Which is the best word processor for your Mac?

We pit Word and Pages against four lesser-known rivals

Language aids

Spelling and proofing tools comprise spell-checking, grammar checking and auto-correction. The first is most important, while grammar checks are never particularly accurate, but are mildly useful for flagging occasional obvious errors, and auto-correction can be either amazing or infuriating.

A greyed-out grammar box, lack of auto-correction and problems checking pasted text got Mellel a big red squiggle here, but every other application on test fared well. Pages clumsily splits grammar and spellchecking into different panes, but redeems itself with plentiful options and strong auto-completion.

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Word matches Pages punch for punch with its excellent options, but then falls out of the ring for using proprietary dictionaries rather than the system one.

The star pupil, though, is Nisus Writer Pro. It lacks a grammar checker, but attention to detail elsewhere makes up for this. Highlighted words and current language are shown in a clear interface, while its live thesaurus, auto-correction, keyboard shortcuts and speed give it top-scorer status.
Mellel 2/5
Microsoft Word 4/5
Nisus Writer Pro 5/5
OpenOffice.org 3/5
Pages 4/5
Scrivener 4/5

Office compatibility

Although using an alternative to Word is fine, there's a chance you'll occasionally need to open, edit and save documents created using Microsoft's application. And results proved variable with the DOC and DOCX files we tested.

Every app bar Mellel managed to rip text from our documents (Mellel was fine with DOC files, but stumbled when confronted with DOCX), although Scrivener managed nothing further. Nisus Writer Pro also grabbed tables (if not their styling) from DOCX files and made a stab at including images and layout from DOCs, but generally messed things up.

Surprisingly, OpenOffice.org lags behind Apple's Pages. Neither application got things entirely right: both were confused by Word template cover pages, and while Pages floundered with text styles, OpenOffice.org couldn't correctly deal with image styles and placement. DOCX-wise, however, Pages' blunders were less of an issue.

In terms of exporting back to Word, advanced styling could still be lost occasionally, but again Pages nosed in front of OpenOffice.org.
Mellel 0/5
Microsoft Word 5/5
Nisus Writer Pro 2/5
OpenOffice.org 3/5
Pages 4/5
Scrivener 1/5

Mac integration

One reason for using a Mac is interface consistency. You expect things to work in a certain way across every application and for common conventions to be adhered to. Microsoft sometimes pays scant regard to such things, but the latest Word is an improvement.

On the face of it, Word finally looks and feels like a Mac OS X application. A pity, then, that once you get away from the main window, Word appears transitionary, with inconsistent dialogs, an ignorance of common Mac shortcuts and a lack of support for built-in services. OpenOffice.org sadly apes Word in these regards, not least in its inability to use C and the up and down arrows to jump to the start and end of a document.

Elsewhere, Mellel uses Mac OS X conventions and widgets, but presents them in a way that's akin to an unholy union between iTunes and BBEdit. And of the other three, there's very little between them – Pages, Nisus Writer Pro and Scrivener all show an admirable understanding of Mac conventions, with Scrivener fractionally doing so in the most pleasing manner.

Mellel 2/5
Microsoft Word 3/5
Nisus Writer Pro 5/5
OpenOffice.org 2/5
Pages 5/5
Scrivener 5/5

And the winner is - Pages 3.0.2

Two applications fall at the first hurdle in our race for the word processor crown. Mellel excels at document structuring and cross-referencing, but it's too idiosyncratic and clunky to recommend, and OpenOffice.org's standout property is its lack of a price tag. For a free application, it's mightily impressive, but you get what you pay for.

Next down – and it pains us to say this – is Scrivener. To be fair to Scrivener, it's not really a word processor and is the odd one out here. Strictly speaking, it's an authoring tool whose output should be sent to a word processor for final layout. Indeed, this is made clear in the software's blurb. So if your needs are purely text-based, it's the best application on test – the relatively low rating is purely down to its lack of layout capabilities and Office integration.

Of the final three, Microsoft Word is steadily (but slowly) improving. The interface is better aligned with Mac standards, the layout features are improved, its range of templates is decent, and the Home and Student edition of Office 2008 for Mac is surprisingly reasonably priced. The problem is that Nisus Writer Pro and Pages beat it in some key areas.

For pure writing, Nisus Writer Pro is the better application, and we wholeheartedly recommend it for such tasks. However, this group test was about a wider range of needs, and for that, Pages edges it, with its mix of efficiency, elegance, tools and features. As far as the interface goes, it may have the advantage of being privy to all things Apple, but in the age of the Leopard there's really no excuse for not integrating with Mac OS X.

Final verdict - Pages: 4/5

Pages edges it, but Nisus Writer Pro is a worthy runner-up and Scrivener comes recommended for bashing out text.


First published in MacFormat, Issue 203

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