With Numbers for the iPad, Apple’s multimedia tablet is more than just a movie and music jukebox; It’s also a full-on number cruncher. It doesn’t offer as many features as its cousin on the Mac, but it’s perfectly suited for spreadsheet work when carting around a laptop is more hassle than it’s worth.
Compared to the Mac OS X version on Numbers, included with Apple’s iWork suite, Numbers on the iPad feels a little limited, but not to the point of being unusable. It handles mobile spreadsheet editing and data reference far better than you would think when you consider the inherently complex nature of working with spreadsheet layouts and formula editing.
Apple has done a great job of taking the traditional mouse and keyboard entry system spreadsheets have relied on for years and converted that into a touch-based interface that’s easy to learn.
Numbers for the iPad uses the familiar tabbed metaphor for navigating through multiple pages in spreadsheets, and can handle more tabs than the iPad’s screen can show. Flicking left or right shows off-screen tabs, and the effect works equally well in portrait or landscape viewing mode.
Numbers for the iPad
Tools associated with specific spreadsheet elements, however, can be easy to miss at first. Chart editing, for example, is accessed by double-tapping the chart and then selecting the small table editor icon that appears on the tab for the currently active page. Once you know the editor icon is there it’s easy to see, but I spent several frustrated minutes trying to figure out how to find it at first because it blends in with the tabs and isn’t sitting in an obvious place.
Numbers includes 16 different templates for users that want to build new spreadsheets on their iPad, such as Mortgage Calculator, Invoice, Employee Schedule, and Travel Planner, and a blank template is included, too. Each template is a complete spreadsheet setup, and not simply a basic grid with colors and graphics.
Add images to spreadsheets with the Media tool.
Each template is fully editable, and the app includes tools for formatting individual spreadsheet cells. Cells can be formatted as number, currency, date and time, text, percent, or duration. Special cell formats for check boxes and star ratings are included, too.
Like Pages for the iPad, Numbers includes tools for formatting text, applying text styles, placing graphics and applying effects, and building your own shapes and objects. The tools in Numbers are available in portrait mode as well as landscape mode, too — a feature that’s sorely missing in Pages.
Numbers also makes it easy to add a little flash to your spreadsheets (No, not Adobe’s Flash) thanks to its hooks into the photo library on your iPad. Once you add an image to your spreadsheet, you can reposition it by dragging, and a single tap on a photo reveals resizing handles.
Numbers includes a traditional keyboard for data entry, complete with a cell entry window at the top of the on-screen keyboard so it’s easy to see what you’re typing into the selected cell.
The multi-function keyboard offers easier data entry.
The virtual keyboard also includes buttons that switch to layouts designed to make specific types of data entry easier. The “42” button switches to number, star rating and check box entry, the clock displays controls for entering times, the “T” button switches to the traditional keyboard layout, and the “=” button displays the equation editor. I like to think the number button is a friendly little nod to Douglas Adams and his “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series.
Five chart templates are available with six different color schemes for each, but 3D charts aren’t an option, unlike the Mac version on Numbers. I found the charts easy to work with, but modifying the data set a chart uses from imported files didn’t always work as expected. I occasionally lost cell names in the chart when I changed the cell range a chart references, but the issue was intermittent.
While Numbers makes it easy to create new spreadsheets, moving documents from your computer to you iPad is a different story. That’s a limitation of the iPad that Apple will hopefully address with iPhone OS 4. Instead of rehashing my complaints about file importing, here’s what I had to say on the subject in my Pages for iPad review:
Creating a new document is a straight forward process in Pages, but moving documents from your computer to your iPad isn’t nearly so simple. Apple’s advice on moving files to and from your iPad is nothing short of a kludgy slap in the face considering the company expects us to accept email attachments as a perfectly normal way to handle regular document transfers.
The iPad also supports moving files to and from your computer via iTunes, but that’s still a cumbersome system and frankly I’m surprised Apple let the iPad out the door with such a hobbled file transfer system. If you aren’t sure how to use iTunes to share files with your iPad, check out my TMO Quick Tip on the topic, and be sure to check out Ted Landau’s take on the subject, too.
Exporting spreadsheets from Numbers is a fairly painless process, assuming you don’t need to save your document as an Excel file. While you can import Excel spreadsheets, you can export only as Numbers or PDF. That very well could be a show stopper for road warriors that regularly share spreadsheets with their desk-bound coworkers that are using Excel.
Importing Numbers and Excel files works smoothly, although scripts from Excel spreadsheets will be stripped out. That shouldn’t come as a big surprise since Numbers on the Mac doesn’t import scripts, either. 3D charts convert to similar 2D layouts, and it’s a one way path: Once a chart converts to 2D, it stays that way if you send the file back to your Mac.
Some Mac file elements are lost when opening on the iPad.
Document elements such as object hyperlinks, comments, and headers and footers are stripped out Numbers files that started life on your Mac, which can be a problem if you use those features to enhance your spreadsheets. You may see some reformatting in spreadsheets, too, if your documents use fonts that aren’t included with Numbers for the iPad. That’s another limitation of the iPad since you can’t install extra fonts.
Like Pages for the iPad, Numbers doesn’t include the ability to print your documents. Again, that’s an iPad limitation, and one that Apple needs to address to turn the tablet into a full-fledged content creation device.
For now, Apple seems happy to position the iPad as a content delivery platform with a little creation support thrown in for good measure. Since Apple released the iWork suite for the iPad, it would be nice to be able to really use the apps as part of an on-the-go office.
The Bottom Line
Numbers for the iPad offers far more power than I expected considering it’s bound to a touch interface and the limitations that iPhone OS imposes. It handles imported spreadsheets well, despite its lack of 3D chart support, and is a great option for number pushers that want to leave their laptop in the office. The lack of support for exporting in Excel format is a disappointment and may keep some potential users away, but for spreadsheet work that doesn’t have to go back to Microsoft Office users, Numbers is a slick option.