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Thursday, November 15, 2007, 07:00 am PT (10:00 am ET)

Road to Mac Office 2008: Excel '08 vs Numbers 1.0


Excel Charting

The second tooth in the Gallery dentures is Charts. Select a chart style by icon, and then adjust the selection areas to map cell values to the chart. You can select an overall style from the Formatting Palette, but the editing and formatting tools are limited. This feature isn't really working well enough to describe in detail yet. 

Excel 2008


Excel offers more charting types than Numbers, including radar, surface, hi-low-close stock charting, and X-Y scatter charts, as well as more preset types of standard charts. Once you begin customizing a chart however, Numbers really shows off its presentation strengths. It borrows from the advanced, intuitive charting features of Keynote, extending them to draw upon its spreadsheet data. In Numbers, you pick a basic charting style and then adjust all the parameters yourself. The tools make it easy to generate attractive charts, but Numbers needs to expand upon the included set of charting options if it wants to appeal to the higher end Excel crowd.

Like Pages, Numbers offers the same non-modal Inspector editing that makes it easy to try different settings with immediate feedback; Excel 2008 uses fully modal window controls apart from the simplistic Chart Style settings in the Formatting Palette. In Numbers, 3D charts can be tilted in space and rotated, given shadows, and chart elements can be colored or textured using a panel of drag and drop finishes (below). 

Excel 2008


Excel vs Numbers

While the two applications serve very different markets in general, Microsoft is targeting Excel for Mac 2008 toward the consumer market. Its glossy, animated candy interface suggests that Excel is designed for everyone from your little sister to your financial adviser, but it really should be focused at the serious market that needs the full range of features in Excel. The MacBU's efforts to target consumers with simplistic templates and weak presentation tools that focus on WordArt and the bubbly aquamarine interface controls seem to cheapen Excel without really making it more attractive to a wider audience.

Business users might likely be put off with all the Office 2008 interface gimmickry, which seems to introduce a lot of stability problems, particularly for Excel. Unlike Word 2008, Excel does not yet feature live window resizing. It also frequently crashes and has the overall unfinished feel of an early beta rather than development build two months away from shipping. 

A lot of Mac users rely on Excel for features that are missing from Numbers 1.0, including database integration, sophisticated formula functions, pivot tables, and specialized charting. The stability of the Office 2008 release will be very important for users who need those features. For consumers, Excel is a weak link in the Office suite. Attempts to build home and small business projects in Excel will be frustrating with the modal controls and busy Palette tools that lack the presentation functionality of Numbers.

Excel's faults happens to be the strong points of Numbers (and vice versa). Numbers makes it easy to create sharp looking presentations and reports that incorporate spreadsheet data, and it does a good job of importing most of the Excel documents consumers will run into outside of higher end financial and statistical workbooks or files that draw from external data sources. The included templates offer strong examples of practical uses for the program, and serve as functional starting points for a variety of projects common to home, education, and small business users. 

The innovative rethinking of the old VisiCalc grid in Numbers makes it much more flexible and broadly useful for more purposes than the standard spreadsheet. Its tight integration with the tools from Keynote and Pages means users learning one app will find themselves immediately productive in the others. In contrast, the new Excel frequently diverts from many of the standard and expected user interface conventions, which will be both jarring and counterintuitive to users, whether they expect it to act like Office on windows, or like other Mac applications.

Numbers and Excel don't compete head to head across the very broad market for Excel, but for uses with less technical needs, Numbers 1.0 handily beats Excel 12 as a productivity tool. Outside of that market segment, Excel faces little competition on the Mac, as the available versions of OpenOffice have serious shortcomings on the Mac platform. That might change with work on IBM's Symphony suite for corporate users and with the continued progress on other OpenOffice distributions. 

Until that happens, Excel is a critical product for a variety of Mac users, and its availability as a Universal Binary in Office 2008 will be welcomed by users with Intel Macs. For corporate users, downside to the new Excel is no more support for macros that use Visual Basic for Applications. 

Apple's iWork '08 suite, which includes Numbers 1.0, is available from Amazon.com for $69.99, an 11 percent savings. Amazon is also offering instant savings on pre-orders of the various Office 2008 for Mac bundles.

Don't forget to check out our previous Road to Office 2008 installments:
Road to Mac Office 2008: an introduction
Road to Mac Office 2008: installation and interface
Road to Mac Office 2008: Word '08 vs Pages 3.0