Apple iWork 08 Provides Simple But Solid Spreadsheet App

Review: Numbers fills out Apple's iWork '08 suite and proves itself to be a worthy competitor for Microsoft Excel.

Apples iWork 08 boasts improvements to the software suites word processing and presentation applications, but—more importantly—it fills the suites spreadsheet hole with Numbers.

eWEEK Labs ran Numbers through its paces, and found it to be a strong addition to the productivity software market and a promising alternative to Microsoft Excel.

The inclusion of Numbers certainly positions iWork to compete with the Microsoft Office suite, and replaces the now defunct AppleWorks suite. Emphasizing the spreadsheet programs ease of use, yet promising the ability to create sophisticated document, users can create and edit highly technical business documents as easily as they can create a simple family budget.

At the official launch of iWork 08, on Aug. 7, Apple CEO Steve Jobs emphasized Numbers ease of use and pointed to features, such as its intelligent tables, that allow for the use of multiple formats on a single page and provide a solution for creating "gorgeous looking spreadsheets very quickly."

During my tests, I found that Numbers is, for the most part, an intuitive program that shouldnt elicit the heavy sighs and consternation that Excel has been known to do.


Read more here about why user say Numbers is the big draw to iWork 08.

However, Numbers isnt the walk in the park that Apple makes it out to be—it required a level of trial and error similar to what Ive found with Excel. That said, Numbers is a much more streamlined application than Excel.

Numbers and iWork 08 are being positioned to straddle both consumer product and enterprise markets. This incarnation of the office suite supports Office binary formats, so it will fit into any Office environment. However, there are definitely formatting kinks that need to be worked out, as well as problems exporting Numbers documents to Offices binary document for-mat.

Numbers does have OOXML support, but I found it lacking—a drawback for companies that are standardizing on Office 2007s new formats. For now, this is why Numbers will be slow to grab Google Apps steadily growing market share. Not only does Google Apps stake a claim to a no-frills, easy-to-use spreadsheet application, the Web-based documents can be shared among users.

iWork 08 is reasonably priced, at $79 (or free with the purchase of any new Mac computer). The suite requires Mac OS X version 10.4.10 or later.

Easier to navigate

Anyone who gets a migraine just thinking about creating a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet will be happy to know that Numbers is a notably less difficult application to navigate. Visually, Numbers is a veritable spitting image of Excel, so users accustomed to the Microsoft program will be pleased to see spreadsheets set up in the same way and a tool bar parroting Excel.

I found Numbers spreadsheets easy to interact with, and it was simple to organize information. Within minutes of firing up the program, I was creating spreadsheets and sorting and filtering information.

The feature I like best—and, incidentally, the one Apple is hyping the most—is Numbers intelligent tables feature, which allows users to work with multiple tables inside a single spreadsheet.

To test out this feature, I created an expense report spreadsheet similar to one used here at eWEEK. The spreadsheet I was trying to replicate can be ranked as moderate in terms of its level of formatting complexity, packed with different-sized columns and rows, various split columns and rows, and text boxes. The expense report spreadsheet also is set up so that different kinds of information occupy different areas of the spreadsheet. Sections are delineated by way of borders, a standard feature of spreadsheet programs.

To replicate this spreadsheet, I began in Numbers with a typical spreadsheet that occupied the bulk of my screen. I then resized this spreadsheet (another great feature of Numbers) so that I could free up more space to include additional blocks of information.

Rather than relying on borders to set off specific pieces of information, as the eWEEK T&E spreadsheet does, I used Numbers nifty intelligent tables feature. An intelligent table is an embedded image that resembles a miniaturized spreadsheet that can be resized to any dimension. This meant I could separate various pieces of the expense report and thereby sort, filter and change the information.

Headers and footer rows are built into the design of each intelligent table, making it very easy to designate titles and footnotes for specific pieces of the spreadsheet, instead of relying on borders or shading to do the job.

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