Despite the concept of spreadsheets on home computers being popularised by Dan Bricklin's VisiCalc on the Apple II, the modern Mac user is hardly inundated with software of this type.
Perhaps this is because spreadsheets are seen as unglamorous and dull, at odds with the Mac's creative image. The two most popular Mac-based spreadsheet programs are Microsoft Excel and Apple Numbers, but Tables is gunning for them both.
It's fair to say that Tables does little handholding: upon first launching, you're presented with a blank spreadsheet and a toolbar sporting a search field and a handful of icons. Spreadsheet newcomers may find this daunting, since there are no templates or example files, although the built-in documentation is pretty good at running through the basics.
In use, Tables is friendly. It boasts a clean, modern, Mac-like interface, which matches the competition's - perhaps a little too closely at times, since the inspector palette (used to amend document, item and component settings and styles) is reminiscent of those in iWork. Like Apple's suite, Tables enables you to open multiple instances of this palette - useful for users who require specific options to be permanently visible.
Organising data in Tables is simple, and although it's a fraction of the cost of Excel, it still boasts over 100 functions for enabling you to apply formulae to chunks of data. Although you can type these in yourself, Tables includes a searchable Function window, which organises functions into categories and provides an overview of what each one is designed for.
As good as the competition?
Unfortunately, Tables falls short of Excel and Numbers regarding sorting: although creating an autofilter is easy, you're only provided options for ascending or descending sorts, or displaying all instances of a value (on a per-column basis, so sorts can at least be combined).
Although spreadsheets are primarily about number crunching, any program worth its salt provides formatting and styling capabilities, and Tables doesn't disappoint here. Fonts, styles, cell formatting and colours are straightforward to amend, and a Styles drawer provides a means of storing favourite styles, which can be applied to selected cells via the click of a mouse.
Images and PDFs can be added to a document, and a chart can be created simply by selecting a data range, choosing an option from the Chart menu, and using an inspector palette to format it to taste.
Charts highlight a couple of minor drawbacks of Tables - you're limited to a handful of built-in colour schemes, and dates aren't presented intelligently on an x-axis (a trait Numbers shares) - but creating them is simple, and the chart types are plentiful enough.
Further visual enhancements are available via the Graphic inspector, which enables drop-shadows, stroke-lines and opacity settings to be applied to graphical components.
For anyone considering switching from another app, compatibility is of greater concern than style, and Tables does as well as you'd expect. Excel spreadsheets open and retain their various formulae.
Export to XLS, PDF and CSV works well, although there's no option to save in the format used by Numbers, nor to import documents created in Apple's application.
Overall, despite some flaws, Tables impresses. To some extent, it appears to bridge a gap between Excel and Numbers, offering elegance, strong functionality and ease of use. Home users who need a spreadsheet app would be mad not to give Tables a shot.