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iWork Numbers for iPad Review: Functional but Flawed

Update, 9/10/2011: This review was published on May 2010. An updated Numbers review has been posted to reflect changes made in the most recent version. Version 1.4 includes major improvements such as iPhone compatibility and Excel support not found in this review. Our new rating for Numbers is 4 Out of 5 stars. Please click here to read the complete Numbers 2011 review.

I routinely use spreadsheets in my daily routine. So when I first saw Numbers for iPad, I was excited about the possibility of having a portable way to carry around and even update those files. Unfortunately, the otherwise decent Numbers app has absolutely no way to export editable data in a non-Numbers format, a fact that makes it almost meaningless in the business and professional world.

By itself, Numbers is a decent app. It shares almost all of its interface functionality with Pages–clearly, the three iWork apps were built from a common template–as well as most of its formatting options. If you’re already using Pages for iPad, you’ll already know the basics, and you just have to get used to the more spreadsheet-specific functions. Amongst these unique features are various keyboards which are designed specifically for use with spreadsheets. These are great, actually my favorite art of the Numbers design. They reflect a solid attempt to recreate the sort of nested menus functionality of a desktop spreadsheet app. Before long I was able to recreate most every function I regularly need on the job.

In fact, Numbers in general does a good job of translating a spreadsheet to the iPad’s touch interface. It offers a lot of the functionality you need for routine number-crunching and record-keeping. Numbers also packs a number of decent looking, functional templates you can build from or even use as-is, from loan calculators to blank invoices.

There are some moments where the program feels limited, however. The lack of an autofilling feature, for example. Maybe Excel has spoiled me, but when. I select a Sum function I find it’s nice to have the system autoselect the cells adjacent to it. While I don’t expect a portable app to provide all the functionality of a desktop program, this one seemed like a particularly odd omission.

Numbers also had some problems with file imports from Excel. Most notably, Numbers seems to have problems with more complicated formatting and formulas written in Excel 2007. It strips them out–preserving the last calculation in the case of formulas, but removing functionality. Recreating formats and formulas in Numbers was an unnecessary annoyance. If I need to enter data into a spreadsheet in Numbers, I don’t want to have to redo things every time I import.

Still, Numbers is a program I could see myself using everyday. Unfortunately, if I’m transferring spreadsheets into it, I also want to be able to export them out of it. This is where Numbers, like fellow iWork app Keynote, utterly fails.

Despite the fact a significant majority of businesses use Microsoft Office as their platform of choice (at least 80% or more), nothing in Numbers can be exported in Excel format. Numbers data is locked into Numbers format, unless you want to export as an uneditable PDF. It doesn’t even offer basic text-formatted CSV–not an optimal solution, but a CSV option would be at least some way for Numbers to share information out with Excel. Surely CSV format wasn’t too difficult for Apple to implement? My workplace’s database system is literally straight out of the 1980s and even it can handle exporting raw data in CSV format.

In the end, this lack of compatibility with the most widely used platform in the world is a major liability for Numbers. If you’re a Mac user and already work in Numbers, you will likely find value in Numbers for iPad. If you could use a handy portable spreadsheet without the need to export to Excel, you will find some value in Numbers for iPad. But I cannot recommend it highly for anyone who needs Excel friendly tools in their daily routine.

Having a portable spreadsheet is inherently more useful than having a portable presentation app, so Numbers doesn’t completely fail. But with zero compatibility to the most popular productivity format in the world, Numbers won’t be worth the price of admission for many users.

Our score: 3/5.

Numbers is available for $9.99 in the App Store.  (App Store Link)

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