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Your Favorite Mac Word Processors

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.

Nisus Writer Pro (219 votes, 3.89, $79, 10.8.5+) -- Read comments from the previous article.

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.”

Scrivener (249 votes, 3.69, $45, 10.9+) -- Read comments from the previous article.

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.”

Pages 6.2 (516 votes, 3.40, Free, 10.12+) -- Read comments from the previous article.

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:

Pages is my everyday word processing tool. Mainly because my daily work involves tasks Pages is really good at.

  • A quick letter, or a packing label, or an invoice. I don’t type anything long on it, that typically I do in Nisus Writer Pro.

  • Word documents. I find that Pages has the best Word importer so it’s become my default tool for dealing with my colleagues who use PCs.

  • Pages is also a dandy page layout tool and its handling of graphics and embedded media is the best on the market. I do a lot of this kind of image heavy documents. Pages makes this easy.

So while it is not my favourite word processor, it is my daily one. I don’t have the ‘oh, I’m immersing myself in words and writing now’ feeling I get with Nisus but I do find myself being very productive with Pages.

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.”

Mellel (166 votes, 3.32, $39, 10.8+) -- Read comments from the previous article.

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:

I use Mellel regularly when writing reports and when I want a letter to my clients to be particularly accessible, for example using line numbers.

Mellel has two features that I wouldn’t be without. Line numbering to the right-hand side which is best when binding pages on the left-hand margin and printing to duplex. And its outliner is excellent.

I am looking forward to Mellel 4 which is promising some great new features, such as indexing.

Mellel takes a lot of getting used to but I find it more reliable than Nisus Writer Pro where, for example, the language in document setup tends to slip. Where I find Mellel not good is for simple letter writing: it has no vertical ruler so it is not easy to see where to start spacing for typing the recipient’s name and address etc.

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!)

Microsoft Word (690 votes, 2.96, 10.10+) -- Read comments from the previous article.

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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Comments about Your Favorite Mac Word Processors
(Comments are closed.)

VicDiesel  2017-07-17 19:21
Almost every scientist uses a Mac. Almost every scientist uses LaTeX. I think you missed quite a population.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2017-07-18 10:15
We added LyX to the list very early on because it (just barely) met our definition of a word processor, but with only 51 votes and a 1.92 weighted average, it was pretty far down.

I use TeXShop as a GUI frontend for TeXLive. I'd never trade that for MS Word as long as I can chose. I've tried Pages. Far easier/nicer to use than Word and I could imagine using it for primarily layout/DP work. But when it comes to scientific articles, it's TeX all the way.
David  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2017-07-20 11:53
And yet a recent study concluded that using LaTeX was slower than using Word:

Money quote:

"On most measures, expert LaTeX users performed even worse than novice Word users. LaTeX users, however, more often report enjoying using their respective software. We conclude that even experienced LaTeX users may suffer a loss in productivity when LaTeX is used, relative to other document preparation systems."
What a load of nonsense. A sample size of 40! Was this an undergrad term paper? And why would I trust a psychologist to tell me what I as a physicist should be using for my work?

The experienced LaTeX user perhaps wants to have an enjoyable experience rather than feeling the urge to slam his head repeatedly against the table while battling with something like Word.

The experienced LaTeX user perhaps wants their formulae and text to come out looking nice and enjoyable to read rather than the garbage pseudo-equation editors in something like Word provide.

I would gladly spend twice the time in TeX Shop compared to Word if the experience is rewarding instead of nerve racking and if the results look like a professional manuscript instead of a homemade newsletter.

Finally, my 20 year old thesis can still be compiled with any modern TeX compiler today and produce the exact same document it did 30 years ago. Show me a Word or Pages document that can do that and then we'll talk.
David  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2017-07-20 17:16
I *knew* some LaTeX guru would erupt violently if I posted the article, yet I still did it anyway. Terrible.
I'm by no means a LaTeX guru, but I am a professional. When a company like MS or their shills swoop in and try to tell me their commercial and closed product is much better at my job than the open source tool my colleagues and I have been developing and using (for free) for the last four decades, I will politely but also most firmly tell them to get lost.
David  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2017-07-21 08:20
"Was there any previous volcanic activity in this area, Scottie?"

