Numbers doesn’t add up (and, no, that’s not bad grammar)

Bottom line readers will probably demand the best spreadsheet available, even if they delegate the number crunching to someone further down the chain of command. Unfortunately, the best spreadsheet available of the iPad may not exist. It certainly isn’t Numbers, which does only one thing well: graphics (surprise, surprise):


  • Is really easy to use once you figure it out, but you have to figure it out.
  • Is the only spreadsheet on the iPad to support charts and graphics

If you need solid Excel support, however, look elsewhere.

  • You can’t export in Excel format.
  • You can’t do many basic tasks without using Mac Numbers as well.
  • You can’t open large files.

In addition, I take on the myth that PCs are better for spreadsheets than Macs, explain why left-brainers want to perpetuate the split-brain stereotype, use David Hume to cast aspersions at the review app and once again grouse royally about the whole iTunes synching process.

There seems to be a myth, or urban legend, circulating that spreadsheet users shouldn’t use Macs. According to this myth

  • spreadsheet users are left brain people and Mac users are right brain people, and
  • Macs can’t support powerful spreadsheet or database apps

I thought Microsoft Excel fairly well put an end to the lack of power argument decades ago. After all, Windows Excel, which was modeled after Mac Excel, ultimately put spreadsheet star Lotus out of business, just as Word for Windows put WordPerfect out of business.

It could be argued that Microsoft’s monopoly put their competitors out of business but the truth is that the DOS version of Word barely put a dent in WordPerfect’s installed customer base even though it was a better word processor. Users preferred Excel and it clearly was able to handle large spreadsheets.

As to the right brain vs. left brain debate, this is a baseless stereotype created on research that has since been called into question. Left brainers love to wield the “right brain” label as a hammer to beat down creative types while claiming their anal retentive desire to reduce human behavior to columns on a spreadsheet gives them the right to be the boss of all of us.

And how do right brainers fight back? By giving seminars on the joys of getting in touch with your inner right brain, which left brainers laugh at as they collect and bank the money earned from those workshops. Of course, even left brainers like to think they have their creative sides, which is the only explanation I can think of for all of those Windows ads about getting in touch with your creative side. Ads, I might point out, that only appeal to the creative envy of left brainers who would sell that creativity for twenty percent on the dollar at the first opportunity.

With the spreadsheet debate firmly settled on the Mac side, what does Apple do? Introduce Numbers, the spreadsheet for the rest of us. The rest of us being people who want to manage their monthly app store budget because Numbers, like Pages, can’t hold a candle to the Office Suite when it comes to professional features.

That’s okay, Apple thought. Wait till they see iWorks on the iPad. Then they’ll lose their Office Suite envy1.

Well, no, we won’t. I won’t deny that Pages is, currently, the best word processor on the iPad. But Numbers feels like that clumsy younger cousin you only take along because your mother makes you—the cousin you ditch at the food court while he’s waiting in line for a pretzel so you can meet up with your cool friends and not be embarrassed to admit he’s with you.

Numbers doesn’t suck, it just lacks any power. It feels like a demo program you download, try out and say, “Okay, this looks pretty good. How much is the full-featured version?” Then you learn that you have the full-featured version.

Nice house; nobody home.

The Numbers interface is gorgeous, but completely non-intuitive, especially to seasoned spreadsheet users. It makes pretty spreadsheets, and offers graphic capabilities other iPad apps lack. But if I needed to crunch big numbers I would probably look elsewhere. Where I would find what I need may prove to be a problem, but Numbers won’t fill the bill.

The tabula rasa spreadsheet

I think the project designer may have fallen in love with David Hume in a philosophy class. Hume was an eighteen century philosopher who believed we are all born as blank slates with no preconditioned assumptions about what the world should be like. Because our minds are blank we have to learn everything from scratch.

In the case of Numbers, this includes how a spreadsheet works. As an experienced spreadsheet user, I thought I was in familiar territory until I needed to add a row. try as I might, I couldn’t find a menu item or button for “add row.” I ended up having to go online to Apple’s help site and navigate through their squirrely content management system.

Once I learned that I had to drag new rows and columns, I thought, “I can see that.” Right after I thought, “What happened to Apple’s philosophy that a device should be so user friendly we don’t need a manual?”

Then I added a new sheet and immediately panicked. My immediate reaction was, “where the hell are the rows and columns? How can I create a spreadsheet without rows and columns?”

Needless to say it was back to the online help files. The only problem was that the ATT wifi was out at Starbucks, yet again, so I had to take a hit on my 3G account to connect.

