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Your Favorite Mac Word Processors
By Josh Centers and Adam C. Engst
In “Vote for Your Favorite Mac Word Processor” (10 July 2017), we asked you to rate the Mac word processors that you’ve used. Over 800 TidBITS readers responded to our survey of 21 apps, submitting close to 4000 votes. We found that Microsoft Word still dominates the landscape for word processors, but our readers wholeheartedly recommend several alternatives.
(And yes, we’re planning to do another survey to collect opinions about Markdown-based text editors like Ulysses and Bear. Such apps are not full-fledged word processors, but they’ve acquired a loyal following among those who don’t need to style text using arbitrary fonts, sizes, and styles, or insert graphics into text.)
To evaluate the results, we calculated the weighted average for each app, assigning a weight of 1 (Avoid it) through 5 (Can’t live without it) for each of the five choices — the best weighted average possible is thus 5. Apps that received only a handful of votes may have skewed weighted averages, of course, so we also counted the raw number of votes each app received.
Unsurprisingly, Microsoft Word received the most votes by far, and equally as unsurprising was that Apple’s Pages tallied the second most votes. However, less anticipated was the fact that the current Pages 6.2 garnered far more votes than the much-missed Pages 4.3, and hit the same weighted ranking. So lamentations that Pages 6.2 pales in comparison to Pages 4.3, while not unfounded, aren’t as widespread as might have been believed.
Although they received far fewer votes than Microsoft Word and Pages, Nisus Writer Pro and Scrivener earned the top ratings from TidBITS readers, likely due to their focus on niche audiences with serious word processing needs. Nevertheless, even though Microsoft Word, the 800-pound gorilla of the word processing world, is often reviled, it didn’t fare too badly in user ratings, outpacing alternatives such as Nisus Writer Express, LibreOffice Writer, and Apache OpenOffice Writer.
Here then is a list of the Mac word processors most liked by TidBITS readers, sorted by rating. We offer a rating graph and commentary for the apps that earned a weighted average greater than Word’s 2.96; for the rest, the research is up to you, since only you know what features are important. Focus on those apps that have free trial versions and strong import capabilities, since you’ll want to get some experience with the app before you commit to it. Plus, because you’re likely to want to use a word processor for years, stick with apps that are receiving regular updates.
We were pleased to see Nisus Writer Pro take the rating title because we’ve long appreciated its capabilities when writing and editing Take Control books. Users generally agreed that it offers the power and functionality of Microsoft Word without the complexity.
Jeff Hecht said, “A workhorse, and as a full-time writer my choice for all writing that doesn’t specifically require Microsoft Word details such as equations or certain formatting.”
“I’ve tried all the major word processors, and this is the one for me. It has a nice balance of features and doesn’t use any proprietary file formats,” Mark Solocinski said.
Bob Stern agreed: “Nisus Writer Pro has the power of Microsoft Word with an interface that I find much easier to learn and use. Nisus has a much more powerful and versatile Find-and-Replace than Microsoft Word or any other word processor. You may not think you need this extra power, but you’ll find more and more uses for it.”
Although Tommy Weir concurred about Nisus Writer Pro’s power and interface, he did have some caveats. “Nisus Writer Pro is my favourite word processor. Love the interface, the configurability, styles, find and replace, doc comparison, macros etc. It goes minimal, it goes maximal, it’s great. It is, however, not as good as Pages when it comes to page layout features, embedding images etc. For anything long, I use Nisus Writer Pro; anything short or graphics-heavy, I use Pages.”
But Nisus Writer Pro isn’t for everyone. Karen Hughes wrote, “I find Nisus Writer Pro very capable, but in the end, I tend to fall back to Word or Pages for most things. I find the style system in Nisus Writer Pro a bit more clunky than the alternatives — but I’m keen to support Nisus as an independent company.”
We debated whether to include Scrivener, since it’s not your typical word processor. Although it has many standard word processing features, Scrivener focuses on helping writers organize notes, characters, and sources. Regardless, many love it for their work. We heard from academics, screenplay writers, and authors.
