Monday, August 20, 2007

Numbers rocks: how I forgot about the review and ended up doing my budget

Apple has made a trial version of the iWork suite available as a free download. Pretty smart move: the suite is relatively small (it fits on a CD), so this is a great way to get people test drive the latest version of this emerging little office suite. (Let me get back to the "office suite" part later.) You can buy an activation code online to unlock the trial version, so basically, Apple is distributing iWork '08 as shareware. Cool.

I've put Keynote and Pages through their paces, and they're OK. But what I've been most interested in was Numbers. Why? Here's a list why:

  1. It's new. Duh.
  2. It's a spreadsheet app, and those are relatively rare. Word processors are a dime a dozen.
  3. I wanted to see if Numbers is competitive with Excel.
  4. I work with data a lot (Excel, FileMaker, and so on), and wanted to see if this new tool is of any use for me.

As anecdotal as it gets, but still, wow...

So I fired up Numbers, and started off by using one of its built-in templates. I noticed one that was called "Budget," [edit: originally I wrote "Home Budget," not sure how I'd got that wrong] and thought, what the hell, let me try that one.

I've been putting off drafting an annual personal budget for quite some time now. I was looking for the right tool for the job. Now, it's important to know that I'm a tool freak. (Also a Tool freak, but that's probably beside the point.) That is, I can obsess about the right tool for the job a lot more than about the job itself. It's almost a policy. Yep, I know this can be a flaw. But not always.

Anyway. So far, I've tried creating FileMaker Pro databases, using and extending Excel templates, and I've always given up after a certain point. Building a FileMaker database is almost like writing an application: you need to do a lot of work before you can start using it. About Excel, I just didn't know where to start. The built-in templates weren't much use, and as for rolling my own: the task seemed a little too intimidating. Before getting on with the already daunting task of drafting a budget, I would need to decide on how many worksheets to use, what kind of tables to design, and how to interconnect them, etc. I'm not bad with Excel, but whenever I embarked on this budget project, I must admit that I always ended up giving up.

So, last week, I fired up Numbers, and opened its Budget template. It was pretty straightforward, I just about immediately figured out how it worked. And to my utter surprise, it was almost exactly what I needed. I made some small adjustments, and started putting in my numbers. Then I made some more adjustments to the template, consulting the help file two or three times.

After about five hours, I was still frantically, furiously working on my budget. I was sweating, but what I was fighting was my numbers, not Numbers. I didn't even notice the app was there.

And that's just about the best thing you can say about an application. It gets out of the way, and lets you do your thing. Oh, and the template is very nice, too. Maybe that's where Excel lost me on this one, and Numbers won me.

These are my first main observations about Numbers

Numbers doesn't have one workbook with several infinitely large worksheets. It has pages with tables, which are the size you want them to be. This doesn't only make your numbers nicer to present, but also makes it easier to work with them: you can see all the tables at the same time, you don't need to switch between worksheets.

If you mouse near the border of a table, some controls pop up. You can insert, delete, or drag and drop columns and rows, you can sort and rename columns, and so on. These operations are extremely intuitive, though really mouse-heavy: there are no keyboard shortcuts for most of these. Working in Numbers feels a bit more like working in InDesign, and less like in Excel, where you can let go of the mouse for quite some time if you want. To me, this is a clear shortcoming, but a tolerable one.

Numbers is very good with defaults: it knows that most users will want their tables to have headers; and that when you sort, you'll usually want to sort the entire table. (This is a pet Excel peeve of mine: using auto-filters, you can never be sure if your entire table is being sorted. Some pesky little thing can prevent some columns from being sorted, and you'll end up with useless data.)

While sorting is dead simple, there are no auto-filters in Numbers. Filtering is dialog-based, and clearly more cumbersome than in the Microsoft suite. Also, the only way to tell if your data is filtered is by noticing missing row numbers. Excel has other visual clues, and they are important. Probably Apple's research shows that people don't really use filters that much. It's a pity, because I do.

Tables can have headers by default (there are several table templates you can choose from, but you can fully modify a table after creation), and they can also have titles (captions). These are great time savers as you add and arrange new tables to your work area (called a Canvas).

Numbers makes sure your spreadsheets are neatly organized and beautiful. Just like a great schoolteacher, it will instill a sense of work ethic in you, inviting you to keep your work clean and well-organized. (Don't use Numbers for committing tax fraud or plotting evil schemes. You will break down with guilt and give up.)

One annoying bit: as you move or resize a table that has another table on its right side, Numbers will always move that table too, keeping the distance constant between the two, even if that's not what you want. (Thanks to the reader who pointed out that this behavior can be turned off in Preferences.) And believe me: you will care about how your tables look. Numbers will make you.

Cross-references between tables and cells are quite like in Excel, except that they use column and table names, not numbers. Luckily, these names update dynamically.

There's a generous helping of functions, and for obvious reasons, they have the same syntax as in Excel. Not nearly all of Excel's functions are present, though. Worse, I've been relying heavily on Excel's extensive help system when constructing a function: as you type, it displays the syntax for you, and mousing over each part will show you additional details. It's very easy to get specific help for each function. Not so in Numbers: you're pretty much on your own, and help is awkward. Functions are probably also considered an advanced feature that relatively few users would be interested in. Hopefully, Apple will beef up this part of Numbers for the next version.