So I took the hit, and learned that once you get past sheet 1, you have to insert the tables yourself using the media manager in the menu bar. The rationale, I guess, is so you can choose any of the pretty pre-formatted tables that Apple provides. My question is, why don’t we simply get that out of the way first? For some reason Apple always wants to drop the other shoe only when you’re getting comfortable with the design.

Notice anything missing? Like rows and columns?

I wanted to give Numbers some time before I wrote this review, just to make sure my initial reaction wasn’t overly negative. Three months later, I have to say, it it’s just as negative.

But it isn’t overly negative.

So let’s start with the good news.

What you can do, is pretty easy to do

Numbers is elegantly designed, if little else.

Borrowing from the lead of Microsoft Excel, Numbers offers you several elegant and attractive templates as your starting point. The templates include the ubiquitous “blank” template, which turns out to be really blank, perhaps, surprisingly blank, when you add a sheet.

You can also create your own custom form using Numbers’ media manager. You can insert any number of customized tables and charts, pre-formatted so you don’t have to worry about spreadsheet cosmetics.

Numbers media manager does most of your formatting for you

Once your table’s in place and you need to decide what to enter in your cell, Numbers pretty much prompts you with a dialogue that will help you figure out exactly what you need to do. If you need to enter text, click on the “T” button; if you need to calculate, the “=” button will actually bring you to a dialogue that walks you though the process. I have to admit, the cell editor is a lot more intuitive and easy to work with than Excel.

The handy cell editor essentially walks you through data entry.

You don’t even need to look for insert and delete row or column commands. Simply click on the table and drag the handles in the direction you need. Click in the control bar to select the entire row or column to rearrange or reformat those cells. This isn’t as easy as the other tasks, and I often find myself collapsing the row height and not dragging the row to a new location.

Fully Functional Charts

This is the one area where iPad Numbers rules the iPad spreadsheet roost. You can insert charts, shapes and even text boxes (and here is one of the rubs, which I’ll discuss later). This means that if you have to whip a client presentation into shape and you don’t have access to your real spreadsheet program, you can import the numbers from Excel and have a the presentation ready fairly quickly.
The charts won’t dazzle clients the way some of the higher end spreadsheets will, but you don’t have access to that spreadsheet do you? And if you think you can use DocsToGo or QuickOffice to pull together your charts, forget it. They can’t even import Excel charts, much less create their own.

This means that if you even want to see your Excel charts on your iPad you will have to open the file in Numbers. Sadly, as we will see later, this may be no guarantee you’ll see your charts, but if your Excel file is small enough, you should be able to open it with little problem, charts and graphics in place.

You can add pretty pictures

The media manager lets you add any graphic element you want. If you want to insert a photo, you can grab it from the iPad camera roll. I’m sure there’s a practical use for this. So far, I’ve used it to stick Jenny’s picture into a spreadsheet, and to paste screen shots of We Rule crops so I can calculate their real earning power.

You can really spruce up your spreadsheet with imported images.

I suppose I could use Jenny’s image if I were creating a spreadsheet for Siamese Rescue. I could estimate how much it costs to feed your average cat, or how many pounds of litter they will actually scoop if they have ten cats in a foster home.

Oh, wait. I can’t because the Rescue people all use Excel. Even the ones with Macs.

And that brings us to the end of the good news. The bad news is there’s a lot of bad news. The biggest one is this:

Excel users, run run away

Yes, you can open .xls files directly into Numbers. Numbers handles the Excel formulas reasonably well. That’s about it. When you need to export the file as an .xls file to send to colleagues, you’re SOL (or SOOL, according to some, and I don’t think I need to explain what that means).

If the .xls file has any hidden columns, forget it. Those columns will be locked and inaccessible and you won’t be able to change anything in your file. Unfortunately, once you open your .xls file, you also get a message telling you that you are about to lose everything but the data because iPad Numbers doesn’t support it.

How’s this for Excel compatibility?

iPad Numbers has two export formats, Numbers and PDF. If your clients or office use Numbers for their spreadsheets, or if you simply need to present the spreadsheet on an overhead, these options are fine. If someone needs to actually modify the spreadsheet in Excel, that’s never going to happen.

By now you may be realizing you face some hard choices if you’re an Excel user who depends on his iPad on the road. You can either edit your numbers in QuickOffice or DocsToGo if you need to turn it around for other Excel users, or you can open it in Numbers to keep the charts but it isn’t going back to Excel until you can send it back to your home computer.

iPad Numbers is Big Mac Numbers dependent

If you think you’re going to use iPad Numbers for important data functions such as sorting, you can forget it. You have to:

  • export your file to the export folder,
  • synch your iPad with your Mac,
  • open the applications tab in iTunes,
  • copy your Numbers file to your Mac,
  • open the file in Mac Numbers,
  • sort the data (and Mac Numbers only lets you sort by a single row or column),
  • save the file,
  • copy the file back to your iPad with iTunes
  • import the saved file into iPad Numbers, and
  • trash the original file because you probably don’t want two copies.