“I couldn’t write long-form fiction without it. I know, because I’ve tried,” said our own Michael Cohen.
Steve Fassmann particularly appreciates Scrivener’s flexibility. “I love Scrivener because I can use it in so many different ways. I journal, outline and prototype in it. When creating a new major document at work, I usually start in Scrivener before moving to the official system, once I have figured out how the document needs to work.”
Speaking for screenwriters, Tommy Weir said, “I use Scrivener for the first draft of screenplays. The approach it uses is perfect for this. It features flawless export to Final Draft, which is where I do subsequent drafts.”
And Colin Owen spoke up for book authors. “I use Scrivener to write my books. There’s nothing better out there. It has way more stuff than I’ll ever use, but just using it simply is perfect for me,” he said.
Ian summed up opinions surrounding Scrivener well: “Scrivener is the best writers app on any operating system. I’m an academic, and Scrivener works amazingly for us, allowing structured writing and working from reference material in a way no other mix of programs can match. If your layout requirements are not too great, you can use Scrivener stand-alone. But for complex output documents, most Scrivener users will compile their work then top-copy it using layout software. Because it also supports MultiMarkdown, powerful publishing tools like Pandoc become available directly from Scrivener.”
Given all the complaints we hear about post-4.3 versions of Pages, we were stunned by the popularity and praise surrounding the latest version. Readers praised its power and ease of use, despite it having fewer features than Word and still lacking a few from Pages 4.3.
Tommy Weir, who has used most Mac word processors, summed up many of the comments:
Alan Ralph concurred: “Compared to Word, working in Pages is a much more pleasant experience! I regularly use it for producing invoices to send to customers, business letters and other work-related stuff. Best of all, it can quickly spit out a Word doc or PDF for me when I need to.”
Despite its simplicity, Pages is useful for professional work. David said, “I’ve used Pages to write two books, largely because it has the combination of power and simplicity that I like. Word always seems like you have to push through a thick layer of complexity to get to writing. Pages just seems like you can start typing and get into it.”
And Michael Cohen, author of “Take Control of Pages,” said, “Having spent weeks exploring its nooks and crannies, I can truthfully say that Pages is a very capable, surprisingly powerful, and visually attractive app. Most of the features lost in the transition from Pages 4.3 to 5 have now returned. If you gave up on it back then, it’s definitely worth another look.” Of course, Michael is a bit biased, but he is unquestionably the leading expert on Pages outside of Cupertino.
Nonetheless, other readers supported Michael’s claim that Pages has mostly returned to its former glory. Jolin Warren added, “Now that linked text boxes are (finally!) back, we’re almost there. But the way Pages 6.2 deals with styles is still inferior to 4.3, and importantly it can’t import styles from another document. Once importing styles arrives in the ‘new’ Pages, I will banish 4.3 forever, but until then there are medium-length documents where I need to use it, even though the recipient then imports it into 6.2.”
Pages 4.3 (348 votes, 3.40, No Longer for Sale, 10.9+) -- Read comments from the previous article.
The venerable Pages 4.3 still has its fans, but it wasn’t as popular as we had expected.
Peter White said “This app is my daily workhorse and has been for what seems to be a very long time. I strongly dislike the way new versions of Pages have turned Inspector into an included sidebar that wastes screen space. It looks like I will be using Pages 4.3 for some time unless an OS upgrade breaks it, and then I will consult the result of this survey for better options.”
Once he’s done writing in Scrivener, Colin Owens drops back to Pages 4.3 as well. He said, “I use Pages 4.3 for all my book layouts. It does facing pages which is essential for me. I don’t use the newer versions at all.”
Coming as it does from a small Israeli company called RedleX, Mellel isn’t as well known in the United States as some of the other word processors in the Mac world, but it’s a mature app that has been gaining features for years. Readers noted that Mellel is particularly good for long and complex documents.
