Numbers 3.0 (2013) for Mac review

Numbers has always been an oddball but it’s not getting more sensible with age. Numbers for Mac OS X doesn’t so much rival Excel as out-manoeuvre it; but is it too leftfield for anybody to truly love?

Numbers 3.0 is the update to Apple’s Excel alternative for Mac OS X; it’s ideal for users looking to create and edit spreadsheets without the cost or experience required to use a program like Microsoft Office.

It’s not quite right to pitch Numbers as the low-end version of Excel. While it has never had the computing clout of Microsoft’s offering, it has always made documents that look fantastic. It’s always served us well for creating pitches, budgets and documents that look great.

But there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s aimed at home consumers, rather than finance departments. In this latest update Apple has made the program more accessible than ever to the average person. Numbers 3.0 has taken a leaf out of the iOS version and become simpler, and easier to use and seems to focus heavily on being useful for the home user.

Numbers has a great range of templates for managing home projects

See also

What’s new in Numbers 3.0 for Mac?

Rather than take the impressive iOS apps and make them more detailed, Apple has taken the Mac OS X version in the direction of the iOS app. To this end Numbers has a completely refreshed interface, the floating Inspector is gone in favour of a Format sidebar; images and other media elements are inserted using a built in pop-up iPhoto window and the whole template is cleaner and iOS 7-ified.

Aside from the new look-and feel there are a huge range of new templates. It’s telling that the Personal section of templates offers the largest range with documents such as Party Planner, Travel Planner, Calendar and even Recipe templates. That’s not even taking into account Personal Finance, which gets its own section along with Business, Education and Basic (all of which are smaller).

Apple is clearly planting its flag here at home users looking to plan personal events. In this regard it’s great, we can imagine using it to plan out a party or organise a holiday, where it’s somewhat less convincing is as a tool for work.

Numbers 3.0 Excel compatibility

One downside of Numbers is that it still doesn’t play with Microsoft Excel as well as we’d like. Part of this problem is Numbers propensity to encourage multiple tables on a sheet coupled with a layout problems (especially when charts come into play). To be honest you don’t have to create anything complicated in Numbers for it to fall over in Excel, extra tables on one sheet go to another sheet (which makes it impossible to work in multiple sheets) and tables and associated images end up on another sheet altogether. If you stick to one table on a sheet with formulas you’re generally okay, but anything more than that and it doesn’t work.

This is one of the reason we moved away from Numbers at work, and stuck to Excel. And we see nothing in Numbers 3.0 to address this issue.

Where things have improved tremendously is in sharing documents between Mac OS X device and iOS. Gone are the endless notifications about missing features and fonts, in making Numbers for Mac OS X simpler and more iOS-like Apple has fixed all the compatibility inconsistencies. Good job!

File exchange between Excel and Numbers is still quite poor making it difficult to see it working as an Excel replacement for the office

Numbers for Mac missing features

Let’s start with a fairly big concern long term users have. Apple has taken Numbers forward by removing a swathe of advanced features and simplifying the interface. We’ve seen Apple do this before in iMovie and other programs, and it’s rarely a popular move amongst fans of the program (although it can be said that it opens the software up to new users). Even so, there are quite a few features missing here: it has no AppleScript support, Sheet view is only available during editing; Page view only available during printing; there is no way to change the margin sizes. The Formula bar has been replaced with a formula bubble that appears over the related cell (it’s easier to make sense of but harder to work with); many power functions like VLOOKUP and HLOOKUP no longer work. There is a fairly healthy thread about what is missing from Numbers 3.0 for Mac in this Apple Support thread.

For all this the interface, and therefore the whole app, is undeniably simpler to use. Whether it’s simple enough yet for everyday non-finance folk to use is questionable, but Apple has certainly put the legwork into moving it in that direction.

Sharing and working online in iWork

The big news about Numbers (and the latest iWork update in general) which is that it’s now possible for multiple people to work on a single document in real-time together. We can finally collaborate on documents together.

That’s the good news; the bad news is that it sucks. And there’s really no other way to put it. It’s laughably, hopelessly, woefully bad.
You can share iWork documents stored on your iCloud account to another person via a link (which can be shared via e-mail, messages and even Twitter or Facebook). The document can then be edited by somebody (anybody, in fact) with that link. There’s no Apple ID requirement or password protection. The onus is on you to click stop when you’re done.

Aside from the security measures this means no review tracking or version history it’s just you and somebody else changing elements on a page and hoping you both notice.

The other person can also only edit documents in the web browser version of Numbers, not in the Mac OS X version. And they can’t edit it at all on an iOS device.

Any changes we made took approximately 35 seconds to register (although this might be due to Apple server issues). If the person using Mac OS X makes a change then the other person has to manually refresh their web browser.

It’s collaborating in the loosest sense, we fail to see how this could be useful in any way in a live work environment. When compared to the frictionless multi-user experience that is Google Docs then Numbers is truly stumbling (to be fair Google Docs can’t include images in Spreadsheets let alone some of the complex formatting on display here).

Online collaboration under-performs with a lack of Apple ID protection and some clunky web browser refreshing required

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


Numbers has been iMovie-fied and is simpler, brighter and has a range of compelling templates. It’s great to see it working with iOS properly, although the shabby online collaboration implementation does somewhat take the gloss off of things. We wouldn’t dare use it in a work environment, but for home projects it has a lot of potential. Once Apple improves the online sharing and introduces better Mac and iOS collabarative working this will be a very interesting app to use.

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