[FoRK] Numbers: first impressions

Jeff Bone <jbone at place.org> on Sun Aug 12 15:15:11 PDT 2007

I've been using Apple's new spreadsheet, Numbers, fairly extensively  
for the last several days.  Thought I would take the opportunity to  
share some first impressions.


Very interesting.  The free-form spreadsheet concept is potentially a  
very big deal.  Will likely be much more usable than previous  
attempts to "reinvent" the spreadsheet (cf. Bright Mind's old NeXT  
product, can't remember the name;  also KISS / ProGraph / etc.)  A  
step up from Google Spreadsheets, which is what I've been using for  
personal purposes for some time, and a HUGE, ENORMOUS improvement  
over the nigh-unusable Mac version of Excel.  (Nb. some features I  
describe as novel may well be present in e.g. versions of Excel on  
Windows or later than the original Office X for Mac;  they're merely  
new to me in that case.  In fact some features may be in original  
Office X for Mac and I'm simply unaware of them. ;-)

The "multiple, named tables per page" concept is very powerful.  The  
expression language includes table-column-row qualified symbolic  
references to cells, for example, rather than saying something like


you can say

   =August Cash

This is hypothetically a huge win, but takes some getting used to and  
requires (like all complex-system building) some discipline in  
naming.  Things get cumbersome fairly quickly, such as

   =October Previous month’s balance+October Available cash+October  
Additional income-October Monthly expenses-October Planned expenses 
+Monthly Net Income :: $Amount $Planned Monthly Savings

I think it's debatable whether that's an improvement. ;-)

The charting function is missing lots of familiar chart types, and  
has a little too much "magic" in how it works.  (Select cells and  
drag onto a chart object.)  I'm still trying to produce multi-series  
plots that I find acceptable;  even a simple two-series bar chart has  
so far not yielded results that are terribly useful.

The interface *feels* sort of modal, particularly with respect to  
selection.  This is a common problem in *Works-like integrated apps  
where you have different embedded object types.  Clicking can be in  
the context of positioning the object on the page, selecting the  
object for operation on the whole object, or selecting a part of an  
object (i.e., a cell within a table.)  In particular row and column  
selection seems a little off;  a couple of times I've found myself  
completely unable to do row or column selection until I switched  
context away to another application then came back.  Still, overall  
navigation and the ability to locate particular tools and features is  
vastly better than e.g. Excel on the Mac.

Numbers is slow.  Part of this, I'm sure, is my now-obsolete 1.25  
GHz / 2GB PowerBook G4, but it's more than I would expect.  Loading  
even modest spreadsheets can take several seconds and any operation  
on many cells that span rows or columns takes more time than you'd  
expect.  Updating complex dependencies can take a bit of time, too.   
On the whole it would seem there's lots of room for optimization /  
improvement here.

The built-in templates are useful but a bit rigid.  In particular  
I've spent a bit of time customizing one of their more complicated  
examples, and while you can easily add new tables and muck around  
without rendering the spreadsheet unusable, it's still a bit of a  
chore to chase dependencies.  I'd like a more visual way of  
identifying the reference chains, but I haven't found out how to do  
that yet (if you can in fact do it at all;  perhaps that's Microsoft  
IP, grrr....)

I hope Apple and Google get together on this;  I'd love to be able to  
import / export / share a live, modifiable spreadsheet to e.g. Google  
or dotmac.  I also find myself wishing for tabs, though clearly that  
breaks the page-oriented paradigm.  I'd also like to see the same  
kind of live data capture that you have in e.g. Google or Excel;   
maybe it's there and I haven't found it yet.

All in all, I'm pretty happy about this.  The need to use Excel from  
time to time was the only thing keeping me from de-installing  
Microsoft Office.  While I'm not sure I trust Numbers completely on  
importing large / complex spreadsheets, I haven't tried it yet ---  
but it's much more than adequate for my purposes.


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