There is one very useful feature, though, that immediately made me a fan (that is, if one can get fanatic about spreadsheets). Select a few cells in Excel, and the app will display the sum of all the numbers in them. Numbers takes this concept a step further: not only does it display their sum, count, average, minimum and maximum, but also lets you drag these to your table, as a really quick and easy way to create a summary field. Well done, that one!

Bloatware vs. clutterware

So Lasso is here, and it's sexy indeed. But does it take on Excel? Well, yes, and no. Excel has macros (though you'll have to kiss them good-bye soon, as they will be absent from the next Mac version.) It also has tons and tons and tons of advanced features that Apple did not include in Numbers.

Now, there will certainly be people who dismiss all these tons of Excel features as "bloatware," but I will certainly not go down that road. I'm with Joel Spolsky here: he believes that the size (and the complexity and the feature count) of applications increases as do our needs. He also gives us his spin the 20/80 rule, i.e. that while it may be that 80% of users use only 20% of the features, it's not the same 20% for everyone.

I do believe that software can be too complicated and intimidating (and Microsoft Office is certainly like that). However, that doesn't have much to do with the number of features, but rather with their presentation. I would rather call it clutterware than bloatware. Features are necessary, but throwing them all at the user in a big scary mess is wrong.

For a version 1.0 release like Numbers, Apple did have to narrow its focus on the most commonly-used features. However, here's hoping that the scope of Numbers will grow in time. And knowing Apple, I'm fairly confident that Numbers will never become clutterware. Bloatware maybe -- but, as Joel says, that's actually a good thing.

Is iWork an office suite then? It would probably be an inaccurate moniker, and one that Apple seems to want to avoid (never calling it an office suite, going with "productivity suite" instead). This has to be at least partly due to a marketing effort that carefully tries to avoid the appearance of competing directly with Microsoft. But marketing materials, as well as iWork templates, also clearly indicate a focus on the home, small business, and educational markets, Apple's traditional strongholds. Besides, large corporations would need collaboration features clearly missing from iWork.

I wonder whether Apple will, over time, address the corporate market more aggressively. We can say that, with iWork '08, it's on the doorstep, but not yet knocking.


Anonymous said...

I hate to leave a comment like this (hence my anonymity), but I'm assuming you meant to write “obsess” and not “0bsess”.

Sorry... it just looked funny.

Anonymous said...

Preferences -> General -> Editing:
"Automatically move objects when tables resize".


Anonymous said...

That is exactly what happened to me. I was browsing the templates, and I noticed the budget one. I'd been meaning to work on a budget for a while now, so I opened that template. Before I knew it, I had expanded the template substantially, and I have been tracking my expenses using numbers ever since!

MPMoriarty said...

I, too, think Numbers is a very nice spreadsheet app. So many third party spreadsheets try to mimic Excel to compete. Numbers innovates and offers a totally different way of working with your data.

"There's a generous helping of functions, and for obvious reasons, they have the same syntax as in Excel. Not nearly all of Excel's functions are present, though."

I created a side-by-side comparison of all the functions provided in Excel vs. Numbers for anyone who is interested.

Anonymous said...

To me it seems the side-by-side comparison is more or less incomplete. As I am looking on the German versions of Excel and numbers I am not 100% sure about the German-English translation, but of course there is LN, LOG, LOG10, RAND, ROUND, SIGN, SUM, SUMIF and a lot more. So at least the part "Math Functions" is far from complete and has to be considered as misleading an wrong.

MPMoriarty said...

You are completely correct. I don't know how I originally missed that. I have made the appropriate updates. Thanks for pointing that out.

keithpeter said...

I've just clicked on the Numbers icon motivated by this review.

Can anyone tell me why Apple's programmers have chosen to limit the number of columns in a table to 256?

This limit has been hard-wired into MS Excel from the last ice age, but I thought a new spreadsheet could transcend that limit, perhaps with a warning about loosing backward compatibility?

I'm into Gantt charts and it would be neat to do a daily chart for a year...

Anonymous said...

While I appreciate the innovations offered by Numbers, so far it mostly ticks me off.

My first try at inserting a row was the, uh, Insert menu. Bzzzt. Okay, so it's in the Table menu.

It turns out that option-up (or -down) arrow works as well for inserting a row, but the new row always goes above the current cell. (Why doesn't option-down insert below? It's not like this is a foreign idea; the Table menu has Add Row Below.)

Neither ctrl+up/down nor cmd+up/down move the current cell more than one position. This application was definitely not designed for speed of working.

Copying a single cell into a range doesn't copy into each element of the range. Instead, one must copy into a single cell, then drag that teeny-tiny circle at the bottom right of the cell to implicitly copy the original cell into each cell of the expanding range.

And if you're importing a comma-delimited file, it darned well better have the .csv extension, because you'll never get Numbers to parse the data otherwise, not even with the here's-some-hope-oh-SO-sorry "split cells" menu option.

