Numbers for iPad Better, Yet Falls Short

Despite the numerous fixes and enhancements included in Numbers for iPad 1.2, many things still present a hurdle for the spreadsheet component of the Apple iWork suite for its tablet platform.

The spreadsheet component of Apple's iWork suite for iPad still needs some work before it can be considered as a serious business tool. The 1.2 release, which Apple made available in late September along with updates to Pages and Keynote, fixes many flaws and introduces some new features that users will find valuable.

But what's almost criminal are the things that still aren't right with Numbers for iPad, such as the glaring inability to use the arrow keys of Bluetooth-connected wireless keyboards and the lack of support for such basic spreadsheet constructs as hidden columns.

For images of Numbers for iPad in action, click here.

As other heavy users of spreadsheets do, I take for granted the ability to navigate a spreadsheet with a keyboard for data entry. The inability to move between cells by means of arrow keys-absent from the iPad's soft keyboard-makes Numbers for iPad very frustrating for all but casual use.

Furthermore, hidden columns are there for two reasons: convenience and security. There are countless spreadsheets that companies live by that contain data that in detail only matters to a handful of people. In the second case, aggregate data may be acceptable for general distribution, while the details that make up the totals will be a trade secret.

Document sharing has received attention in this release of Numbers for iPad, in parallel with the other iWork applications. As with the other iWork for iPad applications, users of Mobile Me's iDisk service and other WebDAV-based services now have the option to copy spreadsheets between Numbers and these services. One can now export spreadsheets from Numbers for iPad in Microsoft Excel .XLS format and open CSV files from the iPad's Mail app.

This release fixes a number of bugs that assert themselves when importing spreadsheets that contain large images, when importing or exporting spreadsheets with overlapping objects, or when importing or exporting Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. Other bug fixes are related to document sharing through the public beta of Apple's Website.

A number of improvements to Numbers' handling of tables are included in this release; these address the exporting of tables with customized borders and add new text options for cells in tables including cell-specific settings for font, size and color. Finally, Numbers '09 tables that use images as background filler for cells can now be imported and exported from Numbers for iPad.

Apple claims it has improved the font-matching routines for this process when opening a Numbers -09 or Microsoft Word document. The company says it has also improved the process of creating or editing hyperlinks in text boxes, and added the ability to group and ungroup multiple objects in a Numbers spreadsheet.

Although what there is of Numbers for iPad works well enough in practice, I'm unable to recommend it for use cases that require a substantial amount of data entry, or where hidden columns must stay hidden. The lack of support for Apple's wireless keyboard-which works well enough with the iPad versions of Pages and Keynote-makes Numbers a non-starter for all but the most general and innocuous purposes.