Apple Numbers for iOS full review

Which is the best spreadsheet app for iPad? Excel, Apple Numbers or Google Sheets?

iPad-based spreadsheet jockeys face a dilemma: should they plump for Apple Numbers, or Microsoft Excel for iPad, or Google Sheets? This review looks at the three spreadsheet big-hitters for the iPad. All three apps enable you to create charts, tables and number-crunching formulas. But Microsoft and Apple's approach to spreadsheet creation is very different to Google's.

Read next: Apple Numbers for iOS review | How to get Microsoft Excel on your iPad

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 
  • Share your spreadsheet publicly or with specific people
  • See who else is in a spreadsheet
  • See participants’ cursors as they’re editing

Microsoft introduced Excel for iPad (along with other Office apps) in 2015 with a monthly charge. It quickly responded to criticism by plugging feature gaps (such as Dropbox support and AirPrint), offering a large amount of free OneDrive space and removing the charge for most users. However, Microsoft is still retaining the £4.49 charge for 'Premium Features' (slightly less than the original £5.99 charge). More importantly, the free version only works on the iPad and not the newer iPad Pro.

Apple has also made its Numbers app free for new customers of iOS devices. But are there any down sides to Numbers? Should you use Numbers or Excel to create your calculations? Can you import Excel documents into Numbers on the iPad, and edit spreadsheets made in the other app?

Google Sheets (part of the Google Docs suit) is making huge inroads in education and is, for many people, the way spreadsheets are now created and edited. Like Google Docs (the company's word-processing app), Sheets is a simple app that's mostly accessed through a web browser. However, an iOS app for Sheets is available on the App Store. Sheets is generally more simplistic than either Excel or Numbers, but its simplicity offers benefits. It's fast, free and saves revisions automatically.

So. Should you pick Excel, Numbers or Google Sheets when working with lists and numbers on the iPad? And, if you are going to go with Excel, should you pay the £4.49 per month charge to use Excel on your iPad or just use the free version?

In this review we will look at the following features for Apple Numbers, Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets:

  • Using the interface
  • Editing data
  • Creating formulae
  • Built-in templates
  • Advantages of Apple Numbers
  • Advantages of Excel
  • Advantages of Google Sheets
  • Intercompatibility

App Store links: Apple NumbersMicrosoft Excel for iPad | Google Sheets

Apple Numbers vs Microsoft Excel vs Google Sheets: Price and features

Apple Numbers vs Microsoft Excel vs Google Sheets: Microsoft Excel for iPad interface

Both Numbers and Sheets are free apps, but Microsoft is still charging £4.49 per month for "Premium Features" as part of an Office365 subscription. One of these Premium Features is the ability to use Excel on a device with a screen larger than 10.1-inches, a cutoff point that excludes the larger iPad Pro from the free version.

So 12.9in iPad Pro owners need to pay to use Excel. Fortunately the other premium features aren't anything many casual users are likely to need. The Premium Features in Microsoft Excel are the following:

  • Customise 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 an 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).

Apple Numbers vs Microsoft Excel vs Google Sheets: Editing data

Apple Numbers vs Microsoft Excel vs Google Sheets: 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 onscreen 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 all three apps. All apps present you with cells (rows of boxes arranged into rows and columns). You select a cell, and then enter text, numbers or formulas (calculations) into a text/formula bar.

All the other options are pushed into a Menu. In Excel you use the menu bar, and in Numbers and Sheets you 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. Google Sheets shares Apple's approach, but its menu options are so limited its more of a moot point.

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.

Apple Numbers vs Microsoft Excel vs Google Sheets: Excel's new Draw feature on the iPad

Apple Numbers vs Microsoft Excel vs Google Sheets: Microsoft Excel Draw menu

One newer feature that Microsoft has included with Excel is the ability to draw over the top of spreadsheets. Data purists may baulk at the idea, but the ability to sketch notes over charts and data is an important step towards a paper-free office.

The implementation is neat on an iPad Pro with Apple Pencil too. Simply tap the Draw menu, and you can draw highlights, lines and objects on top of your spreadsheet. These can be deleted individually, or included with PDFs that you share.

