Number 2.6.1 for iOS review: Spreadsheet app is now a better competitor to Excel

In my November 2013 review of Numbers 2.0, I found the app to be a “good, solid, usable spreadsheet tool.” Fast forward a couple of years and Numbers for iOS has reached version 2.6.1, with many new and/or improved features. So how does it hold up now, especially in light of Excel’s free entry into the iOS spreadsheet market

Instead of starting with what’s changed, here’s what’s not changed: Numbers is still a good, solid, usable spreadsheet tool for iOS. The templates are first rate, there are more than enough formulas and charting features for all but the most diehard spreadsheet jockey, and the interface is clean and relatively easy to work with.

That interface is relatively unchanged since 2.0, still showing a screen devoid of UI elements beyond some text on the left and a few buttons on the right. This provides you with the most screen real estate possible for working, which is important on the iPad (and critical if you’re trying to use Numbers on an iPod touch or iPhone).

Apple has done a lot of work behind the scenes to improve Numbers in ways that aren’t apparent as shiny new features. First up, Numbers can finally import Numbers ‘08 spreadsheets, so those who have older worksheets aren’t locked out when they update.

Second, users who use VoiceOver on their iOS devices will find much better support in this version of Numbers: More elements are VoiceOver accessible, including working with rows and columns (adding, deleting, rearranging) and interacting with special cells, such as sliders and steppers. In my testing, these features worked well, and will make Numbers much more usable by those who use VoiceOver.

Numbers now supports Handoff between the Mac and iPad, as well as iPad multitasking via Slide Over, Split View, and Picture in Picture. Finally, you can work on your spreadsheet while catching up on last week’s TV shows! Or perhaps more usefully, look up information in a web browser for inclusion in your spreadsheet. (You can actually do both if you want: Picture in Picture works when Split View is active.)

Finally, iOS 9’s text selection gestures are also supported, so you can drag-select text in cells from the onscreen keyboard area.

Numbers also has many user-visible improvements, including more default colors as well as a custom color mixer (on iPad) to create your own colors. You can also use the color picker to select any color in your spreadsheet. In practice, I find that Numbers’ themes do a good job with color selection, but it’s nice being able to use the custom mixer to make one that’s just right for your project.

If you connect a keyboard to your iPad for spreadsheet work—and you should for larger project—Numbers has a bunch of keyboard shortcuts, i.e. Command-N for a new spreadsheet. Even better, if you press and hold the Command key, Numbers shows a pop-up listing of all available shortcuts for the item you have selected.

(There’s also a list of shortcuts in Numbers’ help, which is accessed through the question mark icon on the toolbar.)

A seemingly minor improvement to the Fonts menu is, to me, one of the more useful additions: A Recents section at the top of the Font menu means no scrolling through long lists of fonts to get to those you use most often.

There are numerous other minor changes, including adding reference lines to charts, being able to chart date and duration values, and column and row labels in tables. You can also take photos and videos directly within the app, making it much easier to add multimedia to your spreadsheets.

A lot of the improvements in Numbers relate to sharing your work, as well as compatibility with that other spreadsheet program some people use, Excel. On the sharing front, you can now set a “view only” option for shared spreadsheets, so that other users can’t change your work. You can also share password-protected sheets via an iCloud link, and Numbers now supports third-party storage providers like Box and Dropbox (though you can’t create new documents on Dropbox).

The main Numbers window, which lists all of your spreadsheets, now lets you restore previous versions of those sheets, and includes a preview feature so you can see exactly what’s in a version prior to opening.

While iOS and Android users still can’t work on shared spreadsheets, they can, at least, preview them in their web browsers. In my testing, the previews were very representative of the native worksheets. Without the ability to edit, though, this limits the usefulness of sharing for those on iOS or Android.

On the compatibility front, Numbers now does a better job of importing Excel spreadsheets. Numbers still doesn’t handle array formulas (an esoteric feature, but one loved by those who rely on it), but it properly handled some oddly-formatted cells in one of my Excel test workbooks. Exporting to Excel works better, too; you can even export a password-protected sheet to XLSX format.

Finally, if you work with a lot of exported data in CSV format, Numbers should import it much faster than did the old version. I don’t have an old version to test, but I was able to import a 48,000 row by 24 column data set in about a minute; desktop Numbers took around 30 seconds to open the same file. While I wouldn’t describe it as speedy, it’s more than fast enough for most users, who probably won’t ever import a CSV file of that size.

Numbers 2.6.1 is still “a good, solid, usable spreadsheet tool,” and it holds up well compared to Excel for iOS. The new features make it easier to use and improve Numbers’ ability to share with others and import Excel spreadsheets. Numbers’ templates, which are basically unchanged from the first review, are still excellent.

Perhaps the biggest strike against Numbers is that it’s a $10 program (though free with new devices) while Excel for iOS is free (with a free Microsoft account required). Is it worth $10 It probably boils down to whose interface you prefer, Numbers or Excel. On its own merits, though, the Numbers app is well done and should meet the needs of nearly any iOS spreadsheet user.


Rob Griffiths

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