"Ay, Captain, especially during whole vi vs. emacs encounter."
Randy B. Singer  2017-07-17 22:58
I think that it is very ironic that folks complained that there are too many redundant ways to do things in Microsoft Word. Those redundancies are direct responses to users complaining that they can't find how to do things in Word. Now that it's easier to find those functions (because they are in multiple places), folks are complaining about that. I think that Steve Jobs was right; you shouldn't give customers what they say that they want, you should give them what you think that they need.
Steve Werner  2017-07-19 08:57
I agree with that. As a software instructor, I spend a lot of time with Adobe Photoshop and InDesign. Those programs are also 800-pound gorillas in terms of features. Having key features accessible in multiple places is a good thing for my students and makes the applications easier to work with.
janetgk  2017-07-17 23:13
Sorry, both Appleworks and Clarisworks were far better than Pages. I was forced back to WORD. Could never figure out why Apple would ditch those - yes expensive - very good programs. Which BTW took me away from WORD. But alas now back to supporting those people.
Andreas Frick  2017-07-18 03:53
I still miss AppleWorks 6, which I used a very long time. I some aspects it is still better than Pages: Hyphenation, Spellchecking, line breaks.
Michael Rosen  An apple icon for a TidBITS Supporter 2017-07-18 21:02
When choosing a word processor, I suggest that you give some thought to the probability of that program being alive and supported in the future. Not just your future, but also that of your heirs.
Chris Adamson  2017-07-19 16:01
I used to swear by Mariner Write, but that was 15 or more years ago, when being the "spiritual successor to WriteNow" was a sentence that made sense. Now it is clearly an unmaintained, hopelessly-legacy Carbon app that is always one macOS update away from becoming un-launchable. I've ended up switching to Pages, which has the advantage of moving from Mac to iPad via iCloud. Still, in its day, Mariner Write was pretty great.
Kevin Patfield  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2017-07-20 02:49
Those who "much-miss" Pages 4.3 can still run it on Sierra. Dig out your old iWork 9 dmg and install it. Then run the iWork 9.3 upgrade which you can find on the Apple support site. The two iWork suites can coexist though you have to put some effort into making sure you run the version you want.
Michael Paine  2017-07-20 04:07
I still regret the demise of Ami Pro - the very first Windows word processor. So old that the original version came out with run-time windows. It had nearly all the features of "modern" word processors and more. For example, it could generate charts with all elements as editable objects. It was taken over by Lotus and ruined.
I can still run Ami Pro in Parallels running Windows 95 (!) on the Mac - just for fun.
gretchen  2017-08-31 10:59
Since MS Office isn't going to work with Macs going forward, which word processor makes converting WORD documents the least painful? I am still using WORD 2008. I never felt the need to upgrade to 2011, so I may have even more issues. My usage is minimal, and I can't justify shelling out the big bucks for a program I barely use.
B. Jefferson Le Blanc  2018-01-16 04:52
That's not actually true. Office 2011 works through macOS 10.12.x. It is broken in 10.13 High Sierra, as are many other apps, including Photoshop and Illustrator. However, there is an Office 2016 standalone app that works in High Sierra, as does Office 365. As for Office 2008, that hasn't worked in OS 10 for some time now so you're more than a little behind the curve.

That said, Pages will open most Word documents and can save to Word as well. And it's now free from the App Store if your OS is up-to-date (macOS 10.12). In the meantime I'm avoiding High Sierra and still using Office 2011 occasionally. Word doesn't require the use of text boxes and supports style sheets, so it's still simpler to use than InDesign or Pages for straight word processing.
Curtis Wilcox  An apple icon for a Friend of TidBITS 2018-01-16 10:43
Reports on RoaringApps are Office 2008 "works fine" on recent versions of OS X/macOS. With Office 2011, it looks like support for Exchange Servers is broken, a big problem for some people, not for others.