A First Look at Apple's Numbers spreadsheet

Summary:The other day a colleague who uses OS X spoke to me, angry at the fact that Powerpoint's "auto-save" feature hadn't actually done any saving and a crash left him with hours of work undone. He asked me "what do you use to build presentation on the Mac?

The other day a colleague who uses OS X spoke to me, angry at the fact that Powerpoint's "auto-save" feature hadn't actually done any saving and a crash left him with hours of work undone. He asked me "what do you use to build presentation on the Mac?" Keynote, of course. His next question threw me: "So, do you use Pages instead of Word?" Turns out, I don't. I'd never even considered it.

So, now, hot on the heels of that conversation comes Apple's release of iWork '08, including updates to Keynote and Pages as well as a brand new addition: Numbers, Apple's spreadsheet. I was kind of anxious to try it out, so I picked up a copy and walked through it. Bottom line: I'm pretty impressed.

Numbers isn't a world changing paradigm shift. Rather it's Apple doing what Apple does best: improving, refining, and concentrating on user experience. Here's a few cool things I noted.

The most obvious change is evident when you start Numbers up: there's no ever expanding grid of cells. Instead you have a workspace (called a "sheet") in which you can create tables. Each table is it's own spreadsheet, expandable, formatable, and movable. You can put as many tables (and associated charts) on a sheet as you like. Each file can have multiple sheets.

Another change seems kind of obvious once you think about it: tables, rows and columns can all have names. You can refer to them in formulas by name. This makes formulas much easier to read and understand--no more going back to the table and hunting down cells by Cartesian coordinate to see if it's really the one you want in that formula.

Lots of little goodies are scattered throughout the product. I like the ability to add rows or columns just by dragging tabs. Cell controls, including checkboxes, sliders, steppers, and pop-ups, let you control the range of values in cells and how they're entered. Styles, colors, and fonts are easy to manage. Maybe the best part: I couldn't find a pivot-table anywhere.

When you get ready to print, select "print view" and then drag tables and chart around or resize them until the pages look like you want. Add text and graphical objects--even audio and movie clips--on the sheet and when it looks right print it.

With all the innovation in the user-interface, this is still a spreadsheet and will feel familiar. Formulas work like you expect them to. The equals sign is how you indicate a formula and a dollar sign can be used to indicate an absolute value for a cell reference (although using a name is a better way to do this now). Mostly you'll find yourself at home and if you're familiar with Keynote or Pages, the interface will be quite familiar.

I was discussing Numbers with a few of my students yesterday and commented that Apple had the luxury of starting with a blank slate and picking the things they liked from Excel while innovating where they saw the opportunity. I think the result is much more usable than Excel. I still haven't decided whether to use Pages instead of Word, but I will be using Numbers.

Topics: Apple, Mobility, Software

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