Of course, if you’re on the road and you didn’t bring your Mac with you (which is the whole purpose of the iPad), then you’re not going to sort the data. Hopefully, you can email the Numbers file to a friend with Mac (not iPad) Numbers and ask them to sort the file for you.

Oh, and did I mention that once you import your Mac Numbers file you get a message telling you that iPad Numbers doesn’t even support basic Mac Numbers features such as page headers and footers?

Haven’t we seen something like this before?

This dialogue should tip you off to the fact that sooner or later you’re going to have to take the entire file over to Mac Numbers to polish the presentation.

And this means you will have to pay the hundred dollars for iWorks because you can’t buy separate applications for your Mac.

Chokes on really big files

I can’t personally attest to this because the largest file I have is about 4,000 cells over 9 sheets. But every review I’ve read, I mean every review, written by a reviewer who works with larger spreadsheets says that Numbers chokes on their files.

I see no reason to doubt them.

That being said, the idea behind the iPad isn’t to replace your home computer. The iPad was meant to provide a portable computing solution with wireless capabilities allowing you to send files anywhere on the go. The more likely a file is to choke Numbers, the more likely it is to choke your email delivery. I can also say this “this being said” safely because Pages opens my five hundred page unpublished novel with no problems whatsoever.

That’s what I care about, not a big spreadsheet.

Some users are never going to write a novel, however. They live with spreadsheets.

No live text formatting

I stress the word “live” because the Numbers help files claim it’s easy to format text with Numbers’ styles capabilities. You can change everything from the typeface to the type style. Every time I tried to format text, however, the formatting menu checks the word “Text” and that’s about it.

I finally figured out why I couldn’t format text in the manner described by the help files. You can format text, provided it’s the text in a text object inserted through the media manager. If you draw a text box, you can format any text inside easily. To format the text in your cells, however, you need to send the file back to iWorks on your home computer or insert a text object in every cell (and that would be a pain).

Of course, if you want to format the text displaying numbers and calculations it will do little good to insert a text object. I don’t think I need to explain this further.

When I sat down to write this review, I had pretty much decided Excel spreadsheet users would be best served using alternative apps designed to open and save files in Excel format. Sadly, that option only works for cell-based data. If you do need graphics, charts or display text, those apps fall far short of the mark as well.

The only real solution I see for serious spreadsheet users is to cart their laptop with them on the road and use the iPad for correspondence and watching Netflix when they’re stuck in line at the coffee shop. Future versions of the iPad with future versions of Numbers may be able to bring the power you need to the table. But truthfully, I hope not. I don’t want the iPad to turn into another heavy lifter that needs a power adapter and a backpack.

Jenny Manytoes rates Numbers

Jenny Manytoes would raise her tail at Numbers because it’s only good for graphics and the only graphics she wants to see is her picture. Serious number crunchers would agree. Given that Numbers does offer some features competing apps don’t even attempt, I have to raise the rating to nap. It’s good for grade sheets, budgets and proposals and keeping track of my kingdom in We Rule. But I don’t make many demands on my spreadsheets.

1To be honest, it isn’t Office Suite envy so much as a love/hate relationship. Users know it’s the better product, but it’s more like a Hummer than a sports car—a ponderous beast with tons of features that crawls along on eight miles to the gallon. We keep looking to Apple to deliver that Ferrari of office products that will zip down the road in style. Apple keeps delivering the style, they just don’t seem to understand a Ferrarri won’t get out of the driveway with a 25 hp lawn mower engine. back

The Jenny Manytoes Rating System

Jenny Manytoes, our polydactyl cat
  • When Jenny makes biscuits on a product she thinks she’s in heaven.
  • When Jenny purrs over a product she’s very happy.
  • When Jenny naps next to a product it’s okay with her.
  • When Jenny bunches her tail she can live with a product, but she has higher expectations.
  • When Jenny leaves it in the litter box….I don’t think I need to explain this one.

iPad Envy is created entirely using apps from my iPad
iPad Envy.


About Phillip T Stephens

Phillip T. Stephens disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle twenty years before he was born, creating a time travel paradox so confusing it remains unspoken between physicists and sci-fi writers to this day. Follow @stephens_pt
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