Draw is an excellent inclusion to Excel, and one we think Apple should include in its apps (we imagine a similar function won't be far away).

See also:

Complete guide to Microsoft Office on iOS

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

Apple Numbers vs Microsoft Excel vs Google Sheets: Creating formulae and using functions

Apple Numbers vs Microsoft Excel vs Google Sheets: Adding Formulae 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 formulae, 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 about what's going on.

In trying to make it easier, Numbers has a layer of abstraction to creating formulae and functions that makes the app more difficult to use. Numbers remains a little impenetrable compared to other Apple apps.

Apple Numbers vs Microsoft Excel vs Google Sheets: Google Sheets interface

Google Sheets follows Excel's lead in creating functions. Rather than a highly graphical interface, you enter calculations into the formula bar. Tapping the "fx" icon brings up a list of formulae to choose from, but there's very little hand-holding.

Apple Numbers vs Microsoft Excel vs Google Sheets: Built-in templates

Apple Numbers vs Microsoft Excel vs Google Sheets: Templates in Google Sheets

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 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 household tasks, like To Do List and Household Budget, but even these are needlessly complex.

Sheets has a limited number of templates, and they all have an austere nature. It may be due to the more limited graphical tools in Sheets, but whatever the reason we feel Sheets doesn't hold its own in the Templates test.

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

Apple Numbers vs Microsoft Excel vs Google Sheets: Advantages of Apple Numbers

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 the 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 can look like in Numbers:

Apple Numbers vs Microsoft Excel vs Google Sheets: 3D charts created using Apple Numbers

And this is what a 3D chart can look like in Excel:

 Apple Numbers vs Microsoft Excel vs Google Sheets: 3D charts created in Microsoft Excel

And this is what a chart looks like in Sheets. Not that we created this chart in Sheets on an iPad, mind. You can only create Charts using Sheets on the desktop. On the iPad you can simply view them.

Apple Numbers vs Microsoft Excel vs Google Sheets: Charts in Sheets

It's clear to us that Numbers makes the best-looking charts. 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.

Some readers have pointed out (quite rightly) than 3D charts are more deceptive in nature, and that 2D charts are preferable for presenting pure information. This has a ring of truth to it, but different jobs require different levels of salesmanship and presentation. If your job requires applauding staff for a job well done, or reminding investors about your impressive performance, then Numbers creates the most impressive-looking charts.

Read next: Tips for using Numbers

Apple Numbers vs Microsoft Excel vs Google Sheets: Advantages of Google Sheets

Apple Numbers vs Microsoft Excel vs Google Sheets: Google Sheets

This round-up presents Google Sheets as a sub-standard offering compared to Microsoft Excel and Apple's Numbers. This is at odds with our humble reviewer, who would like to point out that they use Google Sheets on a daily basis.

When listing features, and finesse, it's easy to spot the ways in which Excel and Numbers tower over Sheets. For all that, Sheets remains one of the first apps we go to when crunching numbers. Why? There are several reasons to pick Google Sheets over any other app.

Google Sheets is incredibly fast. Built from the ground up to work inside a web browser, it's intentionally lightweight. And like all lightweight apps, it rarely grinds to a halt while crunching data. Furthermore, its lack of clutter makes the interface easy to navigate and features easy to find. Seasoned Excel users will often grind their teeth at missing features, but newcomers will appreciate its simplicity.

We also love the autosave and revisions feature that exist across Google Docs. You don't worry about saving documents in Google Sheets; your work is always saved as you go. It's also the best suite around for collaborative working. Multiple people can jump into a document at once and see each other's pointers as they edit.

Google Sheets is a great app on the desktop, but Google has let the iOS version languish. You can't add tables, charts or forms in Sheets for iOS; none of the desktop add-ons work and there's no spell checker.

Apple Numbers vs Microsoft Excel vs Google Sheets: Advantages of Excel

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.

Apple Numbers vs Microsoft Excel vs Google Sheets: Is Numbers compatible with Excel?

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 differently; but the chart and numbers rendered correctly. Closer inspection of the formulae, 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:

Alternatives to Numbers 

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