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Google Sheets vs MS Excel: Which Spreadsheet Tool Is Better?

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This post is part of a series called How to Use Google Sheets (Essential Tutorial Guide).
How to Use Google Sheets to Make Your First Spreadsheet
What Is Google Sheets? (Free Online Spreadsheets Tool)

Spreadsheets have many purposes. I love opening up a new spreadsheet and having plenty of room to work with data thanks to the endless rows and columns of data that make it easy to log your data.

Whether you're tracking your finances, a project, or making a list of to-dos, I think a spreadsheet is a great tool to do it with. It can scale up to hold practically as much data as you can type and evolve as your needs do.

Maybe you're trying to choose a spreadsheet app to start using for your small business or freelance practice. You know that you need a structured way to capture data and track things, but which app should you turn to?

In this tutorial, we're going to compare and contrast Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets. These are the two most popular spreadsheet platforms and many small business owners use one or the other. But, which one should you turn to when you need to build a spreadsheet? Let's find out.

Google Sheets versus Microsoft Excel

Why Use Microsoft Excel?

Let's start off by highlighting Microsoft Excel, which is certainly the leading spreadsheet app. Excel has a foothold in companies of all sizes as the spreadsheet platform of choice. The ease of use and deep history in the workplace it makes it a mainstay in a wide variety of professions.

Here are some of the reasons that you might choose Excel as your spreadsheet app of choice:

1. Excel Is Widely-Used

Even though more and more people are trying out Sheets as a spreadsheet tool, Excel has an entrenched user base that's comfortable with Excel. It takes a considerable amount of time for users to switch over to a new app and get comfortable with it.

Family Budget Screenshot
While Excel isn't the simplest tool, it's one that many people feel comfortable with, so consider keeping your spreadsheets in this format when sending and sharing.

Before you jump into using Sheets as your spreadsheet app of choice, consider who you might be passing your spreadsheet off to. Even if they use Sheets in their own time, the company might block access to their Google Drive account in the workplace for data security purposes.

It's much more likely that the person who will receive your spreadsheet is familiar with Excel than Sheets. Sending an XLSX Excel file is going to be usable by anyone with access to Microsoft Office. If you plan to send and share a spreadsheet, it's important to consider what the recipient will be comfortable working with.

2. Excel Is Fully Featured

Make no mistake: Microsoft Excel is the top-of-the-line spreadsheet app. Every app you could possibly need when working with a spreadsheet is built into Microsoft Excel.

This statement is no slight against Google Sheets, but Excel has existed since 1987 and has many years of development under its hood. Although both apps have the same basic row and column structure, the advanced features of Excel really set it apart.

When I think about some of the key features that set Excel apart, here are some of the advanced options that lock users into Excel:

  • Tools like PowerPivot and Power Query allow you to work with data sets of millions of lines and automate data transformations and updates.
  • VBA coding in Excel automates many tasks and has an active community of scripts around the web that make repetitive tasks easier.
  • Pivot Charts adapt to changing data and make it easy to create charts that automatically update as the underlying data changes.
Power Query Example
Power Query is an Excel feature that allows you to take data and apply transformations to it easily and is an important tool for working with large datasets.

Keep in mind that these are certainly more advanced features. If you just need to quickly key data into a spreadsheet and track data points, these features may never be a part of your day-to-day work. But if you plan to grow your spreadsheet to scale and do advanced work with the data, you should consider building your spreadsheet in Excel.

Make sure to check out the article below to learn more about one of the reasons that Excel's advanced features are worth considering for data cleanup and management:

3. Excel Is Advancing

A few years ago, using a browser-based spreadsheet tool meant that you would choose Google Sheet by default, as Excel in the browser wasn't yet a reality.

Now, Microsoft has pivoted its focus. It doesn't seem that their primary focus is to generate revenue from selling Windows licenses and Office upgrades every few years. Office 365 is a subscription-based version of the Office suite that includes up-to-date versions of the app at all times.

As part of that, Microsoft has launched Excel Online, which is actually free to use inside of a web browser. With a Microsoft account, you'll gain access to creating Excel spreadsheets in your browser. You'll need to pay for access to the desktop apps, but the web browser version of the app is often enough.

Excel Online Screenshot
Excel Online is a web-browser based rendition of Microsoft's leading spreadsheet software.

With Microsoft's change in business model, it's clear that there's a focus on keeping Excel up to date and expanding the devices that it can be used on. The constant addition of features to Excel Online and new features rolled out through Excel signals Microsoft's intent to continue to expand and evolve Excel.

