Numbers 3: Spreadsheets for the Rest of Us Takes a Risky Turn

Two weeks ago at their special fall event, Apple released the much anticipated updates for its iWork suite. It’s been the biggest rework of the apps since the iWork suite was first launched. The apps bear a fresh, brand new UI but leave behind useful features, especially those that were most-loved by at power users. There’s been a lot of controversy about these apps over the past weeks, as is readily apparent from the comments on our Pages and Keynote reviews.

Numbers, Apple’s spreadsheet app that’s now in its 3rd version, is not an exception to the trend seen thus far in the new iWork apps. It’s simplified, looks much like the other new apps in the suite, and gets rid of some features that some of you might consider essential. Here’s my impressions on what I’ve always considered a powerful yet super easy to use combination of a free form spreadsheet processor and data visualizer.

A Completely Rethought User Interface

Much as with Pages and Keynote, the new Numbers features a radically redesigned interface — perhaps the most striking of all three apps.

The user interface has gone from this in Numbers 2…

The user interface has gone from this in Numbers 2…

…to this with Numbers 3. Obviously streamlined. Up to the point that there's not even a cell selected, just ready for you to type in, as it used to be by default.

…to this with Numbers 3. Obviously streamlined. On first-open there’s not even a cell selected and ready for you to type in, as it used to be by default.

The Format Panel

Like in the other apps of the suite, the floating Inspector palette has disappeared. Now, it has been replaced by a panel that is completely part of the window, sliding in and out from the right. This panel is not resizable, which is one of the little things I don’t like in Numbers 3. It can take up way too much space, especially on a tiny screen or if you’re not using the app fullscreen.

In fact, like I did in the Keynote review, I advise you to use this new version of Numbers in full screen whenever possible to get the best out of the canvas space. The only good thing is that icons and text in this panel are larger than in the previous Inspector, thus making things more readable. Some people are complaining about always having to go to the right to format things, though that itself doesn’t seem too frustrating to me.

If you don’t like going back and forth between the canvas and the format panel, remember you can always assign Keyboard shortcuts from the system-wide Keyboard preference pane of OS X for every single existing menu command in Numbers.

The great thing about the new Format panel is it’s context-aware: it automatically updates based on selection. Click on a table, you get table-related formatting options; click on a chart, you get chart-related settings. It isn’t completely seamless, though. For instance, when you select a table, the panel contains four tabs (Table, Cell, Text and Arrange) but it does not seem to recognize if you’ve selected a whole table, just a single cell, or even just text within a cell. Instead, it always selects the last tab you used. One could imagine that selecting a cell would lead you to the Cell tab, selecting some text to the Text tab, and so on, but unfortunately it’s not quite that smart.

An example of what the Format panel looks like. Here, what appears when you click on a table.

An example of what the Format panel looks like. Here, what appears when you click on a table.

Just One Toolbar, Lots of Popups, and Inconsistent Design Choices

There is now only one non-customizable toolbar sitting at the top of the window. Clicking on most of its buttons presents you with popover tabs. Just like with Keynote, some popups are slightly transparent, others look as if they are attached to their button, and still others give you drop-down lists. Even among these drop-down lists, no one is identical in design to the others.

I’m still wondering why it is such a mess. It’s as if different people designed each different popup and everything was put together in the same toolbar at the end of the day. A bit of consistency would have surely helped everyone use the new app easier — and helped users of the previous Numbers not feel so shocked at the changes — but alas, that was not to be.

Adding an element to the canvas is done by selecting it in the popup that appears when you click a button in the middle of the toolbar.

Adding an element to the canvas is done by selecting it in the popup that appears when you click a button in the middle of the toolbar.

Also, while the Format/Filter panel can’t be detached from the main window, some other UI elements are floating windows that can be toggled visible/hidden from the View menu:

  • the Arrange Tools window,
  • the Colors picker,
  • and the Adjust Image window

Once you decide to show these windows, you get movable, persistent, floating palettes, much like the old Inspector was. I find it weird, both from a design and a usability point of view. First, these windows make the overall user interface a compromise between the old look and feel and the modern one. And then, while it might be handy to have a Colors palette always visible, I doubt the Adjust Image window is useful enough in a spreadsheet app to get its dedicated window.

But perhaps the most incredible thing is that the Arrange Tools window is an exact replicate of the Arrange tab available in the Format panel. Seriously? Why give the opportunity to detach (or, by replicating it, simulate the detachment of) only one UI element — that would, moreover, be really more useful in a page layout (Pages) or presentations (Keynote) app than in a spreadsheet app?