Lisa Spangenberg said, “I use Mellel for a lot of scholarly writing because it supports complex footnotes and multiple languages and writing systems. It handles footnotes more flexibly than Microsoft Word and is better about mixing languages and writing systems than Pages. It also works well with the Bookends bibliographic/reference management app.”
Jolin Warren agreed, saying “Mellel is excellent. I don’t know what I would have done without it when writing long reports. Its support for structured documents and styles makes working with long documents easy and enjoyable. It always puts a smile on my face. Sadly I haven’t had the need to use it lately (no big documents to write), but I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s fast, reliable, well thought-through, and predictable. Loads of great features, too.”
And Miles said, “Mellel makes long documents easy to organize and navigate, and the outline feature is incredibly useful. The whole program is rock solid and a joy to use.”
All that power does require a bit of a learning curve, though, as Michael Lever noted:
TextEdit (475 votes, 3.15, Free, 10.12+) -- Read comments from the previous article.
We weren’t surprised to see that users overwhelmingly rated Apple’s bundled TextEdit as a solid performer. Nevertheless, users wished that TextEdit had more features.
“TextEdit is OK for bare-bones text entry, but its typographic controls are shamefully inadequate. There’s no good reason for TextEdit to be such a primitive writing tool after all these years,” said Alan Sanders.
Tommy Weir would prefer to see TextEdit focus on plain text instead of rich text: “I wish TextEdit was more of a plain text editor. Given that Pages is now free perhaps Apple would revisit the functionality they’ve built into it. There’s always a need for a bare bones text editor cough and it should ship with the system and load anything.”
TextEdit can be used just for plain text (choose Format > Make Plain Text), but it offer little in terms of tools suited to working with plain-text documents. Weir makes a solid argument: TextEdit is barely functional as a word processor, Pages is now free, and the Mac doesn’t ship with a plain-text editor.
(Josh Centers here. I’ve long had a soft spot for TextEdit, since I used it for multiple essays and articles in college. It was fast, simple, and free! In competitive journalism classes where speed was a factor, I could often have articles written in TextEdit before my classmates were able to load Word!)
The 800-pound gorilla of Mac word processors, Microsoft Word easily earned the most votes, but it is far from the most loved word processor. Reader comments showed grudging respect, but most people seemed to consider Word a necessary evil.
Karen Hughes said, “I’m always a bit conflicted about Word. It often seems that the Mac version has some annoying bugs and limitations compared to the PC version. You can’t deny it is feature packed — but even with recent improvements things can be tricky to find. I have to use Word in Windows in my day job, so I find the similarities welcome, but I can understand how a purely Mac user may find them slightly less welcome.”
Dennis Fazio finds Word’s interface frustrating. “The most aggravating when it comes to mysterious formatting; can be very complex. Figuring out how to do something can be difficult even for veterans and near power users. Various controls are all over the place (in preferences, different places on the ribbon bar, etc.),” he said.
Jeff Hecht offered similar criticisms, saying, “Bluntly, a mess. Too many features duplicated in too many places, making it unwieldy and maddening to use. I have lost track of how many fonts it has accumulated, and how many styles build up on the selection menu. Features are poorly documented at best.”
But Word is highly capable. Dr. Z said, “I have used this product since Word 4. It has successfully produced many complex documents over the years, including my dissertation in 1998. In short, I can depend on it to accomplish demanding tasks, knowing that there is significant overhead in learning how to control some of the arcane/hidden commands. However, it would be nice if Microsoft would allow some Apple user interface gurus to retool all of the menus, ribbons, etc. to be more like the intuitive GUIs that are the norm for Apple-produced apps (excluding iTunes — which acts like Microsoft products).”
Harmon Abrahamson falls into the same category, saying, “I use Word daily, but almost never push it to the breaking (or stalling) point. Part of this is inertia; I have been a Word user since v1.0 in the mid-80s. I also work in a cross-platform department, and seamless exchange of documents with Windows users is essential.”
The Rest of the Word Processors -- For the remaining 14 apps, we’ve listed the number of votes, rating, and price, and included a link to the app’s Web site, along with a link to any available comments about it.
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