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Numbers '08

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Slowly, but surely, Apple’s iWork is turning into a full-fledged office suite, as iWork ’08 gains Numbers, Apple’s latest foray into the world of spreadsheet programs. So what is Numbers? Is it at long last a replacement for the spreadsheet component of AppleWorks? Is it a direct competitor to Excel? Will it enable users looking for alternatives to finally move from either AppleWorks or Microsoft Office to iWork?

The answer to these questions is any of yes, no, and maybe, depending on your specific spreadsheet needs. Those with basic needs will be impressed with Numbers’ ability to make short work of their projects. People with more complex requirements, and those hoping to migrate from Excel or AppleWorks, will find the transition more difficult. And some people—scientific users, students, and advanced Excel users in particular—may find that certain details in Numbers make it impossible to use the product in its current form.

All in the family

Numbers is part of iWork '08 , which means you have access to a lot of common features—the Inspector pane; the new Format Bar for making quick changes to common formatting settings; the Media Browser for placing artwork; powerful image-editing features such as transparency and shadows; the ability to easily place shapes; colorful and well-designed charts; and a customizable toolbar.

A new approach to spreadsheets

Traditionally, spreadsheet programs have presented users with a full-screen grid of rows and columns. Numbers, however, is more like a page layout program—you start with a blank canvas, into which you can drag as many tables as you need onto the work area. Each table is a miniature spreadsheet of its own, complete with its own grid of rows and columns, cell formatting options, and row and column heights and widths. There are even handy styles, shown in the left-hand of the document window, that can be applied to any of your inserted tables. These tables are treated like separate objects, and they can be positioned anywhere on the page.

This free-form layout feature overcomes one of the big problems with traditional spreadsheet programs: it’s difficult to make all of the rows and columns look attractive when printed (wide cells in one column will throw off rows above and below, for example). Since each table in Numbers is an independent object, setting differing heights and widths for rows and columns has no impact on other tables, and you can easily align tables wherever you want them on the page.

If you’re an experienced spreadsheet user, you may find that this new approach takes some getting used to—it’s visually very different from an Excel or AppleWorks spreadsheet module. It’s worth the effort, though, because it provides real flexibility and aesthetic value.

Time saving templates ease workload

Templates for spreadsheet programs aren’t new; Excel has had them for years. What is new with Numbers is the quality of the provided templates, thanks in part to the flexibility of the spreadsheet anywhere design of the program, and in part to the skill of Apple’s designers. When starting a project, you can choose from 18 templates spread across four categories, covering typical projects from Budget to Travel Planner to Science Lab. Within each template, you’ll find well-designed worksheets, with comments that help explain how they work. Plug in your numbers, customize the graphics, and you’re ready to print without any further work. You can even save your own customized templates (with the Save As Template command), and from then on they’ll be available in the Template Chooser.

Useful new data features

In addition to rethinking the basics of spreadsheet layout, Numbers also provides some new ways of working with the numbers on the spreadsheet itself. Drag-and-drop formulas, for instance, make it simple to place a sum, average, minimum, maximum, or count formula on your worksheet. Highlight a column of numbers, and you’ll see the current value for each of those formulas in the left-hand sidebar. Just drag-and-drop the one you’d like to use into an empty cell on your worksheet, and you’re done.

There are also four special formats you can apply to cells via the Inspector: Pop-up Menu, Checkbox, Stepper, and Slider. The first two are self-explanatory; Stepper and Slider are methods of quickly changing a value within a cell. When you apply a Stepper or a Slider to a cell, you specify a minimum value, maximum value, and step size. When you click on a cell with a Stepper format, an up/down arrow pair appears next to the cell; click and hold the arrows to increase or decrease the value in the cell. Click on a Slider-formatted cell, and you can then pull a sliding dot on a bar to the left and right to change the cell’s values. Both are great ways to see what effect a range of values will have on your model’s results.

Drop-down menus on row and column headers make it easy to sort, add, delete, and hide rows and columns. You can also add rows and columns by simply dragging and resizing the corners of the table.

Printing has also been given special attention in Numbers. Instead of setting a print range, a special Print View lets you see and control exactly how your printout will appear. This mode is fully interactive, so you can rearrange your document as you wish, and a scaling slider at the bottom of the screen resizes your output in real time as you change the scaling factor. The downside of this method is that you can’t easily print just one section of your document, unless you can scale it so that it takes up a full page. Instead, you’ll have to design your document such that the one section you wish to print is on a page of its own.

Excel compatibility

Numbers features compatibility, to some degree, with the vast majority of Excel spreadsheets, except for password-protected worksheets, which cannot be opened.

