August 14, 2007
iWork '08, Part 2 (Numbers)
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Okay, I have gone over Keynote and Pages; now on to Apple's new iWork app: Numbers.
Numbers rounds out iWork as an office/productivity package. Yes, Microsoft Office is more than just Word, Excel, and Powerpoint--but Apple provides alternatives for most other office apps as well. You get Mail, iCal, Address Book and other Office-style apps for free with the Mac OS. While Apple does not include a database app, it owns and sells FileMaker Pro, the definitive database app (both Mac and Windows versions included in a single purchase), for about $300.
But I digress. Remember, we're not talking about professionals using this suite; iWork is for the majority of computer users, not just those working in cubicles. And for most users, Numbers is not just an acceptable replacement for Excel, it is, I would argue, a preferable one. It provides all the functionality that most people would want from a spreadsheet, but a lot more flexibility and ease-of-use than Excel offers. Here's a look at a Numbers window (click for larger version):
Note that Apple has planted the spreadsheet within the iWork style, with a great similarity to Keynote in how it shows the organization of sheets and tables in the left sidebar. Let's take a look at different parts of that window:
First, the top left of the sidebar:
In Excel, worksheets are managed in small tabs along the lower left of the window; in Numbers, they are displayed here in the left sidebar. But notice that it's not just the sheets--tables and charts are listed as subsets of each sheet. This is because of a new organization/layout paradigm Apple has introduced. Instead of the spreadsheet (as in Excel) being a grid of rows and columns for data entry, with charts and other objects floating above it, Apple starts instead with a blank sheet. Tables with rows and columns float above the blank sheet alongside the charts and other objects.
Instead of your table occupying a small portion of a massive underlying grid, it exists as a manageable, finite table which you can easily style and place to your specific taste. Each table acquires the A-B-C/1-2-3 column and row control headers whenever you click within a table; otherwise, these headers vanish to give you a true print-layout look. If you resize the table at the right or the bottom, the excess rows and columns simply disappear (though you cannot delete cells with data in them in this manner--the resize simply stops moving at the edge of the data).
One advantage here is that you can define column widths more flexibly. Using Excel, I have often wanted to have one table placed below another, but have wanted the column widths to vary. Without fancy and kludgy footwork in Excel, this is nearly impossible. In Numbers, it comes naturally.
Styles can also be easily assigned. There is a Styles pane at the lower area of the left sidebar which allows you to quickly assign a complete design style to any individual table you are working on.
These styles are easily edited. Just change the colors, borders, headers and so forth to your liking, and then click the arrow to the right of the style you used as a basis; choose "create new style," give it a name, and it is added to the styles pane for future use.
Another element in Numbers is the automation of headers within the table. Click on one of the three "Headers and Footer" buttons and your table will acquire a row at the top or bottom or a column at the left, all of which will stay rooted there no matter how you change the table. Names assigned in these areas will automatically be grabbed by any chart you create.
What's more, you can use these header names in formulas. Let's say that you are making a table of expenses; months are listed at left, and expense types are along the top. You want to add the food expenses from May and July in a formula. Usually, you would have to track the rows and columns to find the alphanumeric cell addresses--in this case, C6+C8. Numbers allows another option: just type in the header names. In the example below, I typed "May Food" and "July Food." Note the equation is accepted, and the referenced cells color in:
However, they don't have to be in that order; "Food May" and "July Food" works just as well, as do the traditional alphanumeric references. Individual cell references are automatically filled in this way if you simply click on the desired cell when creating a formula (though it does not work that way for ranges of cells).
Another nice touch is the addition of a sample function preview just below the styles. If you select multiple cells with data in them, the answers to various function equations appear in this area. This also happens in Excel, but this is something which most Excel users, including myself, do not notice even after years of use--because the design of Excel makes this feature very hard to see. This is an excellent example of the importance of design; everyone who uses Numbers sees this almost immediately. What's more, you can use it as a formula shortcut: after selecting the range of cells you want to use a function for, just drag and drop the function from this area onto the cell where you want a formula to appear, and it does (this extra touch is not possible in Excel, by the way--at least not Excel 2003).
Once you get used to these shortcuts, making formulas and working with tables becomes dead easy.
Charts are just as simple--none of this four-step "Chart Wizard" nonsense. Just select the data on the table that you want to make a chart out of, select the chart style, and bam, there it is.
The controls for the appearance of the chart are detailed and allow you to design the chart any way you'd like, making a nice 2-D or 3-D representation of the data. There are too many variables to go over in detail in a review like this, but they include style, fills, rotation, separation of data, so forth and so on--again, the same kind of stuff available in Excel, but more nicely and simply presented, and with a better end effect.
Let me give an example of one control: fill colors and patterns. If I want to change the appearance of the individual elements of the chart, I just call up the chart colors palette, find a category I like, and then drag and drop it onto the chart element.
Even better, I can add fills from image files on my computer; just drag and drop an image file from the Desktop or a file window onto the chart element in Numbers, and that becomes the fill pattern. You can do the same thing using the Graphic Inspector, giving the element an Image Fill. Again, dead simple.
There are other touches as well, just as there are several oversights and drawbacks. One example of both a nice touch and an oversight is sorting. Numbers includes automatic sorting options in column headers; hover the cursor over a header and a submenu arrow appears; the submenu allows for sorting without even having to select the data first. Easy.
The oversight/drawback? You can't sort columns, only rows. Why not? I found myself wanting to when a the chart I showed above had the tallest "wall" element in front, blocking the others; I wanted to sort the columns so that the highest numbers would appear in back. No such luck. Sure, it was easy enough to rearrange the columns by hand, but a sort would have been more natural.
I haven't used Numbers yet in a real-world situation, but will over the next semester as I use it to calculate grades in my classes. I am sure there's a lot more good and not-so-good to be found yet--missing features, extra touches, and so forth. But from just playing around with it for a few days, I am more than ready to dump Excel and work exclusively with Numbers. And with Numbers topping off the iWork suite, I find myself considering simply ditching MS Office altogether and switching completely over to iWork (except for when I have to teach Office in my Computer course).
Apple allows you a free 30-day trial to play with Numbers; all features are active during that one-month period. In yet another example of accessibility, I tried the "test drive" for Office 2007 on Windows... and found myself balking when Microsoft demanded that I "activate" my trial software. I'll do it eventually, but am not fond of the idea of letting Microsoft snoop around my computer every time I want to use their software, even the free stuff. Apple's iWork trial simply started; the biggest impediment was a nicely-styled start window which showed how many days left you have in the trial.
I swear, if I didn't have to teach the MS Office suite, it would be gone from my computer....
Posted by: Sako at August 17, 2007 11:46 PM
Posted by: Andrew at August 18, 2007 07:38 AM