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Numbers

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All right, I couldn’t resist. While I don’t really need Apple’s new Numbers application, I was quite curious how well it does, so I gave it a test run. My impression: it’s all right. Nothing that makes me want to dump AppleWorks right away but certainly good enough for the lightweight spreadsheet tasks that people need to do from time to time.

First Impressions

To be honest, my first impressions of Numbers – or all of iWork, really – weren’t too good. Lauching one of the applications gives you a window with options for seeing an introduction, buying or testing. That window is just odd as it looks quite widgetlike but isn’t draggable everywhere. I went to look at the introduction first. And while I really like the fact that Apple eat their own dog food there for a change and include that introduction as a Keynote presentation, the content left me nauseous. Not because it looked bad or advertised bad features. But because of the language.

Presenting a set of supposed ‘Work’ tools and using almost exclusively fluffy words for fashion victims in there doesn’t leave the most solid impression. Not with me anyway. I expected to have downloaded a set of applications which are great for adding some numbers, putting images in text and doing slideshows. But the introduction is more about style and fashion. Choice expressions:

Quite fluffy I think. And perhaps not exactly the no-nonsense approach I would have hoped for. But let’s see how the actual application does without the coked up marketing department having pressed it into classy slides.

Numbers

Numbers Icon In a way Numbers’ icon already sets an accent by representing the application through a 3D diagram. I.e. by using one of the most superfluous features of the application to symbolise it. That said, I still think it’s a reasonably good icon, perhaps looking a bit meagre in the Dock but at least being easy to distinguish from many other icons both in shape and in colour.

When opening the application for the first time, I sort of ended up with a kind of browser window showing an Apple 404 page. I think there were supposed to be some demo films in there. That didn’t leave the best first impression, but I could easily click it away and it didn’t appear again since.

Number’s document windows have a mildly new approach for spreadsheets as they have a ‘source list’ type thing at the left. This seems to be a a bit of a running gag at Apple these days but unlike iTunes or the new iPhoto this list doesn’t put space wasting ALL-CAPITAL LETTER ‘headings’ everywere. It just lists the different sheets and diagrams in your file. I somewhat doubt that many people actually use the ability of spreadsheet applications to have several sheets in the same file, but with this approach – compared to Excel’s strange tabs at the bottom of the window – it may actually be easy to understand and see what is in the file. And it’s also easy to understand how to move things around by drag and drop.

The bottom of the sidebar has further options. A lists of styles for the whole table. Which can be handy I guess, but which always seems to occupy space right there in the sidebar, which seems to be disproportionate to how useful the feature is. Finally, the bottom of the sidebar has fields for the most common computational functions like a sum, mean value or minimum which show results in real time as you change the selection. While I’m not 100% sure how many people will ‘get’ that you can actually drag these fields to the table (particularly as they look like they should be clickable in the way they highlight on mouse-hover), I think it’s an interesting feature to use up the otherwise wasted space in the sidebar.

Speaking about wasted space, I don’t like the sidebar’s generous initial width. And I didn’t see yet how I can make that width be smaller for newly created documents.

Import

I don’t do a lot of spreadsheets and I didn’t need to do any actual computations. So I just clicked around a bit and tested another essential feature: Import. The good news, which I didn’t see advertised aggressively, is that Numbers can read not just Excel files but also AppleWorks files. As the majority of my spreadsheet files were made with AppleWorks that’s very important for me. Import worked just fine for my (simple) files, so that’s great.

For Excel files things are less good. Obviously Numbers will fail to properly import any non-trivial Excel file. If you have any VB scripting in the file, that will obviously break (as it will in Microsofts very own upcoming Excel release). Numbers will show a warning sheet (should they use a simple > to indicate a menu item? No proper arrows?) after opening the file and show you a window with the warnings that the import caused:

Sheet telling you that there were warnings while importing the file

Window with the warnings about the file

The problem I had with these warnings was that many of them meant very little to me. And that there was no differentiation between small problems like losing the print area settings, medium problems like changed fonts or diagram looks and potential data-loss problems. Which means that for non-trivial files you will have to carefully examine and compare them with the original. That’s probably not relevant for most people, but it’s a bit annoying.

