When I last reviewed Numbers for OS X, it was the first release of the “new” Numbers, and it came with a slew of changes—both good and bad—to the interface and feature set.
Now, two years on, Numbers has gained 0.6.1 version numbers, as well as some new features and changes to its interface. It’s also a much stronger collaboration tool now, and you can work on spreadsheets on OS X, iOS, and the web.
Issues from the original review
In my original review of 3.0, I noted that the left-hand sidebar and customizable toolbar were both gone. While the the left-hand sidebar is still gone, the customizable toolbar has returned: No longer are you stuck with the buttons Apple deems most important. (If you’d like some room back on the toolbar, consider removing the Tips button; it just pops up a few mostly-useless yellow text boxes.)
Beyond this one change, however, Numbers 3.6.1 looks much like Numbers 3.0. There’s still no formatting bar below the customizable toolbar, so everything is still controlled by the context-sensitive right-hand panel. And while this cleans up the look a lot, it leads to lots of clicking between tabs in the panel for many common tasks.
Another annoyance that remains from version 3.0 is the lack of an editable formula bar. To edit a formula, you have to double-click the formula, which pops up a tiny editing box. This box can be both resized and moved, but for no reason I can discern, these changes aren’t permanent, so you have to resize and move the formula box every time you use it (assuming you don’t like its size/location).
AppleScript, which vanished in 3.0, has also returned from the dead, to the relief of scripters everywhere. (It’s even gained a couple new options for PDF and Excel export.) Macros, which didn’t exist before, still don’t exist. I expect them to continue to not exist in all future versions, so macro users should look elsewhere.
This version of Numbers also returns Help to the app, sort of: Numbers no longer opens a webpage when you open help, but the in-app help viewer still requires an Internet connection. Get stuck with Numbers on a flight? Oh well, no help available. To me, this is inexcusable: Using the Internet to update help files is fine, but the base version of help should be available without a net connection.
Performance is greatly improved when opening large worksheets. I have an 8MB test file that I’ve been using ever since Numbers first came out. Opening this file in Numbers 3.0 (and Numbers 2009) took nearly 30 seconds; in Numbers 3.6.1, it opens in about five, which is only a second or two slower than it opens in Excel. If you routinely work with large files, this is a most welcomed improvement.
New and/or improved
The list of changes in Numbers, across all three platforms, is massive. (This page is an ever-building list, so it represents everything that’s changed since the 3.0 release for Numbers.)
If you sort your data, Numbers (finally) lets you sort only a subset of rows in the table. In version 3.0, you had to sort all the rows in a table, which could wreak havoc on your data. Not only can you sort on a subset of rows, but you can sort on multiple columns as well, which makes sort much more useful.
One nice-to-have-back feature are the alignment guides for working with multiple tables on one sheet. These existed in pre-3.0 Numbers, and have returned to the 3.x series. As you drag one table around, alignment guides appear to help you properly align it relative to other tables on the sheet.
More specific to the latest Numbers update, charts have gained some new powers. You can easily add up to five reference lines to a graph, making it simple to display an average, median, mode, or custom value as a visual reference.
Another nice touch in graphs is the ability to use an image as the style for a chart (or table or shape). You do this by telling Numbers which image you’d like to use as the source for the object. Numbers then analyzes the colors in the image and applies them to the chosen object.
The end result can be quite compelling; in my tests, Numbers did a good job of picking colors that really helped the objects blend with the photo on the table. If you’re using Numbers to create complex reports with a mix of data, text, and objects, this feature can really help pull them together.
There are a number of other minor changes in this latest update, including improved Excel compatibility when reading and exporting, VoiceOver support for comments and charts, and the ability to view Photos’ Collections, Moments, etc. from the Media Browser. And if you’ve purchased a new Magic Trackpad 2, you can use Force Touch on certain items in Numbers.
One final feature that’s migrated from the iOS world is support for Split View: If you’re working in Full Screen mode, you can slide over a second app to “multi-task.” If you find this feature useful, here’s a tip: You’re using a Mac. Simply don’t enter Full Screen mode, and then you can work on more than two things at once!
Finally, there are a couple nice looking new templates for simple budgeting and expense sharing. Neither of these will replace Quicken or a bill-sharing app on your iPhone, but both do a good job at demonstrating some of the things you can do with Numbers.
It’s a sharing world
Numbers is set up to work with iCloud Drive, meaning you can edit the same worksheet on OS X, iOS, and the web. I tested this using a number of devices on the local network, and it worked reasonably well. Changes would take up to a minute to sync, but I had no problems with changes made to the same document by several simultaneous users. Shared worksheets can also now be previewed on Android and iOS browsers, so users can see them without having to edit them.
The collaboration level isn’t quite up there with Google’s Sheets, but it’s probably sufficient for most users. Being able to save and edit anywhere is a definite strong point with Numbers.
Apple has added back many of the missing features from the original Numbers 3.0 transition, and that’s a good thing. AppleScript support and the customizable toolbar improve the app’s usability, and performance with large data sets has gotten much better. The interface is generally pleasant, and many of the provided templates are genuinely useful and well designed. Of course, if you work across iOS, OS X, and the web, Numbers’ sharing features can’t be beat.
Annoyances remain, of course. It’s still a bit tricky to edit formulas, help still requires an internet connection, and formatting objects requires lots of clicking around in the right-hand sidebar.
Overall, this version of Numbers is the best of the 3.x series; if you’re still hanging on to Numbers 2009, you may find this version does everything you need it to do, and provides a number of features (particularly sharing) that aren’t available in Numbers 2009.
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Former Macworld Senior Editor Rob Griffiths founded Mac OS X Hints. He's now master of ceremonies at Many Tricks Software.