The introduction of Pages '09 marks the fourth release of iWork's handy word processing and page layout application. Each new release of the program has featured major improvements to Pages' word processing tools, capable page-layout features, and beautifully designed interface. Unfortunately, each previous release was also marred by missing or poorly implemented features or tools that didn't quite live up to their potential.

We're happy to report that Pages '09 has hit a sweet spot: Apple has added necessary features, enhanced existing tools, fixed minor annoyances, and given most users exactly what they asked for, even if there are still some minor issues that need to addressing in order the make the program perfect.

Pages' past shortcomings have been mostly related to business, science, and academia. Pages' mail merge features were abysmal, and updating a Numbers chart inserted into a Pages document was overly complex. Users working in scientific and academic settings found it difficult to create footnotes, bibliographical reference listings, and sophisticated mathematical equations.

Mail merge

Pages now lets you use a Numbers spreadsheet as the source database for a mail merge. The process is straightforward once you've prepared your spreadsheet. To test this, we used Numbers to open an existing Excel spreadsheet with over 1000 records.

To prep the spreadsheet, you select the row you want to use for header data - name, address, and so forth. After that, a very small arrow appears next to the cell number. Clicking that arrow opens a menu from which you can select the Convert To Header Row option. Once you've done this, saving the spreadsheet makes it ready for Pages to use as merge data.

But this wasn't obvious at first. In fact, when we initially attempted to select the Numbers spreadsheet as our merge source we got a cryptic error message about the header row that was not at all helpful.

We added fields from the spreadsheet to our document, including personal information stored in the Address Book such as name, home address, and email address, and the data merged with ease.

While we're thrilled that users can now merge data from other sources to a Pages document, there are still elements we'd like to see changed, or at least enhanced. First, there is no way to preview - we'd love for Pages to provide some means of previewing the data before merging the entire document.

Second, it would be easier if Pages could give you an option to use the first row of your spreadsheet as the header information. While creating header columns wasn't a total hassle, the intermediary step was initially confusing, and we ended up having to figure out how to create a Numbers header column before we could even select the file as a data source.

Finally, there was a small bug when we attempted to merge an email address from the spreadsheet. After the merge, not only did the e-mail address appear, but there was additional text - mailto:[email protected] - in front of the merged address. Apple acknowledged this bug and says that it will be corrected in a future update.