Comparing Excel, Excel Online, and Microsoft 365
Microsoft Excel is a member of the Office Suite of applications. Being the most popular spreadsheet software, it is used by over 750 million persons across the globe. The first version of Excel was introduced in 1985.
Excel Online is a free, browser-based version of Excel with limited features and a simpler interface. It debuted in 2010 in response to Google Sheets and is roughly comparable in functionality. Excel Online stores files in the cloud on OneDrive and restricts access to those with a Microsoft account.
Microsoft 365 (formerly called Office 365) is a subscription software-as-a-service (SaaS) tool that provides the latest version of the Excel app (as well as the rest of the Microsoft Office suite). You must have a Microsoft account to access Office 365. For the most part, Office 365 subscribers and owners of the standalone app work with the same features, but Office 365 offers the ability to host a real-time
What Is Google Sheets?
Google Sheets debuted in 2006 as a free browser-based app. Like Excel Online, it has a limited feature set in comparison to Excel but strives to be more user-friendly. At launch, Sheets was not as powerful as Excel, but it has made great strides since then. Users can store files in the cloud (on Google Drive), and they must have a Google account to access the app.
Are Google Sheets and Excel the Same?
Though Excel and Sheets are both spreadsheet tools and are used for many of the same purposes, they are made by two different companies, and each has its strengths. For example, Excel (as an app and as part of Office 365) tries to cover every scenario, while Sheets promotes simplicity and ease of use (as does Excel Online). If you’re familiar with one app, you should be able to work with the other, but you will need to adjust to certain features, such as different menu organization.
What Is the Difference Between a Spreadsheet and Excel?
Excel is brand of spreadsheet program. It’s the best-known, though not the first — that honor goes to VisiCalc, which came out in 1979 on the Apple II. It has since become the de facto standard. Just like some people use “Hoover” to refer to all brands of vacuum machines, others use “Excel” to refer to any digital spreadsheet.
What are some good uses for spreadsheets?
Spreadsheets can be used for a variety of tasks, from complex calculations (for example, a financial controller predicting a company’s profitability based on fluctuating variables or calculating a factory’s power usage) to simpler tasks (such as a person managing their record collection or to-do lists). More common tasks include the following:
- Analyzing statistics
- Creating custom budgets
- Creating mailing lists
- Creating small-business invoices
- Documenting standard operating procedures
- Generating code, keywords, and lists
- Keeping records
- Managing personal finance
- Managing projects
- Storing, sorting, analyzing, and filtering data
- Tracking household budgets
- Tracking inventory
- Tracking time worked
Comparing Excel to Google Sheets
Both software tools are a great option for organizing your information into neat spreadsheets. But which software should we use?
Google Sheets, Excel, and Excel Online perform similar functions, but each has strengths and weaknesses. In general, Excel has more functions than Sheets or Excel Online, such as advanced conditional formatting and the ability to track dependencies, as well as more robust graphs and picture creation options. Sheets is known for having a simpler interface than Excel and, to a lesser extent, Excel Online.
In the following chart and paragraphs, you’ll find information on the features in each tool. For the purposes of this chart, Excel includes Office 365, while Sheets and Excel cover the respective mobile apps.
|Feature||Google Sheets||Excel||Excel Online|
|Online security||HTTPS, encrypted data||N/A||HTTPS, encrypted data|
|Document security available||N/A||Encrypted data available||N/A|
|Maximum file size||Five million cells (created) or 400,000 cells uploaded||2GB||5MB|
|Latency||Increases when documents become more complex||Low||Increases when documents become more complex|
|Pivot tables||Create and use||Create and use||Use|
|Revision history||Yes||N/A||Yes (through OneDrive)|
|Integrated forms/surveys||Numerous survey and form options||N/A||Limited surveys via OneDrive|
|Work offline (e.g., is connectivity required)||Yes, but must be set up in advance and only via Chrome browser and a browser extension||Yes||Yes|
The ability to customize the app interface is important to some users. If you’re one of those people, then Excel is probably the way to go.
