Apple Numbers for iPad, iPhone review

Apple's Numbers for iOS app makes it super easy to build visually impressive 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.

Over the years Apple has shown that spreadsheets can look great, as well as be functional. Numbers for iOS (along with Pages and Keynote) was one of the key apps that Apple introduced along with the iPad, and the iPhone edition swiftly followed.

Numbers has always had a rough ride on iOS. There's nothing wrong with the app, it's hugely impressive; it is more because spreadsheets are fiddly at the best of times. And the iPhone's small screen and touch-based interface have never seemed particularly at home editing spreadsheets. This is especially true when you move beyond simple charts and tables into the more complex functions and formula.

To its credit Apple has stuck with Numbers, and each iteration has been better than ever. However, since we last looked at Numbers for iOS the landscape has changed. Microsoft has finally realised that it can't avoid the iOS landscape forever, and that while people do not want to buy a Microsoft Surface to run Microsoft Excel, they would very much like to do so on their iPad. In March 2014 Microsoft released a version of Microsoft Excel to the App Store, and along with Word it's been near the top of the charts ever since.

So Apple Numbers has a lot to contend with. Not only is it hard to create a spreadsheet app that works effectively on a small touch-screen device; it's age-old rival is stomping on its home turf.

What's new in Numbers for iOS

Numbers for iOS

Firing up the new Numbers for iOS app opens a green screen displaying What's New in bold letters. What has Apple pulled out of the bag to enable Numbers to rival Microsoft Word?

  • Support for third-party storage
  • Updated file format
  • Take Photos and videos in app
  • iCloud Drive
  • Custom colour mixer on iPad
  • Transpose data in tables
  • Support for Handoff.

Some of these new features in Apple Numbers are more impressive than others. A more feature-rich list of new features for Pages, Numbers and Keynote is held on the Apple website.

Apple Numbers: iCloud Drive and third-party storage

One of the key features for Apple Numbers, along with all major Apple apps since the launch of iOS 8, is the integration of iCloud Drive. Spreadsheets created in Numbers are now automatically saved in the Numbers folder of your iCloud Drive. So you can access the files directly on the Mac, and in other apps in iOS.

We have a lot of time for iCloud Drive, but we do wish Apple wasn't so miserly with its free storage allowance (still only a paltry 5GB). Microsoft's OneDrive offers up to 30GB of free storage, and functionally it's pretty much the same.

The support for third-party storage had us stumped for a while. There is no direct integration with Dropbox, Box or any other third-party online storage services. Instead what Apple is getting at is that you can save files to Dropbox, Google Drive and other services thanks to its new file format (which is specifically designed to work better with these online services). While this is nice enough, we'd much rather have direct file saving into Dropbox or another service. There's no getting away from the fact that Numbers is going to sit alongside a range of other apps in your workflow, and not all of them use iCloud Drive, and Numbers itself certainly isn't a big enough pull to get us out of whatever cloud system we're in and into iCloud Drive).

Apple Numbers: Transpose data in tables

A neat new feature in Number is the ability to transpose data in tables. This enables you to swap the rows and columns around, so you can change the orientation of data in a table.

You transpose the data in a table by tapping the round icon in the top-left of a table, and choose Transpose from the pop-up menu. It will neatly swap around the data in your table.

Transpose a table in Numbers

Data transposed in Numbers

The data has been transposed and the data A1, B1, and C1, and D1 from the top row now reads A1, A2, A3, and A4. 

While the ability to transpose data in a table is a neat function, it's hardly awe-inspiring. Actually it's the sort of feature that most spreadsheet users are used to having on hand in a desktop app and only really notice it when it's missing. It's like when Microsoft Launched Excel for iOS and it didn't have a Print function.

Still, it's a case of Apple filling out the gaps in Numbers and consistently making it a more feature-rich app.

Apple Numbers: Photos and Videos

Numbers now supports direct recording from the iPhone's camera

You have always been able to insert images into Numbers, and movies if you really want a vibrant spreadsheet.&nbsp. However, you can now record and insert photos and videos into Numbers as you work on a spreadsheet. This isn't actually as mad as it first sounds. The idea of recording an Red Bull-style extreme sports action shot as you work on the end of year returns might be a bit weird, but you can record a personal message using the iPhone's camera and embed it directly into a spreadsheet. We think this could be really handy if you are sending a complex data sheet to somebody, and want to quickly explain what is going on inside your document.

What's it like to use Apple Numbers?

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).

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.

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.

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.

You can read all our iWork reviews here: Apple Pages, Keynote & Numbers reviews

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OUR VERDICT

Numbers is still a difficult program to recommend over Microsoft Excel, especially now that Microsoft has released a native Excel app for iPhone and iPad. But Numbers does have its strengths: it's easy to use, and it creates amazing looking documents. The ability to add images and video directly into documents helps, as does the steady implementation of stalwart spreadsheet features such as Transpose. Numbers is getting better with each iteration, but we would appreciate better integration with Dropbox and other cloud services.

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