabs inside a single window, so you can have multiple files open side by side.
The apps in Google Drive are a showcase piece of web design: they render a fullfeatured and very powerful office suite in your browser. In almost every respect they feel like local apps, but you do need an internet connection whenever you want to work.
Test four: Connectivity
Sync to the cloud, collaboration and more
With Google Drive, you can invite colleagues to view or edit documents. It's easy to work on the same document on several different machines. iCloud makes it very easy to edit iWork documents on your Mac and an iOS device, but collaborative working is less well served.
You can email documents from each app's Share menu, but since the demise of iWork.com it's more difficult to publish your work online or facilitate group approval.
Microsoft hasn't yet produced an iOS version of Office. Document sharing revolves around SkyDrive, which relies on the bundled Document Connection app on the Mac. It's easy-to-use and fuss-free.
ThinkFree Office is available for Mac, Windows and Linux, with Android and iOS versions allowing you to manage files stored in a free ThinkFree online account although not edit them remotely.
Symphony has no integrated iCloud or SkyDrive equivalent, so the best you can do is save to a shared folder on Dropbox or other third-party service. The same applies to LibreOffice.
The winner: Top office suite
If compatibility is key, then Microsoft Office wins out. You don't get everything on OS X that you get under Windows, but Office for Mac 2011 is a solid, powerful package. Our only qualm is the price. Even the Home and Student edition now tips the scales at £110.
You can cut costs with the Office365 rental model, which starts at £10 per month per user for small businesses, and £7.99 a month/£80 a year for home users. This lets you install all four Office apps on up to five Macs or PCs, and gives you 20GB of SkyDrive storage.
Although this is good value, after six months you've paid more than you would if you'd bought the three iWork apps outright, and you'll still have to keep on paying to keep on working.