Finally, there is one more tiny element that — somewhat inexplicably, again — gets its dedicated floating window: the Find & Replace window that is curiously absent from the View menu but that you can show by clicking on the View button (i.e. the leftmost icon in the toolbar). But don’t get too excited about it because it’s really less powerful than its previous iteration in Numbers 2 (more on this later).

Sheets Are Treated Like Tabs in a Web Browser

Another big change is that sheets are not listed vertically in a sidebar on the left of the window, as it used to be. They are now located at the top of the window, just underneath the toolbar. This gives you more space on screen for the canvas. But, just as it’s difficult to reach a specific tab in your browser if you have too many tabs open, it can be tedious to reach a sheet if you’ve created too much of them. You can’t see more than six sheets at once, because each “tab” representing a sheet is of fixed size. Thus, you have to scroll right of left while hovering over the “sheets bar”, or use the small buttons at its right end to show more.

Sheets are listed at the top of the window. Here, while I'm in the Data Comparison sheet, I can show a list of elements contained in the **Basic Charts** sheet by hovering its name and clicking on the triangle to reveal the drop-down.

Sheets are listed at the top of the window. Here, while I’m in the Data Comparison sheet, I can show a list of elements contained in the Basic Charts sheet by hovering its name and clicking on the triangle to reveal the drop-down.

In Numbers 2, you had a tree view of all the sheets and their elements in a left sidebar, all at once. You now have to hover over the name of a sheet name to click on a drop-down button; there, the contents of this sheet is listed, and you need to repeat it individually for each sheet. Again, experienced users might be frustrated whereas newcomers will find the new look clean and uncluttered.

In some aspects, sheets are like tabs in Safari:

  • When you need to add a new sheet, just click a + button, on the far left of the bar
  • If you want to re-order sheets, simply click their “tab” and drag them left or right

However, what’s missing from a browser-like behavior is a little drop-down that would give you access to any sheet, without having to scroll all the way to reach it.

Clearly, Apple wants you to keep your documents simple: here, six sheets are enough. The trend is recurrent in any new updated iWork app: Apple decides for you that things should be kept simple, uncluttered, almost basic. Sometimes there are workarounds, sometimes you just have to accept it. Like it or not.

Tables Behave Differently, Too

There’s not only novelty in toolbars and buttons: tables also don’t behave like they used to. While in Numbers 2 you could move a table from any of its edges, without even having to select it, now you need to first select the table by clicking on it. This surfaces controls outside of the table, and then you can click on the new round handle in the top left corner to drag the table. Other handles, while getting new icons, give the same effect as before: the top right and bottom left handles let you add/remove column(s) and row(s) respectively, and with the bottom right one you can control both columns and rows at once.

Except for the new handle in the top left, other table controls just get a facelift while functionality remains the same as before.

Except for the new handle in the top left, other table controls just get a facelift while functionality remains the same as before.

The most striking change is the way autofill works, now, in the graphical user interface. Users of the previous Numbers, and even people coming from other spreadsheets software like Microsoft Excel or OpenOffice Calc, might be surprised:

  • dragging a cell from its bottom right or top left corner just extend the selection; it does not autofill surrounding cells anymore
  • to autofill, you need to drag the yellow dot that appears when you hover over the middle of any border (top, bottom, left or right)
Old habits die hard. Drag the yellow handle, not the white ones in the corner, if you want to autofill surrounding cells in a given direction.

Old habits die hard. Drag the yellow handle, not the white ones in the corner, if you want to autofill surrounding cells in the direction of your choice.

Status Bar and The New Approach to Formulas

At the bottom of the window, there’s now a bar that appears only when you click on a cell in a table. This is sort of a status bar, in that it displays first the kind or state of data entered in the cell, and then the value of this data. It can read, for instance, Text then the text entered in the cell, Actual followed by a number if the cell contains a user-input number, and Formula followed by the formula itself when the cell, well, obviously contains a formula.

But the display is not static and, much as the Format bar, is context aware. For instance, Actual becomes Formatted while you’re typing something in a cell where a specific data format is applied, and Formula is changed to Formula Result when you’re creating/editing a formula. This helps you see what the cell will actually display once you’ve hit Enter before you hit it.

The biggest change since previous versions is that, while being automatically updated, you can’t edit the content of this status bar directly within it. You need to double-click the cell contents itself to edit it. In short, you now edit cell contents in place instead of in the status bar, including when you need to edit formulas. Indeed, double-clicking a cell with a formula shows up an editable iOS-style Formula bar.

The status bar at the bottom of the window displays the formula for the selected cell, but you can't edit the formula there…

The status bar at the bottom of the window displays the formula for the selected cell, but you can’t edit the formula there…

… however when you double-click on a cell containing a Formula (or just type **=** as the first character in a blank cell), a floating Edit Formula bar appears. By default, it hides the cell contents but the field at the bottom of the window now displays the Formula result, and you can move and resize the floating window.

