By Monte FergusonApple has slowly been building up the iWork suite as a credible alternative to Microsoft Office. What has been lacking, up til now, has been a spreadsheet program. That all changed when Apple took the wraps off of Numbers, itís own spreadsheet program. As you might expect in an Apple app itís pretty to look at. But donít let itís good looks fool you. This is a powerful program.
From the beginning you notice a difference with how Numbers behaves. When you open the program it provides you with a choice of professionally designed templates, geared for specific tasks. No worries about staring at a bunch of columns and rows trying to figure out where to begin. Another thing you notice right away is that, unlike Excel, it only displays the number of rows and columns you specify.
It uses what Apple calls Intelligent Tables. You can setup multiple spreadsheets, or tables, on a page. Each table is independent of the others. Which means you can have different grids of rows and columns, fonts, width of cells, etc in each table without affecting each other. Heck, making your table bigger,I.E. adding rows and columns, is as hard and dragging on the right corner of the table to the right.
Numbers treats the background of the document as a canvas. This allows you to position your tables, I.E. spreadsheets, anywhere on the page. Each tableís address tab contains a pull down menu which lists frequently used tools for; adding, deleting, hiding, or sorting rows and columns. (There is also a handy Format Bar allowing you to apply changes in the fly.) You can add a header or a footer, handy for a summary calculation, with a single click.
The two biggest features go hand in hand. They are Intelligent Tables and the Canvas.
The Canvas allows you to arrange tables, charts, text and graphics anywhere on the
screen. Itís freeform. You can use alignment guides, rulers, masking, and other tools.
Intelligent Tables allow you to have independent tables on the same screen.
Out of the box Numbers comes with 150 ready-to-use functions. You can add them via
drag and drop onto the cell in question. When you make a table with header rows and
columns, Numbers uses data from header cells to create cell names. For us regular
folks its easier to remember a cell labeled 2007 Gross Sales rather than a cryptic J39.
Because Numbers lists every sheet, table, and chart as an outline in the Sheets
pane, itís easy to swiftly navigate through your document.
Numbers has the ability to format cells as sliders or steppers. They offer a great feature, the ability to play out ďwhat ifĒ scenarios. You can quickly plug in different variables and immediately see the results. Although Iím no professional when it comes to spreadsheets, I can see that coming in handy for the average user, for instance working with household budgets or saving for retirement.
Not all important features make great demo material, but that doesnít reduce their importance. Take for instance compatibility. These days you have to be able to work with files created in other programs. Numbers just works when it comes to opening or importing the two most widely used spreadsheet programs Mac users will face: Excel, and AppleWorks. Numbers can open, write to, and save to MS Office formats. This includes Excel 2007 documents created in new Office Open XML formats, as well as older formats. For long time AppleWorks users youíll be happy to know that Numbers imports AppleWorks spreadsheets seamlessly. It can also import documents in some other common formats such as: Comma Separated Values (CSV), and tab-delimited files. I was surprised to learn it also talks OFX, Open Exchange Financial. Which would allow you to directly download online bank statements and open them in Numbers. It even supports adding data directly from Address Book cards, just drag and drop contact info from your Address Book.
These features are handy, and useful, but do not usually get a lot of attention. You can sort complete rows in a table by column, or filter rows based on the numerical, text, or date values in their cells. Apple designed templates include pre-configured tables and charts with built-in formulas and sample data. Use the built-in Media Browser to browse and preview your photos, movies, and music. Then drag the files you want into your spreadsheet. Each Numbers spreadsheet comes with a list of predesigned styles. You can add 2D and 3D charts with a single click, customizing them with more than 20 sets of chart textures. Use the interactive print view to scale and arrange your document to print exactly as you like. You can export spreadsheets created in Numbers in the Excel .xls format. You can also export your documents in PDF or CSV format.
Numbers is downright easy to use. Itís not intimidating. The palette of templates to choose from when you start the program is very welcome. It contains well designed and starting point documents that you can customize to fit your needs. The ability to be able to create multiple tables, spreadsheets, on one page is awesome. It sounds silly to say this but the print preview for your spreadsheets also comes in very handy. I also liked the video tutorials that come with the program. They immediately get you up to speed on using Numbers. There are also overview presentations that come with all of the iWork programs. Iíve opened numerous spreadsheets from my workplace that were created in Excel. Not a single hiccup. Same for any AppleWorks spreadsheet I threw at it.
The included templates are few at the moment. Donít expect Numbers to do any VB scripting, the MS Office scripting language. So any custom macros youíve used in Office will have to be recreated. I couldnít find any mention of Applescript support so automating Numbers looks to be out of the question. The only other quibble I had was the lack of a manual or users guide. Itís not installed with the program. You have to go to Appleís web site to download it.
Iím not a person who spends a lot of time working the numbers. But even I can see that Numbers is not an Excel wannabe. It does some things much better than Excel, and at a bargain price. Iím amazed at how much functionality and polish that is evident in this 1.0 release. At this point I wouldnít say itís an Excel killer. But itís definitely a contender. I think that it offers enough power and versatility to make it essential for a good portion of Mac users.
Posted: Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008