Microsoft Excel vs Apple Numbers for iOS review

Should you buy Apple Numbers for iOS or Microsoft Excel for the iPad? This review looks at two spreadsheet big-hitters for the iPad. Both Excel and Numbers enable you to create charts, tables, and number-crunching formulas. But Microsoft and Apple’s approach to spreadsheet creation is very different.

Are there any downfalls of Numbers? Should you use Numbers or Excel to create your calculations? Can you import Excel documents into Numbers on the iPad, and edit spreadsheets. Or should you pay the £7.99 per month charge to use Excel on your iPad. Read about the latest updates to iWork: Pages, Keynote and Numbers, and troubleshooting advice

In this review we will look at the following features for Apple Numbers and Microsoft Excel:

  • Numbers vs Excel: using the interface
  • Numbers vs Excel: editing data
  • Numbers vs Excel: creating formulas
  • Numbers vs Excel: using the built-in templates
  • Why is Apple Numbers the best spreadsheet app?
  • Why is Excel the best spreadsheet app for iPad?
  • Numbers vs Excel: using the interface

Creating a spreadsheet in Numbers

Numbers vs Excel: using the interface

Numbers is a spreadsheet app from Apple that is used to create and edit data on tables. The tables are held on a sheet. You add data to individual cells, and add formulas and functions to those cells to create calculations. The formulas and functions can be used to create charts of all shapes and sizes: Column Charts, Pie Charts, 2-Axis Charts, Scatter Charts and Bubble Charts are all common ways to represent data.

Numbers for iPad remains one of the most accessible spreadsheet apps on the market.

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Creating a spreadsheet in Excel

Numbers vs Excel: editing data

Excel for iPad is very much what it says on the tin: Microsoft Excel running on your iPad. Instead of having a table on a blank sheet, (as in Numbers) you get one giant sheet. Tap on a cell to edit the data contained therein (there are two types of keyboard: text and numbers). Above the main sheet is the Functions bar, and tapping an ‘=’ symbol in a cell brings up the Functions pop-up with Recently Used Functions and All Functions. At the top is a dual-deck navigation bar with Home, Insert, Formulas, Review and View. If you insert charts, pictures and shapes then an additional menu option appears on the right.

You tap on cells in Excel to edit data, and can choose between four on screen keyboards: Numbers, Date and Time, Text, and Functions. The keyboard changes based upon what cell you have selected, but a shortcut on the top of the keyboard changes the cell type.

Entering numbers, dates and texts, is straightforward enough in Numbers, and you can quickly add charts, shapes and photos using the icons in the top-right.

As we noted in the recent Microsoft Word review, we favour Microsoft’s plain text approach to menus over Apple’s iconographic approach.

Aside from that we find Microsoft Excel to be swift and fast to edit data, even large amounts of data. Anybody who works with Microsoft Excel documents on a regular basis will be pleased with the implementation here.

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Numbers vs Excel: creating formulas

Where Numbers becomes perhaps a little more obtuse is in the creation of Formulas. These are the calculations that sit at the heart of a spreadsheet. Where you say Cell A3 = A1 + A3. Or “=Sum A1(A2+A3)” in Excel speak.

Creating a formula in Excel

Apple has really tried to make this whole system more graphical, and intuitive, to the average person. But we do find the graphical system more confusing, and Excel’s system more plain-speaking. And either way Functions are simply one aspect of spreadsheeting that people have look up and learn. It’s not easy enough to just do in either Numbers or Excel without spending time learning what’s going on.

In trying to make it easier, Numbers has simply created a layer of abstraction to creating formulas and functions that makes the app more difficult to use. Numbers remains a little impenetrable compared to other Apple apps.

Creating a formula in Numbers

Numbers vs Excel: using the built-in templates

Fortunately Apple includes a wide range of templates to help you get started. These include spreadsheets for personal finance, calendars, schedules, logs, team organisation, invoices, attendances, and even party planners. There are some education spreadsheets, such as Probability Lab and Correlation Project, but the real draw is the presence of everyday life projects. These are the subtle helpers that enable people who don’t know what to do with a spreadsheet app to get started.