Why Use Google Sheets?

So far, we've looked at the reasons that you'd choose Microsoft's Excel as your spreadsheet platform of choice. It's time to go to bat for Sheets, which has plenty of impressive features of its own. Google Sheets is more than just a Google version of Excel. Let's take a look at the reasons that Sheets always deserves your consideration:

1. Sheets Is Connected

Above all, a key advantage for Sheets is how well it connects and integrates with other apps. I find that most spreadsheet data isn't typed from scratch—it's usually imported from other sources like the web or other apps. 

Because Sheets can often hook directly into other data sources, it often saves a lot of time by connecting directly to other app and pulling the data into the spreadsheet.

One example of this is Sheets' integration with Google Finance. Google runs a service to track stock market data, and you can tap directly into that data inside of Sheets. Check out the tutorial below to see that feature in action:

Besides the GOOGLEFINANCE function, you can use a variety of services with Google Sheets thanks to services like IFTTT. Try out this tutorial as well to see how IFTTT can link up Google Sheets with plenty of other services and apps:

2. Sheets Is Browser-First

While it's true that Microsoft has built a browser-based version of Excel, it isn't Microsoft's focus. Google Sheets started as a spreadsheet app that works inside of a web browser, so the browser version is a first-class experience.

If you use Google Sheets, you can guarantee that all of the features will work in every browser, since it's effectively a browser-based tool. With Excel, certain features may not function properly. There's no such concern with Sheets.

Screenshots in Google Sheets
Google Sheets was built with the web browser in mind, so you don't have to worry about features missing.

Google Sheets is also totally free. Excel Online is free as well, but you won't have access to all of the features of the desktop version (which does require a license). If you're going to lose out on features anyway, why not try out Google Sheets instead?

Also, I can't stress enough the fact that Sheets automatically backs up the file to Google Drive. You don't have to worry about whether your files are stored safely since it all takes place inside of a web browser.

3. Sheets Is Simple and Evolving

Google Sheets is a pretty new tool, and that's undoubtedly one of the strongest things that it has going for it. Newer apps scrap the pre-conceived notions and programming cruft of longstanding apps. While Excel is a fully-featured app and has plenty of power, Sheets feels more friendly to new users and removes some of the barriers to getting started.

Even though Sheets is new, it doesn't scrap all of the spreadsheet features that you already know how to use. Basically, any formula or function that you know from Excel works in Sheets as well. 

Ultimately, Sheets strikes the balance between preserving spreadsheet best practices and leaving room for new features.

Google Spreadsheets vs Excel: Which Should You Choose?

There are certainly advantages to each spreadsheet app, so which one should you ultimately choose? As always, the app that you choose to use is a matter of personal preference and comes down to how you'll use it.

If your data is going to grow to many thousands of lines and you may need to perform complex analyses and calculations, Microsoft Excel is the best tool for the job. It's the tool that I'm most comfortable with simply because of the hours that I spend working in it.

But that doesn't mean that Google Sheets doesn't have a place in my day-to-day workflow. In fact, I frequently use a spreadsheet as a scratchpad and place to capture ideas. I can start with a blank slate and build out data in a structured format. 

Because I'm a Mac user and don't particularly enjoy Excel for Mac, (sorry Microsoft) Google Sheets has a place in my everyday work. I use it because it's so easy to get started with. I also love it for how lightweight it is, and how easily I can invite others to collaborate with me on it.

Both apps have plenty of utility. They also serve the same basic purpose. Personally, I want more people to consider spreadsheets as creative organizational tools. Either app that you choose is a good one to start building out data and logging ideas.

Better Together

I think it's important to acknowledge that Excel and Sheets can actually work together. You may wonder: is the Google spreadsheet compatible with Excel? In fact, Sheets supports importing and exporting files in Microsoft's XLSX spreadsheet format. Check out the two tutorials below to think about how you can weave together the two together, sending files back and forth between apps.

Recap & Keep Learning

In this tutorial, we took a detailed look at two of the leading spreadsheet apps and discussed some of the reasons that you might choose one app or the other. I gave you a brief Google spreadsheet review and a brief review of Microsoft Excel. In truth, both apps have a place in my own day-to-day life.

Check out a few of the tutorials below to learn more about both of these dynamic spreadsheet apps:

Which app do you turn to when you need to create a spreadsheet? Let me know in the comments section below whether you've got a strong preference between Google Sheets and Microsoft Excel, or if you use the two in tandem.

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