Slowly, but surely, Apple's iWork is turning into a full-fledged office suite, as iWork '08 gains Numbers '08, Apple's latest foray into the world of spreadsheet programs.

So what is Numbers '08? Is it at long last Apple's replacement for the spreadsheet component of AppleWorks? Is it a direct competitor to Excel 07? Will it enable Mac users looking for alternatives to finally move from either AppleWorks or Microsoft Office to iWork?

The answer to these questions is any of yes, no and maybe, depending on your specific spreadsheet needs. Those with basic needs will be impressed with Numbers' ability to make short work of their projects. People with more complex requirements, and those hoping to migrate from Excel or AppleWorks, will find the transition more difficult. And some people - scientific users, students, and advanced Excel users in particular - may find that certain details in Numbers make it impossible to use the product in its current form.

All in the family

When you import an Excel worksheet, Numbers lets you know about trouble spots. You get both a summary sheet and in-cell flags that detail specific messages about issues with each cell.

Unlike Excel, the Numbers' work area allows for great flexibility in layout, and you can position tables exactly where you want them.

Numbers '08 is part of the £55 iWork '08, which means you have access to a lot of common features - the Inspector pane; the new Format Bar for making quick changes to common formatting settings; the Media Browser for placing artwork; powerful image-editing features such as transparency and shadows; the ability to easily place shapes; colourful and well-designed charts; and a customisable toolbar.

A new approach to spreadsheets

Traditionally, spreadsheet programs have presented users with a full-screen grid of rows and columns. Numbers '08, however, is more like a page layout program - you start with a blank canvas, into which you can drag as many tables as you need onto the work area.

Each Numbers '08 table is a miniature spreadsheet of its own, complete with its own grid of rows and columns, cell-formatting options, and row and column heights and widths. There are even handy styles, shown in the left-hand of the document window, that can be applied to any of your inserted tables. These tables are treated like separate objects, and they can be positioned anywhere on the page.

This free-form layout feature overcomes one of the big problems with traditional spreadsheet programs: it's difficult to make all of the rows and columns look attractive when printed (wide cells in one column will throw off rows above and below, for example). Since each table in Numbers '08 is an independent object, setting differing heights and widths for rows and columns has no impact on other tables, and you can easily align tables wherever you want them on the page.

If you're an experienced spreadsheet user, you may find that Numbers '08's new approach takes some getting used to - it's visually very different from an Excel or AppleWorks spreadsheet module. It's worth the effort, though, because it provides real flexibility and aesthetic value.

Time-saving templates ease workload

Templates for spreadsheet programs aren't new; Excel has had them for years. What is new with Numbers '08 is the quality of the provided templates, thanks in part to the flexibility of the spreadsheet anywhere design of the program, and in part to the skill of Apple's designers.

When starting a Numbers '08 project, you can choose from 18 templates spread across four categories, covering typical projects from Budget to Travel Planner to Science Lab. Within each template, you'll find well-designed worksheets, with comments that help explain how they work. Plug in your numbers, customise the graphics, and you're ready to print without any further work. You can even save your own customised templates (with the Save As Template command), and from then on they'll be available in the Template Chooser.

Useful new data features

In addition to rethinking the basics of spreadsheet layout, Numbers '08 provides some new ways of working with the numbers on the spreadsheet itself. Drag-and-drop formulae, for instance, make it simple to place a sum, average, minimum, maximum or count formula on your worksheet. Highlight a column of numbers, and you'll see the current value for each of those formulas in the lefthand sidebar. Just drag-and-drop the one you'd like to use into an empty cell on your worksheet, and you're done.

There are also four special formats you can apply to cells via the Inspector: Pop-up Menu, Checkbox, Stepper and Slider. The first two are self-explanatory; Stepper and Slider are methods of quickly changing a value within a cell.

When you apply a Stepper or a Slider to a cell, you specify a minimum value, maximum value and step size. When you click on a cell with a Stepper format, an up/down arrow pair appears next to the cell; click and hold the arrows to increase or decrease the value in the cell. Click on a Slider-formatted cell, and you can then pull a sliding dot on a bar to the left and right to change the cell's values. Both are great ways to see what effect a range of values will have on your model's results.

Drop-down menus on row and column headers make it easy to sort, add, delete and hide rows and columns. You can also add rows and columns by simply dragging and resizing the corners of the table.

Printing has also been given special attention in Numbers '08. Instead of setting a print range, a special Print View lets you see and control exactly how your printout will appear. This mode is fully interactive, so you can rearrange your document as you wish, and a scaling slider at the bottom of the screen resizes your output in real time as you change the scaling factor. The downside of this method is that you can't easily print just one section of your document, unless you can scale it so that it takes up a full page. Instead, you'll have to design your document such that the one section you wish to print is on a page of its own.

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