Apple Numbers for iPad, iPhone review

Numbers for iOS makes it easier to build spreadsheets, charts and tables. The new templates make it more practical than ever.

It was a bit of a surprise when Apple first created Numbers, its spreadsheet program to rival Microsoft’s market-leading Excel software. Number crunching always felt like Microsoft’s stomping ground, whereas Apple does the visual graphics.

Numbers and iWork in general has changed the way we think not just about Apple, but about what productivity software is for in general. In some ways Numbers for iOS is, and always has been, one of Apple’s most ambitious projects. Creating a spreadsheet program that is practical to use, but works effectively on multi-touch display has been clearly a challenge. In the past we’ve been a bit unsure about Numbers on the iPad (and especially on the iPhone). But Apple continues to rise to the challenge with an interface that is functional and increasingly becoming easy to use. Read more Apple iOS app reviews.

Numbers is especially good at creating home documents like travel itineraries, event planning and home budgeting

On one level Numbers works like any other spreadsheet program. You create tables of data and then use these to create charts. These are then typically inserted into business documents or presentations. But increasingly Numbers feels like a program in and of itself; Apple clearly wants everyday folk to use it to organise their lives.

Using Numbers is now fairly easy. You tap a cell (the square box) to select it; this automatically opens a bubble menu with options like Cut, Copy, Delete; you can use drag handles to select multiple cells, which brings up extra options like Merge and Create Chart. Double-tapping a cell brings up a keyboard to edit the data inside the cell. You can switch between four different types of keyboard (digits, date & time, text, and formulas).

Numbers wears the iOS 7 flat style well, removing much of the skeuomorphic approach found in the earlier app. It’s now a much cleaner interface.

It’s not just a facelift. Numbers now supports interactive charts. These are a range of column, scatter and bubble charts that you can flick left and right to see data in different stages. It’s a good way to see changes in charts over time.

There’s a handy template called Charting Basics that will help you to view all the different types of charts and learn how to make them.

Numbers for iPad, iPhone: Looking good

The real strength of Numbers is in using with iWork to create amazing business and home documents. Numbers for iOS works extremely well with Keynote and Pages. You can cut and paste charts arom Numbers directly into Keynote, and they don’t paste as graphics but editable charts. While they don’t fit into the Microsoft Excel ecosystem very well, the iWork package is unsurpassable at helping you create business documents and presentations. Everything you make in iWork tends to look incredibly slick sitting next to Microsoft office.

It’s also a lot easier to create charts that contain checklists, durations and times using. All of these seem to require far too much effort when using Microsoft’s program, whereas Apple makes it pretty easy. Formulas are another area where we find it easier to work with Numbers than Excel.

Beyond all this Numbers features a huge range of wonderful templates. A lot of these are specially good for home use, such as party and holiday planners, or home budget charts. The templates also feature lots of artwork which you can import from Photos. While images in a spreadsheet don’t add to the accuracy, it makes them a lot friendlier to look at.

The new templates makes it incredibly easy to create highly visual documents

Numbers for iPad, iPhone: Easy enough to use?

For all this though, Numbers is still not the most accessible iOS app by a long shot. There’s a real problem with inputting data on a touch-screen display. Spreadsheets are fiddly at the best of times, and we just don’t find it fun to do on an iPad. It can be argued that they’re not really fun to do anywhere, but there are a lot of people who consider Excel to be Microsoft’s finest hour. A good spreadsheet is an invaluable tool to anybody working in a finance or managerial role. Numbers on the iPad isn’t going to feel as intuitive, fast or powerful as Microsoft Excel on a computer. It’s not going to win many converts.

If you're an experienced Excel whizz it won’t be long before you find a feature that’s missing. There are also some quirks that require learning and it’s isn’t always as straight-forward as we’d like.

The bigger problem for business professionals though is the import and export compatibility between Numbers and Excel. We’ve found cross-format compatibility between the two programs to be reliably sub-par whenever we used Numbers in a work setting. Our testing shows that the new version is little better. It’s fine for sheets with single tables and no images or chart. But the minute anything more complex is introduced from Excel to Numbers (or the other way around) you find the spreadsheet is broken up into more sheets and charts and images start to appear in the wrong place. We still advise Documents To Go as the ‘go-to’ app if you want to open Excel documents on an iPad without messing up the formatting.

Google Docs is the other contender, but cross platform working between Google Docs and Numbers seemed nigh-on much impossible to us. Data is stored in Google Docs format and accessed online through a browser or through the Google Docs app. We found no way to transfer data from a Google Doc to Numbers direct on the iPad.

The charts made in Numbers are especially stylish and can be pasted directly into Pages and Keynote

For this you might be tempted to go with Documents To Go instead of Numbers. While Documents To Go is fine for looking at Excel documents, it’s not that much fun to make them from scratch. This is where Numbers stands head-and-shoulders above other apps. Take Microsoft Excel and Google Docs completely out of the equation and Numbers suddenly becomes a much more interesting piece of software.

One great piece of compatibility news is that Numbers for iOS now works seamlessly with Numbers for Mac, and also with the new Numbers for iCloud. This is a big step forward as being constantly reminded of compatibility issues was one of the things holding us back from using Numbers for iOS. With that removed it really is a great way to create documents at home, or on the move. And the integration with iCloud really does make it easy to create and access documents in several places at once.

OUR VERDICT

Numbers might not be able to meet your Excel requirements in the office, but it is a great spreadsheet program in its own right. The new iOS 7 version feels a lot slicker, and easier to use and the new templates are fantastic. The integration between Mac and iOS via iCloud is superb, and it is the best way we can see to create a spreadsheet in one place and use it in another. It’s best for highly visual spreadsheets, and perfect for home use and supporting presentations. Like all the iWork software it’s a steal at £6.99.

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