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Numbers on the iPad: Doesn’t Add Up

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Numbers for the iPad is an outstanding standalone application. The creation of basic spreadsheets is uniquely optimized for the iPad layout. However, Numbers does not share well with others, and if you use Excel at all, you should probably just move along to another app. Numbers is “fun” but not terribly functional.

When first opening the Numbers app, a “welcome” spreadsheet walks you through the very basics. A spreadsheet on making spreadsheets! Once you do the walkthrough you can either create a new blank spreadsheet or use one of the 15 provided templates including a Mortgage Calculator, Auto Log, Travel planner and more.


Navigation within the spreadsheets is very similar to the desktop version of Numbers. Tap on a cell to change the contents and a specialized calculator shows up at the bottom of your screen. From there you can tap out your info or use the side pad to switch to functions (250 are included), standard input keyboard, date/time functions and logic. One difference between desktop and iPad versions is the use of tabs. The iPad version has stylish tabs at the top to move between sheets, while the desktop version puts sheet navigation on the side.

Similar to desktop Numbers, the Inspector includes the ability to insert Photos, Tables, Charts, and Shapes. Items naturally flow around existing data and editing a chart is simply a tap and drag. Instead of being a palette, the inspector is a drop menu in the upper right hand corner of the iPad. As with other applications, undo can be accessed from a button or by simply shaking the iPad. Even if you aren’t familiar with Numbers (Excel fan here!), it was extremely easy and intuitive to understand.

Getting help on the iPad version of the iWork suite requires a connection to the internet. When you choose Help from the Tools menu, Safari opens to a custom Apple (s aapl) webpage. This significantly limits Help’s usefulness, especially in situations such as an airplane when internet access is unavailable or cost prohibitive.

Importing Limits

If you want your spreadsheets to live their lives from creation to deletion inside the iPad ecosystem, this review would be over. Awesome product well worth the $9.99. However, the process of importing and exporting documents complicates things significantly. Mark Crump’s and Chris Ryan’s observations of the obfuscation are similar to mine.

To get spreadsheet information into the iPad, you have a three basic choices. The most obvious one, using your iDisk, is not supported! That’s a game-ending flaw in my opinion. Before using Numbers, I used Quickoffice to edit files on my iDisk. Unfortunately, as of this writing Quickoffice has not been recompiled for the iPad and looks ugly. Whichever method you choose, it’s important to note the changes are not synced directly. The iPad makes a copy and changes you make are saved to internally to the iPad.

So how do you get an existing spreadsheet into Numbers on the iPad? First, you can access it via an email attachment either through the iPad Mail app, or via Gmail’s web interface. Safari was smart enough to allow me to open an Excel attachment from Gmail into Numbers. That was a welcome surprise.

Second, you can access it via the iWork website. Open up a spreadsheet there and the iPad will offer to open it within Numbers.

Finally, you can use the iTunes file sharing function. Plan in advance though, because you can only do this via a direct iTunes USB sync with your desktop.

Exporting Problems

After completing your work, your options for getting your spreadsheets off of your iPad are extremely limited.

Unlike the importing of a spreadsheet, Numbers does not allow exporting from the iPad into Excel format. Windows users can just sit this one out, since Numbers is not made for Windows. You can export to .pdf so the file can be read in Windows, but not edited.

Similar to the import function, you can email a copy of the spreadsheet in Numbers format or PDF via the Mail app or place it on If you want to re-edit that same file, you’ve got to import the spreadsheet again which unfortunately leaves you with multiple copies of the same spreadsheet on your iPad. The export function is designed for a final product and “sharing” isn’t really supported. Worst of all a 500K Excel converted spreadsheet was considered a “large file” and took over a minute to compile for mailing.

Using the iTunes File sharing function will prevent multiple copies of the same file, but it requires you to do a sync in order to access it. This is a cumbersome function for a mobile device and downright stupid for purchasers of MobileMe who rarely if ever sync to their desktop.

For spreadsheet novices, Numbers might be a great way to store and calculate information while on the go. If you want to actually share the spreadsheet with your desktop computer, Excel, or Windows users, wait for Quickoffice to be optimized for the iPad or another product that supports richer import and export functions.

28 Responses to “Numbers on the iPad: Doesn’t Add Up”

  1. Just started with Numbers but in trying to work with Pages on iPad did stumble upon a workaround solution for storage, etc. Using Dropbox as cloud storage, can open either Numbers or Pages file from Dropbox, make changes, then email the file in either format back to Dropbox using SendtoDropbox email address. This does end up in a different folder in Dropbox but that folder can be shared also. Until Apple addresses these issues, at least that works and Dropbox keeps different iterations of the same filename I believe.

