Meeting Topic: Apple’s Numbers Spreadsheet App

March 21, 2017 Meeting Topic Overview: Numbers

by Jamie Cox

The current version of Numbers as of March 2017 is 4.0.5.

There are three ways to run Numbers:

  • On the Macintosh
  • On iOS (iPhone or iPad)
  • From a Web Browser on iCloud

 How to Get Numbers

Numbers probably came with your Mac or iOS device, or get Numbers via the Mac App Store ($19.99), or get Numbers  via the iTunes App Store ($9.99).

Competition / Alternatives to  Numbers

Controversy Since iWork ’09

When the new version of Numbers for the Mac came out some features were dropped. Most of them have not been added back in. Reviews of the apps have been definitely mixed. Numbers only gets a 3-star rating on the App store (both versions).

3 stars

Ratings for Numbers on the Mac App Store

Two-and-a-half to three stars is a pretty terrible rating, especially for an Apple app. As you can see, the ratings are very mixed with most reviewers giving either one star or five-star ratings. The ratings for the iOS version are very similar.

Guide to Star Ratings

The one-star reviews are mostly from people upset about advanced features removed from the previous version. The five-star reviews tend to be from people who have come to the application fresh, with no special expectations.

Numbers includes hundreds of distinct features. The chart below highlights just a few of my favorite features as compared with Microsoft Excel.

Comparison of Features Between Numbers and Microsoft Excel

Documents, Sheets and Tables

Numbers documents can have multiple sheets. Each sheet can have multiple tables. When you create a new Numbers document, it has one sheet with one table on that sheet.

If you have used Excel, having multiple sheets should be familiar. The main difference is that the sheets appear at the top of the window instead of at the bottom.

The concept of having multiple tables on a single sheet may be new to users of older spreadsheet programs. It is a very nice feature, which allows you to separate groups of data or  formulas which are of different types instead of lumping them all into the same grid of rows and columns. You can arrange the tables on the page however you like.

This document has two sheets. Sheet 1 has two tables.


Formatting Controls

Table Style Controls

Numbers uses a consistent set of formatting controls very similar to those in the Pages word  processor we discussed last month. These are presented  in a pane on the right hand side of the window. These controls look simple, but all together, they have a lot of power. In addition to the pre-defined Table and Text styles, you can create and save your own preferred styles.

Formula Editing

Type an equals sign to enter formula editing mode for a cell. Color coding appears showing the source cells used in your formula. This  makes it easier to understand if your formula is correct or to see the source  of errors.

When you copy or fill a formula into additional cells, Numbers automatically adjusts cell references relative to the current cell. If you want to override that to select an absolute row,  absolute  column, or absolute cell, you can use the Preserve Row/Preserve Column options.

The Numbers Formula Editor

Importing Files From Excel

A common task in Numbers would be to open an Excel document created by someone else. This can work fairly well, but is not completely painless.

Original Excel Template on left, Numbers Import on right

This imported okay, and the amortization calculations agreed, but the date formulas were not imported correctly and would have to be re-done in numbers.

Large Files

One of our members asked how Numbers was at handling large files imported from Excel. To test this I created a large spreadsheet in Excel with 40,000 rows and about 14 columns. The file size in Excel was 3.7 Megabytes. Numbers opened it without complaint, but it took about 30 seconds. When saved as a native Numbers document, its size increased to 6.3 Mbytes, but the native document opened in Numbers in about five seconds.

Although I didn’t get any warnings in Numbers, I did get one “Not enough memory” message in Excel while cutting, pasting and filling to create the document. Excel handled it gracefully without crashing.

iOS Numbers App

The Numbers app on iOS is deliberately very similar to the version for  Macintosh.

Numbers App on iPhone

FYI, Excel also has an iOS app which is free in the App store. It looks like this:

Excel on the iPhone

The Excel app is apparently read-only until you register for and log in to a Microsoft Office 365 account.


If you want a spreadsheet program to perform the usual tasks of calculation, sorting and organizing, and you don’t have much prior experience with spreadsheets,  you will find Numbers a very useful application. It’s especially easy to learn because of consistent controls across Mac and iOS versions and consistency with Pages and Keynote.

If you know what a pivot table is, or have a lot of spreadsheets already in Excel format, you may be dissatisfied with the limitations of Numbers.


One thought on “Meeting Topic: Apple’s Numbers Spreadsheet App

  1. Harry Smith

    The recent update is a disaster. I have been using spread sheets for over 30 years starting with Super Calc and lotus and excel. The latest version of numbers is not as good as Super Calc.


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