Once your file has been imported, Numbers will also mark all cells which caused problems during import with a blue triangle at the top left corner. Clicking that triangle will give you a more detailed explanation of the problems Numbers ran into. And you can go through those explanations and fix/remove them one-by-one (fun if you get thousands of them!). Some of them seem superfluous and hard to understand, others seem quite precise and yet others will give an explanation which is technically correct but will only point you to the real problem if you know the Excel file really way. In short: they’re typical computer error messages, a bit like a lottery.

Warnings for a cell in Numbers

Usage

As I didn’t have a real-world thing to compute in spreadsheet, I only used Numbers for a short moment. Impressions are mixed. General usage is quite smooth I think. And I really like formula entry. While it lacks auto-completion for the built-in functions, it is a nice inline interface which conveniently highlights the cells a formula uses. Once you see it, you start wondering why spreadsheets didn’t start doing this a decade or two earlier. (I think the last version of Excel I used had a feature which drew arrows from all cells to the ones they depend on. A useful option but hidden and more aimed at ‘debugging’ a spreadsheet.)

The Numbers UI contains a number of things which probably aren’t ideal, but I won’t discuss that in detail now. Interaction with the application seems to happen through three main areas: The toolbar the sub-toolbar and the Inspector. All of these are mostly shared by the iLife applications which is good. Size-wise it seems strange that the toolbar takes up the most space as the sub-toolbar is probably used much more frequently. But in total I’d say that things are tolerable.

Number format buttons in Number's sub-toolbar Fun things to notice are the pseudo Pro-style menus in the sub-toolbar, Numbers’ taste for Helvetica Neue and Apple providing a convenient pop-up colour palette as the default way to select colours (without having to wait for the space and time-consuming colour picker). Another nice touch is that the currency number format button tries to reflect the currency your system is set to use and will use the symbol in the button if available (and $ otherwise, restart of Numbers required, though). Sweet.

There’s also the ability of a print preview which Apple make a big hubub about. Printing properly is important and Numbers does neat stuff there (look ma, no Page Setup… menu item!) but I wonder whether this isn’t overrated. ClarisWorks would just draw thicker lines into your tables at the locations of the page breaks. I’m not really sure how much better than that the much fancier view are. One thing that seems a bit silly is that the default document Numbers creates for you will print on four pages. Couldn’t they have made it smaller to fit on one. Or rather made Numbers smart enough to not print extra pages when all the cells on them are empty?

Diagrams

Numbers does diagrams as well. Some things about that are nice. For example you can drag the frame marking the diagram’s data area around in your document and the diagram will update sort-of live. That’s more convenient than re-entering the numbers. Other things are not so nice. For example I couldn’t find a way to use different scales on the same axis for data sets of different magnitudes in a single diagram (which means you don’t have a convenient way to compare different kinds of growth and that Excel diagrams doing this will break on import).

Incorrect number labels in a diagram While Numbers contains a number of textures – including the hideous wooden and marble ones Mr Jobs likes – the good news is that those won’t be used as the default for diagrams. So there may be hope that people just won’t discover them and the world may come out of this unscathed. As seen in the screenshot, Numbers’ idea of how to label the axes of diagrams isn’t always a good or correct one (yes I can understand what is happening there but that doesn’t make it less stupid).

Otherwise the diagram types seem fairly normal and with slightly less options than in Excel, for example. While I really don’t like extra options in software, diagram creation really is a very difficult topic. It seems to me that it’s easy to create a diagram with the default of the software you are using. But often turning that diagram into something helpful that focuses on the essential information while displaying correct data and looking could seems to be hideously hard.

