Performance tips for Pages ’09 with large documents

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Microsoft, Pages
March 18th, 2009 • 3:04 pm

Microsoft Word for Mac OS X (especially Word 2008) is such an atrocious pile of crap that using it for professional work on large documents requires a leap of faith that I am simply no longer willing to take. One can only endure so many application crashes and corrupted documents (with the associated data loss and waste of time) before one decides that the application is totally unsuitable for professional-level activities and that an alternative must be found.

Fortunately, Apple’s Pages ’09 provides such an alternative. These days, I use it not only for new documents that I create myself from scratch, but also for work on existing MS Word documents, even though it involves a document conversion process that is less than perfect (in both directions). Even if the document conversion process adds to my workload by requiring me to readjust certain things (inline pictures and tables, footnote references, multi-column layouts, etc.), the additional work is still much less painful than the grief caused by attempts to use Microsoft Word itself for this type of work.

These days, I am working long extra hours on the translation of a 80,000-word, 220-page monster of a Word document, with multiple inline figures and tables, footnotes, tracked changes, and so on. As Word documents go, it is reasonably well designed, even though its authors still used too much manual formatting for my liking. (Given how difficult Microsoft makes it to use automatic, style-based formatting in Word, it’s no surprise that nearly no one actually composes truly “smart” documents that are easy to edit.)

But no matter how well or badly designed the document is, I know that trying to use Word 2008 to work on it would be suicidal. I simply cannot afford multiple daily application crashes and the always-present risk of document corruption that are involved whenever one attempts to use Microsoft applications on the Mac (not to mention the innumerable small irritations and annoyances that make one’s work constantly frustrating).

So I am actually working on a Pages ’09 version of this document, which I created by opening the Word document in Pages ’09 and saving it as a native Pages document. This conversion process had some immediate consequences, however.

First of all, the 3.5 MB Word document turned into a 17 MB Pages document. I don’t know why the Pages document is so much bigger. (It could be because Pages had to convert certain graphs that were created with Excel and embedded into the Word document, using its own built-in graphics format.)

But what is for certain is that this made the process of opening and saving the very large Pages document rather painful. I am a bit of a compulsive command-S user (due to years of having had to live with Microsoft Word’s own unreliability), so I tend to save my documents quite often while editing them. But saving this particular document would take quite a while each and every time, with the progress bar appearing and blocking any further interaction with the document until the saving process was complete.

I soon found this quite frustrating. In actual fact, the problem got so bad that, at some stage, after I had been editing the document for a while and saving it with this long saving process, I suddenly had an error message from Pages ’09 at the end of the saving process telling me that it was unable to save the document altogether!

I then had no choice but to try and find a way, not just to make the saving process shorter, but to actually make it work again. And that’s when I discovered that saving the document without a document preview made a world of difference. By default, Pages ’09 saves its documents with a preview included in the document file (presumably for quicker document browsing in the Finder with Quick Look or Cover Flow). This is fine for smaller documents, because the addition of a preview does not significantly affect the length of the saving process.

But for a large document such as the one I was working on here, it makes a huge difference. I saved the document with the “Include preview in document” option (in the “Save As…” dialog box) unchecked, and after that, I no longer had any error messages, and command-S went back to being able to save the entire document in a fraction of a second, with no progress bar required, instead of the much longer saving process, with the progress bar and the ensuing interruption of my work that I was experiencing when the preview option was checked.

It was a big relief. In fact, it was such an improvement that the saving process was now much faster than in Word 2008 itself, where, even though Word does not include a document preview (as far as I know), the saving process can be rather long too for large documents.

This wasn’t the only problem I had with editing this large Word document in Pages ’09, however. Anther significant problem that I encountered was that, when I opened the Word document in Pages, I got this warning that “footnotes and endnotes aren’t supported inside objects and were removed”:

Footnotes in objects

Not only does Pages ’09 not support footnote and endnote references inside “objects” such as tables or text frames, but it actually removes the footnotes/endnotes involved altogether and renumbers the remaining footnotes/endnotes!