There are some caveats, of course. Numbers has no macro support, so if you import a macro-enabled Excel worksheet, the macros will be lost. Numbers also doesn’t have as many functions as Excel (about 100 fewer), so cells that use unsupported formulas will be converted to values. There are other differences relative to print settings, cell formatting, and sorting that may cause Numbers to modify your Excel file as well. Any changes Numbers makes will be shown in a summary report, and the specific cells will be flagged with a small blue triangle. Mouse over the triangle, and a pop-up window will display exactly why that cell was changed; in the case of unsupported functions, you’ll be able to see the original Excel function.

In my testing, basic Excel files imported either perfectly or in need of only minor correction. Such files can also be successfully exported back to Excel. More advanced spreadsheets, though, cause more problems. Depending on how heavily the imported worksheet relies on macros, formulas, and unsupported formatting options, it may not be possible to replicate Excel’s functionality within Numbers.

Exporting an original Numbers document to Excel is possible, but the end result will likely not resemble the original, due to the free-form nature of Numbers. When exported to Excel, each separate table on a Numbers worksheet becomes a separate sheet in an Excel workbook. So your perfect layout from Numbers won’t be saved, but all of your data and formulas will be.

Numbers can read Office 2007 for Windows Open XML formatted files, as well as the older .xls format, but the current version of Numbers can export only to .xls and CSV (as well as PDF), not Open XML. Numbers can also read AppleWorks files, OFX files from Quicken and other financial institutions, and CSV and tab-delimited text files. You can also work with Apple Address Book contacts via drag-and-drop from the Address Book, though you have to format your table properly to accept the dragged-in data.

The flaws

As noted up front, Numbers isn’t ideal for everyone. Scientific users will find the chart options lacking—there aren’t many pure scientific graphing options.

Students may find that Numbers makes it hard to display a formula (instead of its result) in their worksheet (some teachers require this on printouts to show how the model was built). To show formulas in Numbers, you need to format the formulas as text, and manually adjust cell widths to show all of the formula. In Excel, you simply check a box in its preferences, and all this happens automatically.

Advanced Excel users may find Numbers’ lack of macro support (there’s no AppleScript support, either) and smaller function set a limiting factor. There are also quite a few power user features missing from Numbers, such as custom number formats, pivot tables, cell naming, cell locking, password protection, splitting windows, and text orientation within a cell, among others.

The other problem for advanced Excel users is Numbers’ poor performance with larger models. I tested a couple of large financial models from my prior career as a finance MBA for a number of businesses, and although Numbers loaded the files, basic operations—typing numbers, adding and deleting rows—were quite slow, often taking 10 to 15 seconds to complete.

Even a smaller test sheet I created, with 1,500 rows and seven columns of random number calculations, led to slowdowns of a few seconds when trying to add anything new to the file—and that’s on a 2.66GHz quad-core Mac Pro. Opening the exact same file in Excel 2004 caused no such delays, even though it’s running in Rosetta on the Mac Pro. Similarly, scrolling the file from top to bottom took over twice as long in Numbers as it did in Excel. I even ran this file through AppleWorks, and found it performed just as well as Excel.

For users of large worksheets, such performance issues are just not acceptable. To make matters worse, Numbers lacks a manual recalculation feature, which would allow you to control when the sheet recalculates.

There are minor annoyances as well. For instance, Find and Replace works on entire files, not just text you’ve selected within the current table or sheet. The useful Sort and Filter tool applies its sorting to all columns in a table, even if you have only one column selected. This will also cause troubles for formulas in adjacent cells. For now, the only way to work around this problem is to isolate data to be sorted in a table of its own. In short, if you’re coming from Excel, the way these tools work is notably different.

Macworld’s buying advice

Numbers ’08 is a strong entry for Apple in the spreadsheet arena, especially for those who find Excel’s feature set overwhelming. With its free-form layout, easy-to-use templates, and elegant interface, Numbers is a powerful, yet approachable, tool. If you work with large data models, rely on Excel’s macros, or some of its more advanced functions and features, you probably won’t be migrating all your work to Numbers just yet—at least not with this first version. You may still find Numbers useful for smaller projects, though, as its ability to quickly create stunning reports could help you win some clients or promotions.

[Macword Senior editor Rob Griffiths writes the Mac OS X Hints weblog. ]

When you import an Excel worksheet, Numbers lets you know about trouble spots. You get both a summary sheet and in-cell flags that detail specific messages about issues with each cell.Unlike Excel and AppleWorks, the Numbers’ work area allows for great flexibility in layout, and you can position tables exactly where you want them.Numbers’ collection of professional-looking templates can make short work of many typical spreadsheet projects.
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