And to achieve that goal you will need all the options and ways to manually manipulate you can get your hands on. In the few attempts I made to create diagrams I often found that the software kept me from doing this conveniently or from handling my manipulations in a way that was graceful enough when changes occurred later on. To me it looks like Numbers may be a bit easier to use than Excel in this respect because there are no modal dialogues but that it isn’t any better (or even worse) when it comes to making these manipulations to get things just right. Doing that will remain a laborious additional process.

Problems

Being a version 1 release also means that Numbers still is kind-of beta, I suppose. So there are numerous quibbles. For example:

And I’m sure there will be more as I didn’t even use the application seriously but mainly looked at some old documents. So there’s still plenty of work to do.

Conclusion

To me Numbers looks all right. It’s a 1.0 version, it’s far from perfect. But for lightweight spreadsheet usage it should do the job just as well as AppleWorks did but look less aged. In particular, Numbers means that iWork now comes close to offering the features (but not the integration) of a proper ‘Works’ package (it’s arguable to which extent vector and pixel graphic editing should be part of a Works package, how many people used them, and whether the small subset of these capabilities built into iWorks suffice). Which is nice. Particularly as new ‘switcher’ type people can now be pointed to affordable iWork rather than the hideously expensive MS Office.


Bootnotes

Additional points that didn’t quite fit into the text above: Looking at Numbers’ function dictionary makes me think that the applications’ innards could actually come from AppleWorks. While many more functions are offered and their explanations and sorting has been improved a lot, things feel quite similar:

Insert function in Numbers

Insert function in AppleWorks

And talking about functions, let me insert my pet peeve: Custom functions. In my opinion the (somewhat hidden, of course) ability to program your own functions made Excel rock. Sure, it’s a buggy piece of software but that feature made it very powerful and made it a useful tool for tasks beyond whatever little things the middle management deciding what goes into the spreadsheet could imagine. It essentially turns Excel into a tool that’s actually useful. A big spreadsheet which will do whichever computations I want in its cells. I.e. a large, somewhat optimised, diagram drawing graphical user interface for my own functions.

Not many people will have used Excel in that way, but it really made a difference for me. Instead of having to write a real program myself, I could just program the maths and fill in the values in a readymade interface. I could share this, I could print it, I could do graphs and diagrams. All of which would have been a tremendous amount of work (which wouldn’t have been done) had I written my own program. Of course there were a number of bugs/idiosyncracies of Excel that needed to be battled in the course of this, but it’s a great feature. One that takes a spreadsheet to the next level.

And of course Microsoft scrapped it (i.e. the only useful/impressive feature) from their next generation of Excel for the Mac. Meaning that there will be no such convenient tool left. And I think that it would have been great (though unlikely) if Numbers came with such an option. AppleScript (which Numbers currently doesn’t support at all) would have been the obvious candidate for such a feature I guess. But I surely won’t hold my breath in an anticipation of its arrival…

August 9, 2007, 1:08

Tagged as helvetica, software.

Comments

Comment by Dave2: User icon

Do I bite my tongue this time?

I probably should, because anybody who feels that graphs are a “superfluous feature,” doesn’t think that people put multiple spreadsheets in a file, and admits fully that they don’t utilize a spreadsheet seriously or very often, simply cannot appreciate what an incredible piece of software that Numbers is. I use spreadsheets often… as in every single day… and am absolutely blown away at the truly revolutionary approach that Apple has taken. Within two hours of using Apple’s new “tables” paradigm, I knew there was no way I could ever go back to Excel (well, unless I have to… Numbers doesn’t support some features of Excel that I use from time to time).

All the power of a spreadsheet with the elegance of page layout program? Sign me up. Holy crap I can’t wait to see what Apple manages to add to Numbers next.

August 10, 2007, 3:02

Comment by ssp: User icon

Well said, Dave.

I don’t really think our opinions differ too much. ‘most superfluous’ doesn’t imply ‘superfluous’ just as things that are ‘the best’ aren’t necessarily ‘good’. If you did some advertising work, you’ll know that ;) While I have done more things with spreadsheets than most, I think I made an effort to point out several time that I am not using them on a daily basis and that I only did a few simple artificial tests.