- Excel allows you to add function buttons to a quick-access toolbar and to create new tabs on the ribbon to group related functions. Excel also allows you to customize more default settings (like the theme and the default number of tabs on a new spreadsheet), and feedback with animation (e.g., pop-up windows appear to grow rather).
- Sheets has only a couple of options, including whether to make documents available for editing offline and whether recently used templates appear when creating a new document.
- Excel Online has no customization options.
Macros and Scripting
Macros are recorded scripts that allow you to repeat a series of steps, such as importing a .csv document, changing the font of the column headers, adding sums at the bottom of each column, then saving the document to a shared drive. Many users create macros by recording the steps they want to reuse. Macros are stored in a scripting language that advanced users can edit; they can also create original macros in the language.
Excel has included macros since it first launched in 1987, using the scripting language Visual Basic for Applications (VBA). You cannot create macros in Excel Online.
Excel Online can open Excel documents that contain macros, but you can’t use, edit, or delete the macros.
Because Excel and Sheets use different languages, macros created in one app won’t work in the other.
Due to its long history with macros, as well as its extensive support documentation and expertise, Excel is the better option if you use a lot of macros. If you are an occasional macro user, any of the apps will likely meet your needs.
Charts and Graphs
Excel, Excel Online, and Google Sheets all support charts, but differ in the types of charts they work with and their customization options.
Overall, Excel offers the most chart types, followed by Sheets (Google is working to close the gap with Excel), and lastly Excel Online. All applications include common chart types, such as bar, column, pie, line, scatter, and area charts.
Some of the differences are explained below:
- Sheets has two Scatter Plot charts, Excel has seven, and Excel Online has five.
- Sheets and Excel allow the creation of sparklines, but Excel Online doesn’t (it displays them if the spreadsheet was created in Excel but converts them to noneditable images). Sparklines are small line graphs that appear in a cell next to the data.
- Excel and Sheets have histograms, but Excel Online doesn’t.
- Excel offers the most chart customization options.
- You must create flow charts and Gantt charts manually in all three apps.
- Excel has a recommended charts feature, which changes based on the data you select.
- Excel offers combination charts, which combines two chart types into one.
Charts you create in one app might display correctly in the others, but there’s no guarantee. If someone sends you spreadsheets with charts, it’s best to open them in the app in which they were created.
Excel, Excel Online, Office 365, and Sheets allow multiple users to share documents, but each app handles sharing differently.
Because the apps store documents on the cloud, sharing is built into Sheets and Excel Online.
Users of the standalone Excel app can share documents that are stored on a shared drive like OneDrive or SharePoint. Otherwise, users have to download and email them, thus creating multiple copies and potentially leading to issues with version control.
All versions of Excel and Excel Online allow you to share documents with users who don’t have a Microsoft account. They view it through their browser if they don’t have Excel.
Likewise, Sheets allows you to share documents with users who don’t have a Google account.
In real-time collaboration, multiple users interact with the same document at the same time. This is a powerful feature for team projects and documents that require input from multiple parties.
Collaboration is built into Google Sheets. A different-colored cursor indicates what cells other users are working in, but you can’t immediately see who made changes.
Excel Online also has collaboration built in: Users can see others’ work and who made which changes.
Users of the standalone Excel app can’t host a co-authoring session (Microsoft’s term for real-time collaboration).
Excel Online users, Office 365 subscribers with the latest version of Excel, and iOS and Android app users can host co-authoring sessions, but under a number of conditions:
- Office 365 subscribers, Excel Online users, and users of the iOS or Android apps can be co-authors.
- Users of the standalone Excel app can be co-authors as long as they have Excel 2010 or higher.
- Depending on what version and platform each person is using, the host may not be able to see what others are doing in real time, though their changes will appear.
- Because of the variances in available functions, features, and charts between versions, users may not be able to properly view all documents on which they are collaborating.
Sheets and Excel Online have built-in chat windows that users can access during collaboration.
Formulas and Functions
Formulas are one of the most valuable features of any spreadsheet tool. For example, if you have a spreadsheet full of customer information, you can use the VLOOKUP formula to find everyone with a birthday in the next month and list their email addresses to send them a greeting.
