Is Apple’s iWork a viable alternative to Microsoft Office? To find out, we asked Rob Griffiths—our go-to expert on spreadsheets—to use Excel 2008 and Numbers ‘08 to create the same project, progressing from the basics (text entry and formatting) to more-advanced features. Our questions: Which program is better at each stage of the job? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Which jobs (and which users) require which tool?
Data entry, formulas, and formatting
I started by creating a single worksheet, with a fictional company’s product sales by month across the top and a row for each of six sales representatives. I then added cells at the bottom and to the right, where I calculated totals and averages for each month and each salesperson.
Entering basic data in both programs is quite simple. Excel, however, made the task particularly easy. It warned me when I accidentally tried to drag one cell to another already-full cell; Numbers simply overwrote the destination without warning me. Excel also offers nine separate rules for flagging potential errors; Numbers offers only one.
When copying one cell to another, Excel highlights the copied cell, so you can easily see what you’ve copied. Numbers doesn’t, which led to some pasting errors. In addition, I found the size of the text and icons in Numbers’ toolbar to be quite small, even on a large monitor. Excel’s toolbar was much easier on my 20/20 vision.
Excel is better at helping you enter formulas. I selected the empty cell below the numbers I wanted to sum, and clicked on the Sum button in the toolbar. Excel figured out the top and bottom of the range. Numbers included extraneous rows when I tried to do the same thing.
That said, Numbers has a few nice data-entry tricks of its own: If you select an already-entered Sum formula in Numbers, the program highlights the range that formula sums; Excel does this only if you double-click on the cell to edit it. Numbers also makes it easy to see what’s being summed, without your having to click your mouse.
I found that basic formatting is also easier in Excel. For example, a keyboard shortcut makes it a breeze to add single-line borders to any cell. Excel also provides a more extensive choice of cell border types than Numbers does.
Numbers’ default worksheet size (on the Blank template) is small; if you want more than 13 rows or 45 columns, you need to drag a corner to make the sheet bigger. Excel, on the other hand, opens a massive work area, ready for even the largest of worksheets.
Overall, I found that Excel made the process of creating the simple worksheet easier and more enjoyable than Numbers did.