… however when you double-click on a cell containing a Formula (or just type = as the first character in a blank cell), a floating Edit Formula bar appears. By default, it hides the cell contents but the field at the bottom of the window now displays the Formula result, and you can move and resize the floating window.

Regarding formulas, there are several improvements that help you craft them step-by-step more easily:

  • when creating/editing a formula, the Format panel (if already revealed) instantly updates to show you the Function Browser, where you can search for functions and get help about how to use them, with examples
  • functions names can be autocompleted: just type the first letter(s) and press Enter if the first match is the good one, or tab through other choices then hit Enter; this is inspired by the iOS version of the app
  • likewise, parentheses are replaced by “crescent moons” that include the function name and its argument(s); these visual cues are designed to reduce parenthesis mismatches, and should be familiar if you’ve ever used Numbers for iOS.

If you don’t like the crescent moons look, you can click on the name of a function in the edit bar and choose “Convert Function to Text” or “Convert Formula to Text”, which will revert the display back to a good old plain-text look, minus color-highlighted parenthesis like there were in Numbers 2.

A Better User Interface but You Need to Get Used to It

What I loved right from the start, the first time I created a new spreadsheet in the older Numbers 2, is the free-form canvas. Coming from Microsoft Excel, it was refreshing to feel free about the way you organize and display your data elements. No need to have an ugly, infinite, unique table on screen and superpose charts, drawing and text boxes over it. This approach is what makes Numbers so different and fortunately it’s been preserved.

But while the concept remains the same, the way it is applied through the graphical interface exerts a major rethink. New users, especially those coming from iOS, will be pleased by the clean, streamlined interface. On the contrary, experienced users that used to work with Numbers 2 will surely be confused at first. The good thing is you can show Coach Tips at anytime if you feel lost.

Admittedly, I was nitpicking on some points, but the interface gave me mixed feelings at first. Getting past Apple’s reality distortion field, I wouldn’t describe the UI as “stunning” like advertised, but just as a fresh, streamlined but inconsistent UI. After a week of use, though, I bet you’ll feel at home again and overall I think the benefit is greater than the little drawbacks I pointed out here and there.

What Remains from Previous Versions

In addition to the free-form canvas approach, the basic workflow remains the same, fortunately. There are some interesting and really well crafted Templates you can use when creating a new spreadsheet, if you don’t want to bother starting from scratch. These templates seem even better thought than their previous versions and look more modern, more elegant. There’s even a new Charting Basics template that teaches you how to choose and use the appropriate chart for your data, with use case examples.

When working on a spreadsheet, you can still easily add tables, charts, text boxes, shapes, media elements and comments from a broad set of predefined types and styles for these items. Editing and updating data and charts is also easy as ever. Formatting items is done at will in a snap; actually visual mini previews in the popups and the Format bar even help you get an idea more quickly, even before applying.

And of course, as with any good native Mac app, most of the things you want to accomplish can be done by dragging and dropping, which includes, for instance, adding some frequently used functions to your tables.

What Has Numbers 3 Gained…

There are a few additions as compared to the Numbers 2.

A New Format for Easier Interoperability and Sharing, No Seamless Collaboration Yet

iOS and OS X versions now share the same Numbers format. Spreadsheets are now fully compatible between mobile and the desktop and their contents will look exactly the same, on the web as well.

Beware: your documents created with previous versions of Numbers will be updated to the new format and there’s no way back.

You might lose some functionalities and formatting along the way. Make sure you keep a backup copy of your spreadsheets before opening them with Numbers 3.

Here's what I got when I opened my old Budget spreadsheet in Numbers 3.

Here’s what I got when I opened my old Budget spreadsheet in Numbers 3.

Numbers now fully support iCloud and spreadsheets can also be edited via iWork for iCloud beta. However, just like with Pages and Keynotes, the feature set in the web app is very limited: for instance you can’t edit charts, and you won’t even leave a comment for your collaborators.

For now, the best way to collaborate on a document is by working on two different machines with their native app (on OS X or iOS). But this real-time collaboration is only available with iCloud sharing (via share sheets just like for other items in OS X), which requires you to move your spreadsheet to iCloud. If you’d rather keep the document on your machine, though, you can still send a copy, but will lose the benefit of collaboration. So, there is still room for improvement in this area.

Some Other Notable Features

  • You can now insert Interactive Charts, with sliders that let you easily switch between different data sets to display on the same chart.
A new interactive chart in action: when you move the slider at the bottom, the display changes to reflect the new data set on the chart.

A new interactive chart in action: when you move the slider at the bottom, the display changes to reflect the new data set on the chart.