Excel, on the other hand, has far fewer templates, and they are all stern stuff. There’s the Annual Financial Report, Gantt Project Planner and the Quarterly Sales Report. Make no mistake, these are excellent templates for those who need them, but they’re utterly impenetrable to the layman. There are a few nods to more household tasks, like To Do List and Household Budget, but even these are needlessly complex.

Templates in Numbers

Templates in Excel

Why is Apple Numbers the best spreadsheet app?

Apple Numbers was first introduced for Mac OS X in 2007 as part of Apple’s iWork suite of programs. It was introduced alongside the iPad in 2010.

Numbers surprised many people (including us at launch) as it was something of an oddity for Apple, a company that tends to push forward creative design software. Most of Apple’s software sits at what Steve Jobs’ used to call “the intersection of technology and liberal arts”: this  is not where you’d normally place spreadsheet software.

But Numbers is an incredible program for creating charts.

This is what a 3D chart looks like in Numbers

A 3D chart in Numbers

And this is what a 3D chart looks like in Excel

A 3D chart in Excel

And charts like that look great in Keynote presentations. You can create the charts inside Keynote directly, but Numbers is better for crunching the data than Keynote.

Why is Excel the best spreadsheet app?

The idea of Microsoft being better than Apple at something is a difficult pill for many Apple fans to swallow. There is much to be said for the classic Us vs Them approach to Microsoft vs Apple fans (and be under no illusions about where we stand on that argument). But it’s got to be said: Excel is the best spreadsheet application. We do not just mean Excel for iPad, or the best between Excel and Numbers: we mean Excel is the best spreadsheet application there is. In general; in the world.

Excel is Microsoft’s crowning glory, and it shows. It is fast, fluid; it is easy to use on a very basic level to perform quick calculations; it can be used to create incredibly complicated charts. We can draw conclusions about Microsoft’s nature and the fact that its one truly great product is for making financial calculations, but that doesn't take away the fact that Excel is a stunning piece of software.

An if you work in business, or finance, or any area that involves serious corporate work (usually when money is involved) the only way you will be taken seriously is if you send, and receive, Excel documents. We cannot imagine a scenario in which the finance directors we have worked for would ever move away from Microsoft Excel. They certainly wouldn't use Apple Numbers. In the future, things may change, but for now: most people have to use Excel at some point.

Import errors in Numbers

Is Numbers compatible with Excel?

And, as with most iWork apps it’s pretty much impossible to import and export Office 365 documents from Excel into Numbers without losing formatting. We tested the Quarterly Sales Report template and opened it in Numbers. The Import Warning said:

  • The font Franklin gothic Medium isn't available in iOS. It was replaced with Helvetica
  • Some formulas couldn’t be exported. Last values were retained
  • Hidden sheets were made visible
  • Unsupported formulas were replaced by the last calculated value

On the surface, it looked mostly all right. The Product and Quarter column titles were missing, and some of the data fields were aligned different; but the chart and numbers rendered correctly. Closer inspection of the formulas, however, showed that behind the scenes they had been simplified.

We find Numbers hard to accept in a corporate environment that is entrenched with Microsoft Office. Employees will be required to open, edit and share Office documents without reformatting or changing them. These employees will be most pleased to find Microsoft Excel on their iPad.

Read more iWork tutorials on Pages, Numbers and Keynote in our iWork topic zone. Including:


For many people, Microsoft Excel is far from the most interesting program in the world. But it is a legendary piece of software that is highly regarded in financial and corporate circles. If you move in those circles, or work directly with those who do, then you’ll find Microsoft Excel for iPad to be a great piece of software. Numbers, on the other hand, is a less convincing sell. It is capable of making fantastic-looking documents, and these are capable of looking great when you’re giving a presentation. But a Numbers document will not get you far when dealing with an accountant or tax office. It is a much friendlier piece of software for consumers though. Numbers is capable of performing high levels of calculation, but is at it’s best when creating documents for the home or classroom. On the whole we’d go with Excel.

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