Apple's long-awaited update to the popular Appleworks productivity suite has arrived and one thing is certain: This is a major upgrade.
With its code substantially rewritten, AppleWorks 6 offers a dramatically changed user interface that looks and feels much like the company's forthcoming operating system, Mac OS X. Appleworks 6 also sports dozens of new features, including its first-ever presentation module.
Veteran Mac users will recall that this program was called ClarisWorks until last year, when Apple put its own name on the box. Whatever it goes by, AppleWorks has become ubiquitous in the Mac world because it's been bundled with new Macs for many years. AppleWorks' virtue is that it provides several basic applications, such as word processing, spreadsheets, drawing, painting and database modules, in one integrated package.
Not surprisingly, this strikingly different version of AppleWorks has displeased a few longtime users; features have been moved or eliminated, and the program's revamped code doesn't play well with some third-party utilities, causing crashes and lockups.
But first, let's look at what there is to like in this upgrade.
The most prominent new feature in AppleWorks 6, of course, is the presentation software, the rough equivalent of Microsoft's popular PowerPoint. This component replaces the antiquated and rarely used communication module.
AppleWorks' variant of this software allows you to drag-and-drop not just images but iMovie clips into your presentation. Some early users of AppleWorks 6 are criticizing this module because it lacks some of PowerPoint's features, but I expect the target audience -- in elementary and middle schools -- will find it more than adequate.
One major change that will appeal to those schoolchildren is the presence of larger and more detailed icons on the desktop. Their transparency when you move them around offers a glimpse of what users will find when Mac OS X is released this summer.
The most significant addition to the interface, and my favorite new feature, is the "Starting Points" palette. Starting Points offers quick access to several document management tools through tabs at the bottom of the window. The Basic tab allows you to create new documents in of various kinds by clicking on the appropriate icon. The Recent Items icon displays your most recently used documents. The Templates pallette shows you icons of preformatted documents; and the Web icon takes you to more templates stored on Apple's servers when your connected to the Internet.
If you don't have the piece of clip art you need to make your document complete, you can search Apple's 25,000 images through your Internet connection -- no browser required.
In keeping with Apple's new Internet fixation, AppleWorks 6 is loded with Web-related features, including many tools for creating Web-ready documents. The program's table creation tools are particularly flexible.
These are just a handful of the changes in AppleWorks 6; Apple says this version adds more than 100 features to the suite.
But as I said earlier, not all users will appreciate the changes. Most annoying are the changes to the code that break third-party utilities.
Peter Lowe, Apple's Director of Worldwide Product Marketing for the Mac OS, said that since this was the first major update to AppleWorks in several years, the developers "took the opportunity to clean up the code" and make the program easier to upgrade in the future.
In doing so, however, the AppleWorks team removed parts of the code that some utility programs alter, or "patch," to work their magic. Lowe commended third-party software developers on their creativity, but said Apple can't guarantee compatibility with software that uses such "innovative programming."
Even so, Lowe said Apple employees are monitoring the comments lodged on Mac Web sites, including Apple's own Tech Exchange Forum. He said Apple is working to see if any of the consistently mentioned glitches "are problems we can fix." If so, he said, "we will release an updater to resolve these issues as quickly as possible."
Lowe also urged users to use Apple's technical support phone line and Tech Exchange bulletin boards to help them resolve problems that may be particular to their Macs.
If you're concerned about possible problems with AppleWorks 6, check two sites with forums devoted to AppleWorks 6 issues, MacInTouch (www.macintouch.com/appleworks6.html) and MacFixit (www.macfixit.com/reports/appleworks6.shtml).
I experienced two problems other users had described: periodic crashes and a conflict with PowerOn Software's Action WYSIWYG utility, which causes the AppleWorks font menu to appear blank.
Many folks are more irate over what's missing from AppleWorks 6; namely, the built-in file translators that allowed users to open non-AppleWorks native files, such as those created in Word and Excel.
Lowe said that customer research indicated that most users, especially new customers, never used the translators, so Apple scrapped them .
For those who can't live without the translators, Lowe pointed to DataViz's MacLinkPlus 11.0, which translates files between formats and will work with AppleWorks 6. Unfortunately, that means an extra $90 out of pocket ($50 for the iMac version or those upgrading from previous releases).
My solution: Keep your old version of Claris/AppleWorks on your hard drive for occasional translation duty.
Lowe said that if enough users complain about other dropped features, such as the toolbar window that displayed the current font and type size, Apple might consider restoring them in a future release.
On balance, however, the positives of this upgrade far outweigh the negatives, particularly when you look at the value. AppleWorks 6 retails for $79.99, compared with more than $400 for the Mac version of Microsoft Office 98, an industrial-strength application suite designed for heavy-duty users. Even the Office 98 upgrade price of $249 is much higher than AppleWorks'.
Office 98 may be more robust, but AppleWorks 6 provides typical home users all the functionality they need in a cheaper, more compact bundle that's easier to use.
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