  • There’s a new type of charts: Bubble Charts.
From the Charts Basics template: "Bubble charts show correlations between three points of data in a series: x values, y values, and sizes."

From the Charts Basics template: “Bubble charts show correlations between three points of data in a series: x values, y values, and sizes.”

  • You can now add comments to charts, shapes and text boxes, in addition to cells (previously available). These comments are like tooltips: they only appear on hover and are not resizable.
Numbers 3 lets you add two different types of comments.

Numbers 3 lets you add two different types of comments.

  • You can now use 5-star rating as a data format in cells, in addition to other already existing special formats like checkboxes, sliders, steppers and pop-up menus.
  • Talking about the pop-up menu data format, you now have the option to have them start with a blank entry.

…And What’s Been Lost

If you upgrade from Numbers 2, you’ll miss a plethora of features that gave the app a pro signature:

  • No Applescript. It’s not just a reduced support: the dictionary has completely disappeared from Applescript Editor.
  • Filtering data is less convenient because you can’t Categorize by column anymore, one the neat features that made Numbers unique. The multi-column Reorganize feature is also missing. There is now a new Filter panel: using it, you can display only rows that match user-defined criteria. Sadly, that’s definitely not the same approach.
You can't categorize your table cells anymore, but you can filter rows by defining multiple criteria.

You can’t categorize your table cells anymore, but you can filter rows by defining multiple criteria.

  • No more auto-completion for text previously typed in the same spreadsheet. If you start typing something and hit Alt-Esc, you get auto-complete from the whole OS X dictionary.
  • Apparently, you can’t have more than six predefined table styles in a given template, and you can’t create custom ones — or I haven’t figured out how to do it yet. The workaround is to create a new document with another Numbers template, or format an existing table to your liking, then copy and paste the table into another document. But you’ll have to do this each time you want to re-use a table style not included by default.
  • The Print preview is only for previewing. You can’t edit anymore in this mode, which implies a lot of back and forth between two different interfaces. Fortunately, you can still show horizontal and vertical rulers to see if your content will fit the page. Printing options are really basic: you can’t insert Page Headers or Footers and can’t define margins: you have to choose from different predefined paper formats and use the Content Scale.
A very basic, non-editable print preview. Is "Save paper, don't print" the underlying message from Apple?

A very basic, non-editable print preview. Is “Save paper, don’t print” the underlying message from Apple?

  • The Find and Research View is much less powerful: it’s gone from the full-fledged navigator in Numbers 2 to a basic toolbar that just highlights the results.

The lists above are not exhaustive. If you want an in-depth look, Apple users “SGIII”, “Yellowbox” and others, from the Apple Support Communities forum have build “The Great 2013 Numbers Migration Gained and Lost List”, which is comprehensive and very helpful.

Conclusion

I have mixed feelings about this new version of Numbers — I don’t want to use the word “upgrade”. While still using the Microsoft Office suite at work, I’ve always thought of Numbers, with its forward thinking, free canvas approach, as a combination between Excel and Powerpoint. It’s beautiful, usable, and innovative. It does not have the full power of concurrent apps, but fits the job elegantly for everyday tasks.

If you look at Numbers 3 from a newcomer point of view, like someone who has never used Numbers on OS X before, and/or uses its iOS version, and/or comes from more “traditional” softwares like Microsoft Excel or OpenOffice Calc, you should be happy with the release. The freeform canvas is a breeze of fresh air and an invitation to creativity. The UI is modern, uncluttered, fresh. You can get a working and professional looking document in minutes thanks to elegant and easy-to-use templates. Just focus on the data and Apple takes care of the rest.

But if you’re an experienced Numbers (power) user, you’ll be disappointed, for sure. Lots of functionalities have been removed, and it’s hard to swallow you have to rethink your workflow and maybe even rework your tables for just a fresh coat of paint and full compatibility with iCloud and the mobile version. Let’s hope this new Numbers is just a new start from a blank canvas, the foundation for great things to come that will bring back much more power and customization. Fortunately, iWork ’09 apps should still be available in a dedicated folder after the installation of the new versions, so you can get the best of both worlds.

Whatever your opinion is about Numbers, we’d love to hear what you think in the comments section below!


Summary

Numbers 3 is a revolution, for the better or the worse. The score is an average, between 4–5 out of 10 for power users updating from Numbers 2 and 8–9 for new users. The former will cringe about all the removed features while the latter should be delighted by the freeform canvas approach, the ease-of-use, interoperability and cleanliness, and the usefulness of excellent built-in templates.

  • Numbers 3.0  | 
  • $19.99; Free with new Macs; Free update for current users  | 
  • Apple, Inc.
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