  2. The author is WRONG. You can export the file in .XLS format in Numbers, by mailing it. You do it by going to the view that shows lists of spreadsheets and there you can mail it in various formats. This is easy to do.

  3. Considerably, the post is in reality the greatest on this worthy topic. I agree with your conclusions and will eagerly look forward to your coming updates. Just saying thanks will not just be sufficient, for the phenomenal lucidity in your writing. I will immediately grab your rss feed to stay informed of any updates. Good work and much success in your business endeavors!

  4. I will apologize in advance, but I’m an Excel junkie and trying to figure out Numbers….ONE IMPORTANT QUESTIONS I HAVE NOT FOUND AN ANSWER TO…CAN ANYONE HELP?

    In Excel you can create a “drop down” menu within a cell to create a consistant response within a field. Can a drop down menu be created in Numbers? If so, how?

  5. I was just reading the Numbers for iPad page on It says there:

    “Multiple file formats welcome.

    With Numbers on iPad, you can open Numbers and Microsoft Excel files. And it works the other way around, too. The spreadsheets you create in Numbers on your iPad can be sent as Numbers files, Excel files, or PDF documents. That way, whether you use a Mac or PC, you always have the flexibility to view and edit the spreadsheets you need right from your iPad.”

    It even shows a picture of the iPad with the Excel option.

    This seems contrary to what’s written in the blog.

    The blog says, “Numbers does not allow exporting from the iPad into Excel format.”

    Apple says, “The spreadsheets you create in Numbers on your iPad can be sent as Numbers files, Excel files, or PDF documents.”

    Maybe it’s a new feature introduced with iOS4. Maybe the blogger can comment.

  6. Is there any update on where we are at in regards to being able to send a Numbers document to Excel? Has any software been made avaialable yet that can do this?

  7. Lack of custom sort, filter and export to Excel renders the app useless for me. Can’t find an any app that will filter imported Excel sheets.

  8. Great review, some very useful info there. One thing, it seems like you pre-suppose that every Numbers user wants to export to Excel, which, at least for me, is just not the case. I will agree that the lack of MobileMe sync is a huge letdown, and I’m hoping an iDisk app for iPad is on the horizon and will rectify this situation.

    Thanks again for the info!

  9. We are talking about a 1.0 $10 software here. And, for what it’s worth, you can, though a bit round about, quite easily send to your Mac, and export from Numbers there as EXCEL or CSV.

  10. I was so looking forward to using this with dropbox… I’m guessing if it doesn’t work with iDisk, it won’t work with dropbox… or will it?

    However, I’m assuming that it is possible to keep using to export as excel? If you had to… you could export to iWork, then email yourself with the excel version and forward it on. I know this is far from ideal – but is is doable?

    I’ve tried touch typing using the landscape keyboard which is difficult to say the least, so pages will only be for emergencies.

    • No dropbox. Quickoffice does that but as of this writing does not support the iPad interface in full mode.

      Yes you can export via to excel, it’s doable but “doable” is something we generally try do avoid on the Mac and iPhone platform. “just works” is more typical language.

  11. Dave,

    Thanks for this. One of the key reasons why I would buy an iPad is so that I could leave my big laptop at home and just use it as the go-between device and also so I could always have my key documents with me in the classroom. I use Numbers for my roll books and do all kinds of fancy stuff with weighted assignments and individual student sheets, that I had hoped to be able to use as a mobile grade book on an iPad. But given that iWork documents are more or less tethered to such a degree as to make them useless, and that iPad versions of iWorks documents don’t share through MobileMe, I just can’t see this working at all. It is further my understanding that that would be the case with all my writing files as well, the articles and reviews, etc., that I write professionally. Apple is going to need to fix this and make file movement, sharing, and backing up more streamlined and intuitive. This is a major problem in the iPad design and functionality, in my opinion. For the record, however, because I would only use Keynote for iPad as a projector and not for creating/editing, I do think Keynote would still be fine, as long as it’s powerful enough to render all the widgets and do-dads accurately that I make on my MBP. But I hear that Keynote is also so stripped down that it undoes things and rearranges them when it opens a file made with the full version. I’m also worried about things like embedded media and URLs in Keynote before iPhone 4.0 comes out for the iPad next fall.