This is rather shocking. It’s bad enough that Pages ’09 has this limitation in the first place. There are numerous cases where people need to add footnote/endnote references to text that is inside a table cell, for example. (That is especially the case when people use single-cell tables as frames for text boxes instead of actual frames, which happens more often that not, and for good reason, since both text frames and paragraph borders are such a pain to use in Word.)

But to remove the footnotes/endnotes altogether and renumber the remaining ones is unacceptable. We are talking about the actual removal of essential content here!

I ended up having to put the Word document (open in Word 2008) and the Pages document (in Pages ’09) side by side and to go through the document’s footnotes. When I found the ones that Pages ’09 had swallowed whole, I copied them back from the Word document and inserted them with a footnote reference just after the table in question.

At the end of the translation process, when most of my work is done, I will have to export the document from Pages ’09 as a Word document again anyway, and make final adjustments to the document in Word 2008. At that stage (and hopefully without too many crashes), I will move the footnote references back to their original location inside the tables. Like I said earlier, even if it adds to my workload, it’s still much better than the alternative, i.e. having to work on the Word document in Word 2008 throughout the entire process.

Finally, I have to mention that Pages ’09 has significant performance issues with inline tables and figures. Whenever an inline table or figure is part of the portion of the document that is currently in the visible area of the document window, there is a very noticeable impact on performance, even on my fairly fast Mac Pro with 5 GB of RAM.

Scrolling up and down the document becomes choppy, and more important, even typing text becomes noticeably sluggish, with a small but visible delay between the time you hit a key and the time the character appears on the screen. This is particularly problematic for me because I totally rely on the third-party Spell Catcher X for spell-checking and shorthand completions, and I make such a heavy use of Spell Catcher than it is often involved multiple times per line of text, either for typo corrections or for the actual expansion of shorthand abbreviations. And Spell Catcher, which works its magic as an “input method” in Mac OS X, is obviously affected by this performance hit as well, to the point that sometimes the shorthand expansions are scrambled, with the letters in the wrong order, forcing me to backtrack and manually correct the mistakes.

Is there anything that can be done about this? As far as I remember the performance problem around inline tables and figures is new in Pages ’09. Previous versions of Pages had other performance issues (notably when editing text inside table cells), but I don’t think there was such a noticeable impact on the application’s responsiveness to text typing around such tables and figures. Yet in Pages ’09, it is quite obvious that, when an inline table or figure is visible in the document window, typing text below or above the table or figure is sluggish.

The only solution that I have found so far is to adjust my document scrolling position so that these inline tables and figures remain hidden most of the time. Usually that is enough to help alleviate the performance issues somewhat. (Curiously, even when tables or figures are visible, the text typing performance inside footnotes does not appear to be affected and is usually much smoother than the performance in the body text below or above the table or figure.)

Since the problem is new in Pages ’09, there is hope that it will be addressed in an incremental update, along with other obvious bugs such as the one with the wrong page count in multi-section documents.

In the meantime, I am afraid that the only solution I have found is to try and keep the tables and figures beyond (above or below) the visible area of the document in the Pages document window.

It’s not perfect, but one should keep in mind that Word 2008 itself has much more substantial performance issues, including with such basic things as typing responsiveness throughout all documents (issues that make the problems with Spell Catcher X much more pronounced, notwithstanding the fact that Word 2008’s support for input methods is atrociously buggy in the first place).

So yes, Pages ’09 could be better. But it’s worth remembering that, as far as I am concerned, without Apple’s Pages, it would be downright impossible for me to work on such large Word documents in Mac OS X. Microsoft Word itself is so unreliable that I would probably have no choice but to switch to Windows—although I am far from certain that Word is that much more reliable under Windows. Maybe Windows users are just used to such a level of ineptitude and have learned to live with it.

I cannot imagine having to do such a thing myself, and so I am very grateful to Apple for having provided us with a realistic alternative, even if it’s not perfect. I just hope that they keep improving it and making Microsoft’s own software even more unnecessary and irrelevant on the Mac.

One Response to “Performance tips for Pages ’09 with large documents”

  1. Pages ‘09 – first look | Ex Futuris says:

    […] It has been reported that Pages 09 hesitates when opening long documents. Word 2007 shows the first page quickly, but pagination continues as a background task for some time and calculated fields such as page numbers may be out of date. […]