Apple Numbers review: Download for iOS, but wait on the Mac

Another useful feature that comes with making the iOS and Mac versions the same, is that your work is synced across all devices through iCloud Drive and you don't lose your formatting or layout when switching. This means that changes you make to a spreadsheet on your iPad will be reflected in the same spreadsheet on your Mac, iPhone or even the Web version of Numbers, which you can access on any platform or browser at iCloud.com. Also, with the release of iOS 8 and Mac OS X Yosemite, you can start work on one device, then use Continuity features to handoff to another, picking up right where you left off.

Numbers (iOS)
You can work on a spreadsheet you have saved from another device or start a new one from scratch. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

New features in the latest version

Since its launch in 2013, Apple has been adding new features (and some old ones) to bring the Mac version closer to what it was in iWork '09 and making the iOS versions stronger. The additions of column and row labels in tables, the capability to instantly rearrange data in tables with a new transpose feature and inter-table alignment guides have all been added since the initial release in 2013.

With iOS 8 and Yosemite, all iWork apps now have support for iCloud Drive and you can now use third-party storage apps like Dropbox. Sharing has improved with Handoff features (for sharing with yourself, if you will) and the apps give you more sharing options that let you send through third-party services, such as Gmail.

The iPad already had a slightly richer set of features than the iPhone, including the Intelligent Keyboard and better template selections mentioned above. The latest version adds a custom color mixer to the iPad version, and you can sample colors in your documents using the color picker and then apply them to charts or graphs to give them a unified look.

You also can take photos and videos from within the app, insert inline images in tables and the tools for resizing and positioning charts are more precise than before.

So, while the Mac version continues to lag behind iWork '09, it's improving with every update. But iOS versions keep getting better, making working while on the go easier than ever.

Some notes about the Mac version

All of the iWork apps including Pages, Numbers and Keynote, were rebuilt from the ground up to share the same features across Mac and mobile so you could do the same things on any device, but in that process, the Mac version ended up with fewer features. There are already a ton of complaints on the Web specifically from Mac users, and they have a point: Ever since Apple updated all the iWork apps in 2013, the Mac version doesn't have as many features as it did in iWork '09.

Though it's of little consolation for Mac users, what's most likely going to happen is that Apple will add in new (and old) features that make sense on each platform. In an attempt to keep users of the older versions happy, Apple has left iWork '09 alone (not replacing it with the upgrade), so if you miss certain functionality, you can still use the older version. Obviously, it's not an ideal situation for users, but there are going to be some growing pains for the time being after making the apps on both platforms share features and functionality.

So, the bottom line is, if you use Numbers on your Mac, I do not recommend you pay for the latest version of the app unless you can download it for free on a new Mac. More changes will come, but if you have a specific function you need for your work that's not supported in the new version, you'll have to go back to iWork '09.


Numbers (iOS)
Collaborate with others by using the share button in the upper right. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

How does it compare with Google Docs?

Now that the iWork apps are free for some, Google's set of productivity tools are an obvious comparison. Both sync across devices using their own cloud services (iCloud and Google Drive). So you do have the option to use spreadsheet tools for free via the Google Drive app. But the new Numbers is a better experience with several pre-made templates, a smarter layout of tools, and a more elegant interface design than what you see on the Google Docs spreadsheet tools -- even on the desktop.

It's also important to note that the new iWork apps are only free for people who buy new Apple devices, or those who have already bought the earlier versions of the apps. In other words, people who don't have a new device or the previous versions of the iWork apps will still have to pay. The new versions are useful on iOS and I still recommend you get them, even with the steep $9.99 price tag because they're worth it for the templates, the touch-friendly interface, and the Apple ecosystem that works seamlessly across apps and devices.

Conclusions

Though it's not as feature rich as desktop spreadsheet software like Excel, Numbers is a great way to create and work with spreadsheet data on the go. With a touch-screen interface that's stunningly intuitive, and compatibility with the most-used office suites, business users will appreciate Numbers on their iOS device of choice. It's also an excellent way to make good looking charts and forms quickly because it has great looking included templates.

Unfortunately, for Mac users the new version still hasn't caught up to iWork '09 as far as the feature set, but the update doesn't replace your existing install, so you can still use iWork '09 until the new version catches up. Though it's of little consolation to Mac users right now, Apple says many of the older iWork '09 features (along with new ones) will be coming to the Mac version as more updates roll out.

Still, even with the Mac issues, the new version of Numbers for iOS is an improvement over previous versions, with more templates, better touch-based tools, and features that will make your data-driven documents stand out.