Review: For charting data, Chartsmith is capable but outdated
At a Glance
Chartsmith is a Mac app designed to do one thing, and only one thing: make charts. If your charting needs are casual and infrequent, this is not the app for you; you’ll be more than happy using Numbers, Excel, or any other spreadsheet to create the occasional chart. Conversely, you’d assume that if your chart needs are serious and frequent, Chartsmith would be the app to use, right? The answer to that question, unfortunately, isn’t an automatic yes.
Launching Chartsmith is a bit like stepping into a time machine: Chartsmith’s interface seems dated, with a two-window setup (plus a nearly-required Inspector window), a drawer for chart notes, and an odd toolbar-like thing that floats next to the chart window, yet is attached (with a delay) when you move the chart window around.
The flashback extends to the tutorials, too. Remember Aqua’s stripes and bright blue 3D-esque tab buttons? You’ll find them alive and well in the screenshots in the tutorials. (Thankfully, the app itself doesn’t share the appearance of the tutorial’s screenshots.) The whole thing just feels somewhat dated and dusty, though everything works.
Using Chartsmith is unlike using a spreadsheet to create charts. Once I learned the interface, though, Chartsmith was relatively easy to use. The aforementioned two windows contain the chart viewer (which holds the charts) and the data viewer (for entering/editing data), and the inspector is used to customize every element of your charts. The chart viewer window shows real-time changes as you make edits in the data viewer window, and you can change text (but not values) directly on the charts, if you prefer. Creating a chart is as simple as adding rows and columns in the data viewer, entering your data, and choosing a chart type. Want to change one bar of a three-bar chart to line? One click of a button in the data viewer window, and that task is done.
I found customizing and modifying charts to be much simpler in Chartsmith than it is in Excel—I can usually make Excel do what I want, but I often struggle to get things exactly as I want them. In Chartsmith, the data viewer window makes it easy to switch between various chart types, add and delete rows, and reorder columns—once you read the manual to realize you have to hold down the Control key in order to drag and drop the columns. There’s even a useful data filler panel that makes it simple to populate days, weeks, months, or any set of values you wish. The chart viewer window includes tools for annotating charts, making it simple to add text, geometric shapes, and speech bubbles to your chart.
The context-sensitive Inspector panel makes it easy to control the look of every last item on your chart. Click on a bar in a bar chart, for example, and you’ll see a five-tabbed screen, letting you control everything from the general style to the appearance of trends and error bars.
You can create and save as many charts in the chart viewer window as you wish; it works sort of like Keynote, with the left-side column displaying a thumbnail of each chart in the document; click one, and the main chart window and data viewer windows change to reflect the selected chart. Completed charts can be exported in a number of image formats; there’s also support for exporting to Keynote, but only if you still have Keynote 1.x available—I was unable to export to any newer Keynote themes. You can also hold down the Command (PDF) or Option (TIFF) keys to drag the chart image directly into another program. You can even save customized charts as templates, for easy reuse.
While it’s easy to get chart images out of Chartsmith, there’s no built-in mechanism for exporting the data behind your chart. About the best you can do is select the values in the data viewer window, copy them, and paste them into the destination app. But only the values themselves copy; labels are left behind and will have to be re-entered in the new program.
Is Chartsmith the ideal tool for those with high-end chart needs? From a basic charting perspective, maybe: Chartmsith supports 12 chart types (including a histogram, something you won’t find in Excel), each of which can be highly customized. While these types cover the needs of most users, Chartsmith doesn’t include some of the more esoteric chart types, such as 3D surface, contour, doughnut, or radar charts. If you need such charts, Chartsmith isn’t for you.
The other consideration for power users is the interface. Although everything works, there is a learning curve, and there’s this general feeling that the interface is out of date. Many features are hidden (using modifier keys to drag requires reading for discovery, for instance), and the multi-window setup leads to a lot of mousing around to select the proper location in the proper window.
If Chartsmith were a $19 application, the user interface and lack of esoteric charting modes could be forgiven. But it’s not; it’s a $129 package, and at that price, it’s not unreasonable to think you’ll get an updated user interface and support for tons of chart types—at least as many as are supported by Excel, if not more. So, while Chartsmith is very good at what it does, its missing chart types and outdated user interface make it hard to recommend at its current price point.