updated 05:20 pm EST, Fri January 9, 2009
First Look Numbers 09
As the last new application for iWork, Numbers introduced superior features, but lacked calculating firepower when put head-to-head with Microsoft's Excel. Numbers '09 attempts to remedy this problem, while building on the unique paradigm of a canvas where you place objects like tables, charts and shapes to create a visually-pleasing spreadsheet.
One crucial feature is the addition of more than 100 new functions, boosting Numbers' library to over 250. The increase brings Numbers closer to Excel's function library, though it still falls short -- there are no AMORDEGRC and COUPNCD functions in the financial library, for example. If you need a particular function, or plan to import Excel spreadsheets that use omitted functions, you'll have to create your own formulas from scratch.
Whether you use built-in functions or create your own, the biggest problem when dealing with formulas is trying to identify where all your calculations appear. To identify formulas quickly, Numbers '09 includes a Formula List icon embedded in the toolbar. Clicking this displays a list that shows the location of all formulas, along with the cells from which the formulas receive data.
While Numbers can be handy for presenting information, you may still need to present charts within a Pages or Keynote document. If you copy and paste a chart, you'll simply wind up with two versions of the same item, and risk updating one without updating the other. To avoid the problem, you can now link charts from Numbers to either Pages or Keynote. As a result, any changes made in Numbers are automatically reflected elsewhere.
In some spreadsheet apps, the way you organize spreadsheets can determine the visible information. You might, for example, enter a list of services you've performed, including a category that identifies types of services, such as Lighting or Appliances. This list could be arranged by date to start with, but if you wanted to see how much was done in Lighting, you'd have to sift through contents yourself and take down the tally. To solve this, Numbers can now rearrange spreadsheets based on category. If you click on a a column heading and choose Categorize by This Column, the app will sort data appropriately.
Like all members of the iWork '09 suite, Numbers takes advantage of the new template chooser, which lets you slide the mouse across a template to view all pages, rather than just the first as in previous versions. To help create a spreadsheet, Apple has added 12 new templates, for a total of 30.
The program also includes built-in sharing via Mail, and the ability to export spreadsheets to Excel or PDF files. The former option includes Microsoft's XLSX format.
Numbers has always been great for spreadsheets, and its latest features help remedy some of its weaknesses as a calculation and analysis tool. The program has improved drastically; if you're a heavy user of Pages and Keynote, linked charts can make Numbers '09 an obvious choice over Excel, while casual users will at least find Numbers more visually interesting. Excel remains, however, the champ for serious number crunching.