Numbers for Mac review

Numbers for Mac is 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.

Last year, Apple radically changed Numbers (along with the rest of its iWork apps). Last year's iWork refresh saw a visual refresh bringing it in line with the iOS apps, and a number of key-features removed (something that didn't go down too well with users).

This year, we see the opposite. A whole bunch of new features has been re-introduced to Numbers, and a slight visual refresh (bringing it into line with Yosemite). Between these two updates we now have a whole new version of Numbers that is highly adept and working in a cross-platform manner (on both OS X, iOS and in a web-browser (via Read about the latest updates to iWork: Pages, Keynote and Numbers, and troubleshooting advice

Alternatives to Numbers

Tips for using Numbers

How does Numbers compare to Excel

Numbers for Mac interface

Numbers for Mac has a highly intuitive interface compared to rival spreadsheet applications

While Numbers has started to come together as a product, it still has to square off against Microsoft Excel. 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. This has become even more apparent ever since Apple made the program more iOS-like. Numbers 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 for Mac templates

Numbers has a great range of templates for managing home projects

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What’s it like to use Numbers 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 Format sidebar on the right that remains in view (but the options change depending on what is selected). This means you general have the formatting options to hand, without having to dig through menu options. Tables, charts, text boxes, shapes, other media elements are inserted by clicking the appropriate icon in the Toolbar.

Creating documents with Numbers for Mac?

One thing that sets Numbers apart is its range of stunning 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 for Mac Excel compatibility

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

One ongoing downside of Numbers is that it doesn’t play with Microsoft Excel as well as we’d like. Apple is steadily addressing issues, and we now find that most charts (with the exception of interacting charts) convert from Numbers to Excel. There are fewer formatting and layout errors than in previous years.

There is still the issue of using tables in Numbers versus sheets in Excel. Numbers encourages users to add multiple tables to a blank sheet, whereas Excel documents tend to be laid down directly onto the sheet itself.

When you take a document from Numbers (containing multiple tables) to Excel, each table is placed on a separate sheet, and a contents sheet is automatically created (with hyperlinks to other sheets, each containing a table.) It's a mess!

One the upside, Apple is clearly working to bring the two together and if you refrain from creating Numbers documents with multiple tables, interactive charts and other rich media you will 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 preserves headers and footers on import.

Numbers for Mac: export from Numbers to Excel

Exporting a document from Numbers for Mac (left) to Excel (right): tables are placed on different sheets and a contents page is created. The result is functional, but loses much of the visual impact.

Using Numbers between iOS and OS X

One of the great things about Numbers is the way it works between your Mac computer and iOS device.

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.

Added to this is support for iCloud Drive introduced with iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite. Documents you create using Numbers are stored in the Numbers folder in your iCloud Drive, and can be accessed directly using Numbers on any device. We find syncing between different devices smooth, and reasonably quick (although you can introduce sync errors by jumping between different devices).

Numbers for Mac re-introduced features

One fantastic aspect of this year's Numbers update is that Apple has re-introduced many of the features it removed in last year's refresh.  Perhaps the best news is that Numbers once again has AppleScript support, power users will be happy with this. You can once again adjust margins, but only from the Print mode. You can still only edit in Sheet view however, and Page view is only available during printing.

It has less of the 'bubble' nature from 2013's edition. We criticized the highly visual nature of Numbers' approach to formula creation last year, so we're happy to see a more regular approach. We also note that many power functions like VLOOKUP and HLOOKUP are supported once again. We do like the standard calulations that appear at the bottom of the screen when you select a collection of data, offering frequently used amounts: Total, Average, Min, and Mac. A Settings cog can be used to adjust the stock calculations that appear here. 

So now we have all the features back, has it been worth the refresh? 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 remains questionable, but Apple has certainly put the legwork into moving it in that direction.

Sharing and working online in Numbers

One of the great things about watching Numbers, and iWork in general has been seeing the way that Apple is bringing together collaborative working. We were highly critical of sharing in Numbers (and iWork in general) last year.

Apple's been steadily improving the collaboration of iWork documents over the last year, and has introduced update after update. Good new: it no longer sucks!

You still 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). This document can be either viewed or edited (you choose) by other people with the link. You can now password-protect your documents, so only people with the direct link can access them. It's also much faster in operation, and changes are refreshed quickly.

There are still a few niggles. While you can share the document using iWork apps from OS X, they can only be viewed and edited using the Numbers app on the website.

Numbers for iCloud has itself improved tremendously, however, and is now almost as powerful as the OS X edition. It remains disappointing that you can't work collaboratively between OS X and a person using an iOS device, such as an iPhone or iPad. Apple clearly has some work still cut out here, but it has been working towards this

 Last year, Apple took Numbers apart and made it simpler, brighter and consistent with iOS. This year Apple's taken Numbers and brought back a lot of the power, and tweaked the interface further. It's collaboration features are steaming ahead, although it remains behind other apps such as Google Docs and, now, Microsoft Excel. It's a shame you can't work collaboratively with other people using OS X and iOS devices.

Numbers for iCloud sharing

Working collaboratively on a document is performed using (which has been steadily improving over the last year)

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

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Microsoft Excel vs Apple Numbers review


What's important here is that Microsoft has released Microsoft Excel for iOS, which means that 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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