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.

Microsoft introduced Excel for iPad (along with other Office apps) earlier this year, but has quickly responded to criticism by removing the £5.99 monthly charge, plugging feature gaps (such as Dropbox support and AirPrint,) and offering a large amount of free OneDrive space. However, Microsoft is still retaining the charge for 'Premium Features'.

Apple has also removed any charge from its Numbers app. Numbers has been free for new customers of iOS devices, but now it's free for anybody. 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.

And if you are going to go with Excel, should you pay the £5.99 per month charge to use Excel on your iPad or just use the free version.

Read about the latest updates to iWork: Pages, Keynote and Numbers, and troubleshooting advice

Read: Tips for using Numbers

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
  • Numbers vs Excel: using the interface

Numbers is a spreadsheet app from Apple 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.

See also:

Numbers 3.5 (2013) for Mac review - update to Apple's Excel-alternative

Apple updates iWork for iOS, OS X, iCloud: What's new in Pages, Numbers, Keynote?

Numbers vs Excel: price and features

Microsoft Excel for iPad interface

Both Numbers and Excel are now free apps, but Microsoft is still charging £5.99 per month for "Premium Features" as part of an Office365 subscription. Fortunately these premium features aren't anything many casual users are likely to need. The Premium Features in Microsoft Excel are the following:

  • Customize PivotTable styles and layouts.
  • Add custom colours to shapes.
  • Insert and edit WordArt.
  • Add shadows and reflection styles to pictures.
  • Add and modify chart elements.

Most of these features can be overlooked by casual users, although those working in a professional environment may well require some, or all, of the premium features. In this respect Microsoft Excel is not as feature complete as Numbers (which offers all features for free).

You do get a couple of other things with a Office365 subscription. You get a whopping 1TB of OneDrive space and 60 minutes of free Skype calls. You also get to download Microsoft Office programs for Mac OS X (which remain usable for as long as your subscription is valid).

Numbers vs Excel: editing data

Adding data and formulas in Excel

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 both Excel and Numbers. In Excel you use the menu bar, and 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.

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 of Excel on an iPad.

See also:

Complete guide to Microsoft Office on iOS: How to get Word, Excel and PowerPoint on your iPad or iPhone

Office 365 deal is pointless for Mac users

Microsoft Word vs Apple Pages review: which is the best word processor for the iPad

Numbers vs Excel: creating formulas  and using functions

Adding Formulas in Numbers

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. Functions are the built-in commands you use to create formulas, such as SUM,

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.

Functions and Formulas 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 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.

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.

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 is capable of looking like in Numbers:

3D charts created using Apple Numbers

And this is what a 3D chart is capable of looking like in Excel

 3D charts created in Microsoft 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.

And 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.

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:

Alternatives to Numbers 

iWork Numbers 3 for Mac and iOS tips

10 Numbers tips for Mac OS X

Keep Numbers column and row names in view while scrolling

How to share iWork '13 files with iOS

Microsoft Excel vs Apple Numbers review


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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