Creating charts is an exercise in frustration. (Excel is tedious, but at least it's mostly intuitive.)

And I had such high hopes.

David said...

Thanks for the overview / review of Numbers. I'm a recent Mac switcher and considering moving to iWork for personal use. While Numbers may not be an Excel replacement, my home use is much simpler than my professional needs, so Numbers might be a great replacement.

But I am a little baffled why you'd muck around with Excel templates and programming FileMaker Pro databases for a budget? Just get a personal finance program and get on with it. But hey, I had to convert my wife from Excel to MS Money. :)

Good comments. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I've been running a budget via spreadsheet since 1986. (I actually had something on paper since 1982.)

First it was Appleworks on my //c. Then it was Lotus, then Excel. When I returned to Mac back in 2002 I was rather disappointed to find that there were only two options that easily used multiple sheets - OpenOffice and Excel. I used X11 OpenOffice for a year, and had ben using NoeOffice since then.

The first two times I started Numbers I was disappointed with the feel and how many things it flagged on importing my ODS. I simply closed the app after a few minutes.

Yesterday afternoon however, I decided to bite the bullet and really gave Numbers a test drive. My budget and investments are already imported and I'm pretty impressed with the app. This weekend I'm going to start playing with the multiple table feature - I hope it improves the speed of things.

Speed - compared to NeoOffice. Hmmm... the app itself starts up immediately on my Core2Duo MacBook. Certainly can't say that about NeoOffice. Loading in my workbook is... slightly slower. But it's the recalcing and clicking on a single cell to get focus that is clearly slow. As I said, I'm hoping that combining my tables on a single sheet might improve that some.

Keith, regarding the 256 column limitation. While this won't necessarily help you with your exact problem, consider how _unlimited_ things really are when you can have multiple tables in a single sheet. Maybe split your single Gantt chart/table into 12 monthly ones. (Again, this isn't an ideal solution for your specific issue.)


Anonymous said...

Numbers is the most inmature application apple ever had produced. It slow as molasses. Itt's close to zero compared to applworks, Excel, Mesa.
The scientific data and graphs doesn't exists.

Don't even start whit data like 200 rows and 25 Colums not to mention bigger scientific data which Aabel handels in seconds.

Numbers is not a spreadsheet it's a small add-on for Keynote.

Puiz said...

Thanks for all the comments.

Pedro said...

(Totally unrelated, but I still wanted to share this.) I use Excel on a PC at work way too much, and am constantly editing functions with [F2]. I accidentally discovered that Option-Enter in Numbers will let me edit the function/contents of the currently selected cell. It very well could be a different key command, but at least that one works.

Paul said...

One of the great advantages spreadsheets have with the bloatware issue is that an obvious way to increase functionality is through more formulae. Happily you can add as many as you want and not introduce any extra clutter, because they use a common interface and structure for all of them.

Karaca Kestelli said...

Hi guys. Am I the only who hates numbers here? I mean it's painfully slow and keeps on freezing.
I am power excel user. Hence most of my spreadsheets tend to be rather large in size. So as soon as I downloaded the trial version from the Internet, i opened one of my files (approx. 8,000 lines, ~20 columns, bunch of vlookups in it, a pivot table). First of all pivot table was gone!!!! I don't believe functions are that important, but lack of pivot table is a major problem.

Second, any time I tried to make a change it would take ages. So I copied the vlookups and pasted as values. That action itself took almost a minute. Opening the spreadsheet takes (with this file) takes approx 2 minutes.

I am biiiiiig apple fan. In fact, if i could i would switch everything to apple in my company. but with this speed it's out of the question.

am i the only one???

Anonymous said...

RE: KeithPeter's comment about Gantt charts. Would be nice to have an option for more than >256 columns...

BUT, if you're just trying to do Gantt charts, give Gantt Project a look. It's open source (free 'course) and works pretty well on my Core2 Duo iMac:

Anonymous said...

I agree that Numbers is awfully slow. I like the design though, but they could have given it more keyboard shortcuts. In my opinion it comes not even close to Excel if you want to do some serious work. It's a nice addition for your home office, but not worth upgrading to iWork '08, I think.

PanDemic said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PanDemic said...

Ops, deleted the post.

Yes, Numbers may be mouse-heavy, but at least you can at least increase the table size with Opt+arrow keys.

Funny thing though, what ever arrow key you press, the table increases.

However, anyone knows how to add a static cell to a formula? So that the same cell is used when I copy the formula to a new cell..

Anonymous said...

Numbers charts just KILLS my iMac, are you kidding me? It stalls, spins, sputters sometimes pausing 45 seconds to 2 minutes to respond to a mouse click, leaving me totally confused as to what task it is working on. The color palette comes on for half a second or so and spins. Numbers Charts is H O R R I B L E and virtually impossible to work with. This happens when I am running NO other apps. This is as bad as any PC incompetence I've ever had and really really disappointing. I thought Mac was supposed to be so clean, but it chokes on its own simple charting. Just changing the color of 1 line on a simple line chart can take 2 minutes. Puke!