I just fail to see how Numbers is revolutionary. I could freely arrange tables layout-like in ClarisWorks in 1993. Things are prettier in Numbers, but conceptually it’s not that new.

Perhaps I don’t get your point but what is the conceptual breakthrough here?. Freely placable tables have been around forever. It’s just that the Excel crowd don’t use them.

August 10, 2007, 9:00

Comment by Dave2: User icon

I’d argue that there’s a big difference between spreadsheet elements in ClarisWorks and actual tables within the spreadsheet itself in Numbers. Half the battle is what you DO with the data contained in your spreadsheet… inevitably, this leads to reports or charts and such. In every spreadsheet program I’ve ever used (including ClarisWorks/AppleWorks) this is very much an add-on to the basic spreadsheet functionality that every spreadsheet has had since day one. With Numbers, Apple appears to have STARTED with the output, then worked BACKWARDS towards adding spreadsheet functionality. This IS a revolutionary approach to a spreadsheet, and has allowed me to present data in ways that would have taken far more work (and additional programs) to accomplish outside of Numbers. The things I’m doing with this program (and the ease at which I am doing them) is surprising me every day. Perhaps ClarisWorks could do dynamic cross-table linking within a single canvas, but it’s a feature I’ve never used before Numbers came along (and boy has THAT changed the way I work with spreadsheets forever!).

As for Excel… unless this feature is available in a newer version I’m not using, I have no idea how you would approach tables in that program. It’s not that the Excel crowd DOESN’T use them… they aren’t available for them TO use! Exporting a Numbers spreadsheet with tables results in an Excel file with each table exported as a separate sheet within the file, and no way of integrating them back into a single document without dividing up the sheet into sections (always a horrible solution). But, then again, Excel is a much more mature product and has features (macros, scripting, pivot tables) that Numbers currently lacks. For that, it’s only a matter of time, I’m sure.

August 10, 2007, 22:12

Comment by ssp: User icon

Interesting points Dave. I’m not entirely sure but I don’t think AppleWorks can draw data for the same diagram from different tables. But I would imagine that situations where you really need this aren’t all that frequent.

Obviously we have a completely different approach to spreadsheets. I think about them mainly as tools for computation. Yes, having them draw graphs is nice but it’s mostly an extra.

(Admittedly I’m pretty sure that my monster simulation Excel spreadsheet wouldn’t have impressed people half as much if I hadn’t put a bunch of chart junk in there and printed it on A2. But that’s more a statement about the managerial types who judged it and who didn’t understand what they were seeing either way, rather than showing its usefulness. [The same people first gave me the reasonable task to compile a collection of links on a topic. So I prepared a nice HTML file with links and short descriptions. But I was told to submit it in printed form before leaving…])

My impression with Numbers (I keep wanting to call it Tables because that’d just fit in better with Pages) still was that its diagrams don’t cut it. Apart from simple technical things such as labeling the axes with different scales, almost all attempts I made ended up with me thinking that things weren’t placed just right and I found it difficult/tiresome/impossible to fix that. At least not simpler than it would have been with other spreadsheets.

Because of that (and because to me the formulas look like a reborn version of the AppleScript spreadsheet) I am not sure that you are entirely right with your ‘BACKWARDS’ point. I thought it’s more a pretty interface with some 21st century tweaks and an improved engine than AppleWorks. They beefed up the diagram engine from Keynote and tacked it to that and here we are. The diagrams will do for business. But so do Excel’s.

[Perhaps I’ve overlooked things and if you have time to waste, I’m happy to provide you with a rather trivial data set out of which Numbers and me didn’t get the diagram I wanted]

As for Excel - just as in AppleWorks you can insert Excel tables and diagrams into a Word document and arrange them to your liking. This should give you the layout you want. That being MS Office it may also give you nightmares. At least when I prepared such documents for people in MS Office 97(?) for Windows, the applications occasionally refused to save the files for unknown reasons. But that’s not a conceptual thing but more the pain of using MS Office, I guess.

August 11, 2007, 2:08

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