Numbers iCloud Beta review

Numbers is Apple’s spreadsheet application, much like Microsoft Excel, and like a lot of Apple software it’s been designed to be used by human beings instead of number-crunching automatons.

The Numbers app is part of Apple’s iWork suite of programs, and it’s worth noting that these haven’t been updated since iWork ‘09, an astonishingly long time. Since then Apple has created versions of iWork apps for its iOS devices, and has been hard at work creating a cloud-based version of its office apps.

iWork for iCloud is still in beta testing, although we believe it’ll be released to the general public soon. You can still sign up to have a look at the iCloud beta test with Apple, and we’ve decided to take a look at how it’s coming along. The result is our Numbers for iCloud Beta review.

See: Free iWork for iOS later this year

What is Numbers for iCloud like?

In a word: beautiful. There’s no other way to describe just how well designed Numbers for iCloud is compared to other web apps. Apple has consistently shown that it’s the world leader when it comes to recreating the desktop experience in a web browser.

If you’ve used Apple’s Mail, Calendar, Contacts, Notes or Reminders you’ll know what to expect. Numbers for iCloud is a fairly close approximation to using a desktop app. In fact, you soon forget you’re working in the Safari browser completely.

There is one caveat though, Numbers for iCloud is based upon the iOS version not the desktop version. While this makes some sense (after all it’s the more up-to-date app) we’re not wholly convinced by switching between Numbers for Mac OS X and Numbers for iCloud. The lack of a traditional menu structure makes naivgating the app somewhat cumbersome, and icons that are designed to be finger-friendly on the iPhone look a little ‘my-first-spreadsheet’ on the desktop. Also, it’s using the skeuomorphic style from iOS 6, which we all know Apple is about to cull in iOS 7. So it feels oddly futuristic and out-of-date at the same time.

See: Mac productivity software reviews

Numbers Interface

Numbers for iCloud features

Aside from the visual splendour of using a damn-near-perfect recreation of an iOS app in a mobile space on a desktop, it’s worth noting that Numbers is - in some ways - far more powerful than other cloud-based spreadsheets.

The Apple-designed templates are all present and correct, and you can use the wide range of fonts, table designs, graphics, images and charts. In all Numbers for iCloud is capable of producing spreadsheets of far greater visual complexity than other spreadsheets, even ones that run on a desktop. When it comes to creating visually impressive documents, Numbers and Keynote is a pretty powerful work too. We’ve noticed it capable of adding visual flair to documents that goes down well in the boardroom.

Numbers Conversion

See: Microsoft Office 2014 rumours

Where it falls down is with regards to other services. In particular the import and export options between Numbers for iCloud and Excel isn’t great. On the import side of things it does a fairly good job, although we noticed some of the layout schemes weren’t identical in more complicated documents. Exporting a document from Numbers to Excel is another matter. Excel treats a single sheet as one big table, Numbers treats it as a page to contain multiple tables. When you export the sheets form Numbers to Excel you typically get a master page with links to other sheets making up the other tables. It looks a mess.

On the one hand it’s easy to go, hah Excel looks rubbish compared to Numbers. But because Excel and Numbers don’t play that well together, it’s impossible to use Numbers alongside somebody who’s using Excel. One of you has to switch.

And in a realistic work world you’ll spend a lot of time working with other Excel users, and eventually they’ll grind you down into their system.

Numbers vs Excel

The other thing that disappointed us was that exporting and downloading documents isn’t supported. Instead you have to send a converted documents to yourself by e-mail. This feels like clumsy when compared to a service like Google Docs that enables you to click File > Download As and choose between Excel, OpenDocument, PDF, CSV, plain text or a web page formats: all of which are bounced straight to your downloads folder. Mind you, it’s at this point where we come back to the “Beta” tag: Apple has time to implement better import and export features.

And while we’re complaining. We’re not too keen that Apple keeps its files locked inside apps inside Documents In The Cloud. Compared to Google Drive’s Dropbox-esque file structure it seems needlessly complex. On the other hand at least you know Apple isn’t reading all your documents and selling your data to ad companies.

Numbers for iCloud browser support

One other area where Numbers falls short in its support outside of the Safari web browser. Support for Google Chrome isn’t too bad, being limited to version 27 or later, but Support for Internet Explorer is poor; it doesn’t even work with Internet Explorer 8.

Again: it;’s easy to go, “hah PC users with their rubbish browsers”. But one of the points of using a cloud service is that you can jump on any computer, anywhere and start using it like you were at home. That point is missed if support isn’t as wide as possible. Even though the service is still in Beta we don’t feel that Apple will widen support; adding additional features inserts more complexity, not less. And this is a truly complex web app.

Speaking of Google Docs, given that it’s probably the online service that’s got the most traction lately, and it seems a bit of a shame that you can’t import/export to Google Docs format as well as Excel. instead both services have to go via Excel.

The most criminal oversight here is though is that you can’t currently work on a document in real-time with another iCloud member. Again, we keep coming back to the “Beta” tag but hey… Google can do it. This is probably the single greatest advantage to using a cloud service, and it’s the reason why Google Docs is suddenly so popular. You can invite anybody with a Google account to come and view, and work, on a document with you. There’s no such luck here. Instead you’d have to send it to them by email, and wait for the changes to come back. Hopefully this is pretty high on Apple’ list of things to implement.

Numbers Browser

OUR VERDICT

It’s hard to see who would use Numbers for iCloud in its current state, although that is a Beta state so it’s only really worth looking at as a curiosity at the moment. It may come in useful if you use iWork already, and find yourself on the road using a Mac that isn’t your own. And if you don’t have an iPad or iPhone to hand. But if you’re using a service like Office 365 or Google Docs there’s not much here to convince you to switch. This is undoubtedly a better-designed app, and an incredible demonstration of what is possible. But is it practical? Not yet…

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