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.

Usage

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 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 iWork.com. 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.

 
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