Apple Numbers 3.6 for Mac review

Welcome to our Apple Numbers for Mac review, updated 4 Feb 2016. Original review by Lou Hattersley.

Numbers is Apple's easy-to-use spreadsheet program, offered as a home-grown alternative to Microsoft Excel. It's ideal for users looking to create and edit spreadsheets without the cost or know-how required to use the more complex and expensive Excel.

Like Pages and Keynote, Numbers has been through a lot of changes in recent years - one update might remove features that many users relied upon, only for the next update to restore at least some of those features as a kind of belated apology. Version 3.6 was introduced towards the end of 2015, quickly followed by a bunch of bug fixes in 3.6.1, and this time around it's more a case of 'steady as she goes'. This new version of Numbers primarily concentrates on adding support for the latest features in El Capitan, with only a few additional features that can be used to enhance your spreadsheet data.

Read our other iWork reviews: Pages for Mac review | Keynote for Mac review | Pages for iOS review | Keynote for iOS review | Numbers for iOS review | Plus: Tips for using Numbers

Update 16 September 2016: Since our review, Apple has added real-time collaboration to its iWork suite. This was showcased during Apple's event on 7 September 2016, where a free update (version 3.0) for iOS users was pushed out on 13 September. The update will come to macOS on 20 September. We're pleased to see an update to the iWork suite, as real-time collaboration will help those working in teams, such as global teams in businesses and even students taking part in university group projects.

The new version brings the following collaboration updates (among others):

  • Edit a spreadsheet with others at the same time in Numbers on Mac, iPad, iPhone, and iCloud.com 
  • Share your spreadsheet publicly or with specific people
  • See who else is in a spreadsheet
  • See participants’ cursors as they’re editing

Apple Numbers 3.6 for Mac review: How does Numbers compare to Excel?

While Numbers has matured considerably since its introduction, it still has to square off against Microsoft Excel.

It's not quite right to pitch Numbers as a low-end version of Excel, as there's a clear difference in focus between the two programs. Numbers concentrates more on the graphical presentation of spreadsheet data, providing excellent tools for quickly creating graphs and charts, and even for working with photos and other graphics. Numbers does include more than 250 mathematical functions, and we've always liked the very useful way that a number of standard functions - such as SUM and AVERAGE - automatically appear at the bottom of the spreadsheet as soon as you select any set of data. However, Numbers has never really attempted to match the endless range of maths functions and analytical tools that have always been Excel's great strength in the business world. 

Here at Macworld, Numbers has always served us well for creating pitches, budgets and documents that look great. But there's no getting away from the fact that Numbers is primarily aimed at home users and students who just need basic spreadsheet features, rather than number-crunching corporate finance departments. This has become even more apparent in the last couple of years, as the Mac version of Numbers has become more and more like its iOS counterpart, and has concentrated on ease of use for home users.

Apple Numbers 3.6 for Mac review: What's it like to use Numbers for Mac?

Part of Numbers' appeal for home users is its range of high-quality, professional-looking templates. It's telling that the Personal section of the templates list offers the largest range with documents such as Party Planner, Travel Planner, Calendar and even Recipe templates. There's also a selection of templates for Personal Finance, with only a handful of more serious templates for Business and Education. 

Apple is clearly targeting home users who need to plan personal events and projects. And, in this regard, Numbers works really well - we can certainly imagine using Numbers to plan a party or organise a holiday. The current version 3.6.1 doesn't make many changes here, simply adding support for El Capitan features such as the new Split View mode, and the 'force-click' feature that was introduced with Apple's new Force Touch and Magic Trackpads. (For more on this, see 13 ways to use Force Touch on the new MacBook.)

The program's typographical tools have been improved this time around, with better support for small-caps, contextual fractions, and glyphs, and you can also view recently used fonts in the Format panel on the right-hand side of the screen, which will speed up text-formatting in your documents. 

Apple has also updated its VoiceOver accessibility technology, which now allows you to add comments to your documents, and even to edit data and graphics in charts. And, finally, this version of Numbers will now allow you to import and edit old documents from Numbers '08 - although it doesn't go back as far as the '06 version, as the recent updates for Pages and Keynote do.

Apple Numbers 3.6 for Mac review: Numbers for Mac Excel compatibility

Where Numbers is perhaps less convincing is in the workplace. This is, in part, because the business world is Microsoft's home turf and Excel is still the king of spreadsheet apps for business users. 

One weakness in Numbers is that it doesn't play with Microsoft Excel as well as we'd like. The 2014 update for Numbers (version 3.5) made some progress here, improving its ability to import spreadsheets from Excel 2013 for Windows, and also doing a better job of converting Numbers' own charts and spreadsheets into Excel format. However, there is still the issue of using tables in Numbers versus sheets in Excel. Numbers encourages users to add multiple tables to a single blank sheet, whereas Excel documents tend consists of multiple, separate sheets within the larger spreadsheet document. 

When you take a Numbers document that contains multiple tables and try to use it in Excel you'll find that each table is placed on a separate sheet, while a separate contents sheet is created automatically with hyperlinks to other sheets, each containing a table. In other words - it's a real mess! 

On the upside, Apple is clearly trying to improve Numbers' compatibility with Excel, and if you refrain from creating Numbers documents with multiple tables, interactive charts and other rich media you should find compatibility between Numbers and Excel vastly improved. Two particular features Apple notes are the ability to export password-protected sheets to Excel's format, and Numbers’ ability to preserve headers and footers on import. 

Apple Numbers 3.6 for Mac review: Using Numbers in OS X and iOS

If compatibility between Numbers and Excel is still a work in progress, Numbers does excel - so to speak - at sharing information with its iOS counterpart. Gone are the endless notifications about missing features and fonts, and although Apple has been criticised for removing certain features from the Mac version of Numbers in the past, that process of simplication has vastly improved compatibility between the Mac and iOS versions of the program. 

Yosemite brought iCloud Drive to Numbers, making it easier to share and sync documents between Macs and iOS devices, and this year Apple has finally announced that the web-based iCloud version of Numbers is now out of its beta phase and is ready for business at www.icloud.com. That means you can now view and edit your Numbers spreadsheets on any device that has Internet access, and gives Apple a viable alternative to the online Google Sheets. 

Having the Mac, iOS and iCloud versions of Numbers in place makes it easier to share documents and collaborate with other people. You still share Numbers documents stored in your iCloud account by sending links to other people, and you can decide whether those people can only view documents or also have the ability to edit as well. You can password-protect your documents, so only people with the direct link can access them.

From rather crude beginnings, the collaborative features in Numbers and other iWork apps now work quite effectively. Of course, collaboration remains another area where the business-oriented Excel is hard to beat. However, the iOS version of Excel requires a subscription to Microsoft Office 365, so having free versions of Numbers available on the Mac, iOS and iCloud is a useful and inexpensive option for people who don't need the full power of Excel.

Download Numbers for Mac from the Mac App Store.

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

Alternatives to Numbers 

Alternatives to Pages

Alternatives to Keynote

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

OUR VERDICT

Since Microsoft released Microsoft Excel for iOS, Apple's own Numbers no longer has the exclusivity edge of being cross-platform. Not that it was enough of an edge to tempt many people away from Excel in the first place. We wouldn't use Numbers in a work environment, but it does create great charts for presentations, and for home projects it has a lot of potential.

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