Microsoft has led the way for office software for decades. Its spreadsheet software component, Excel, has been the go-to program for millions of people ever since its introduction in 1985. While it remains a popular choice for countless PC, Mac and even mobile users, Excel and the Microsoft Office suite is relatively costly. For those who are on a tight budget, want more collaboration features or simply choose not to join the Microsoft hordes, there are a number of solid alternatives. We took a look at the top three Excel alternatives based on their ease of use, compatibility, feature sets and collaborative capabilities.
The big difference between Google Sheets and Microsoft Excel is the collaboration features. Microsoft does allow some collaboration, but it’s limited. With Excel, two people can access a file at the same time, assuming that said file is stored in OneDrive, but they can’t see each other's changes until both parties have saved the document. With Google Sheets, multiple people can access a document stored on Google Drive simultaneously – and see the changes others make in real time. Because of its heavy focus on collaboration, Google Sheets also includes a messaging system, so you can converse with anybody else who is working in the sheet without leaving the application.
For personal use, Google Sheets, Google Drive and the rest of the Google productivity apps are free to use, and you get 10GB of cloud storage. For business use, should you need more storage, branded emails or other business-focused services, plans are inexpensive and charge per user, so you can scale your plan up or down as necessary. With Excel, there isn’t so much flexibility. There isn’t a free option for the desktop software, and it’s actually quite expensive to purchase, although the monthly or yearly subscriptions reduce the cost. You can, however, sign up for OneDrive and get 5GB of storage for free, and access Excel online without charge. Excel Online isn’t as feature-rich as its desktop counterpart and doesn’t let you collaborate in real time.
Google Sheets is based in the cloud, so you do the majority of your work in your browser or via the mobile app while connected to the internet. To reduce your reliance on an internet connection, you can download Google Drive and access your stored spreadsheets offline, then simply sync them to your cloud storage when you next log in.
Sheets is compatible with many file formats, including Excel's XLS and XLSX. However, particularly large or complex spreadsheets don’t always make the transition well, with formatting lost or functions and formulas disappearing. Like Excel, Sheets offers charts and graphs, but unlike Excel, it only offers a moderate selection of traditional 2D charts. Excel offers an extensive selection of charts, including 3D and ultra-contemporary ones.
LibreOffice Calc is a popular alternative to Microsoft Excel because it’s free and powerful. This spreadsheet software is open source, so the free edition doesn’t carry any licencing restrictions, which makes it a solid Excel alternative. Microsoft’s office suite has strict licensing guidelines, with some editions limiting you to one user and one PC. This lack of strict license requirements makes LibreOffice Calc popular with home, academic and business users on a budget, along with educational establishments that can provide children with a copy of the software or request they obtain a copy without having to pay for additional licenses.
This is a desktop spreadsheet program and doesn’t offer any true collaboration features, unlike Excel, which does offer moderately useful collaboration and remote access. Calc does, however, have a Remote Files feature that lets you retrieve and save files from and to compatible cloud storage solutions like Google Drive and OneDrive. There are a number of popular cloud services it isn’t compatible with, though, such as Dropbox and Box.
Compared to Excel, Calc is inexpensive, but it doesn’t have the same level of flexibility or versatility. It can, however, open a wide range of file formats, including early Apple Numbers files. It can also convert worksheets into HTML for easy web publishing.
Apple Numbers has been a popular alternative to Excel for iOS users since its launch in the iWorks suite in 2007, thanks to its reliable cloud-based tools. It offers similar collaboration features to Google Sheets, with real-time editing and messaging. This spreadsheet app works across Windows and iOS systems, so anybody signed in to iCloud and with the proper access permissions for a shared document can access and edit it from anywhere, including mobile devices.
While it’s a fairly versatile tool, Numbers does have some restrictions, such as compatibility issues. It imports and exports common file types, but it depends on what version of Numbers you’re running: the one for Mac, iOS or iCloud. This can limit your accessibility, as some versions can only import and export XLSX files, while others can handle XLSX, XLS and PDF formats. Apple Numbers can cope with opening basic Excel files, but a number of functions, formulas and formatting options don’t import from Excel into Numbers, such as protected ranges, data validation, and database, cube and engineering formulas.
While Microsoft’s Excel is a giant among spreadsheet applications, there are a number of viable alternatives, many of which cost far less. Yes, you may find that there are a few functions that some of these alternatives can’t perform. However, for most spreadsheet demands, the alternatives listed here should be more than sufficient, particularly given the difference in cost. You may sacrifice a little advanced formatting or available chart options, but with some cloud-based options such as Google Docs, you gain a great deal in collaborative functionality that should help your team improve its performance and productivity.