In the past, Excel had a big advantage in the sheer number of formulas, but Sheets has been making an effort to catch up. Currently, Excel has 477 formulas, Excel Online has 471, and Sheets has 432. Each app has some formulas that don’t exist in the others. In certain cases, the same formula has a different name, so it’s tough to make a one-to-one comparison. If you have a newer version of Excel (e.g., 2013 or 2016), some formulas and functions are not available; they are noted in the list linked above.
Each app has a couple of options for cost. They range from free to a large one-time payment to a recurring monthly (for businesses) or yearly (for consumers) fee. Users should be able to find an option that fits their needs and resources. Check the chart below to see what’s available.
|Google Sheets||Excel||Excel Online||Office 365|
In the following chart, you’ll find a list of advanced features that might help power users choose an app. Excel also covers Office 365, but the features below are available in either the Sheets or Excel mobile apps.
|Feature||Google Sheets||Excel||Excel Online|
|Does it support automated workflow management?||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Does it support defined ranges?||Create and view||Create and view||View|
|Does it allow you to create a button to trigger a macro?||Yes||Yes||No|
|Does it support adding text to columns?||No||Yes||No|
|Does it support duplicate removal?||No||Yes||No|
|Does it support autofill?||No||Yes||No|
|Does it support Power Pivot?||No||Yes||No|
|Does it support Power Query?||No||Yes||No|
|Does it support Pivot Charts?||No||Yes||No|
|Does it support Power View?||No||Yes||No|
|Does it support filtering?||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Data updating with other suite apps?||Yes||only if the 2 files are on the same drive.||Yes|
Integration with Other Apps
Sheets and Excel can also be integrated with other apps and services (such as IFTTT), though others may require a third-party service like Zapier. If you’re concerned about a specific app or service, some quick online research will help you determine if it will connect.
Why Do many People Stick with Excel?
Though it’s becoming easier to move back and forth between Sheets and Excel, some users have decided to stick with Excel. Beyond habit or the labor of switching, here are other reasons users often stick with Excel:
- Excel has more features.
- Excel is more widely adopted, so the help and support network is better and knowledge bases are more extensive.
- At launch, Sheets was far behind Excel, and some users have never revisited the app to view the updates.
- Sheets lacks some features that are important to the user, and add-ons are hard to find.
- Excel can calculate faster with larger and more complicated files than other applications.
- Excel is used by larger companies, so employees have to work with it.
- For security reasons, some companies don’t allow employees to access Google Drive.
- Older Excel documents (e.g., those from 1997 to 2003) may not function properly in Sheets, but they work in Excel.
- When opening an Excel document in Sheets, only simple formatting is allowed.
- When importing documents into Sheets, there’s no error troubleshooting like there is in Excel.
- Opening or converting Excel (e.g., .xls or .xlsx) documents into Sheets may change formatting or remove charts.
- Excel traces dependencies; Sheets doesn’t.
- While collaborating in Sheets, you can’t see who made a change.
- Microsoft’s cloud services have more users than Google’s does.
- Excel more easily integrates with other Microsoft Office apps, such as Word and PowerPoint.
- Excel has better filtering options.
- Excel has better sorting options.
- OneDrive can automatically sync with the PC (as long as there is an internet connection).
- Excel storage is limited by only the space on your hard drive.
Why Do Some People Move to Google Sheets?
While a lot of people stick with Excel, many have switched to Google Sheets. Some surveys have shown people prefer Sheets over Excel for the following reasons:
- Google Sheets can be easier to learn than Excel.
- Sheets can be accessed via a web browser.
- Sheets has a less-cluttered interface than Excel does.
- Sheets pioneered real-time collaboration.
- Users may choose Sheets if the people with whom they work and share documents also use it.
- It’s easier to collaborate on team projects with Sheets than with Excel.
- Small businesses that are cost-conscious can get a practical solution for free.
- Sheets allows workers to easily collaborate from any location.
- Collaboration can be difficult when users have different versions of Excel.
- Cloud storage eliminates need to back up files on a shared drive or a portable hard drive.
- Unsecured files on a PC are vulnerable.
- Two-factor authentication is available.
- Built-in revision history (available under File > Revision history). To do this in Excel, you need to save each new version with a different name.
- Sheets integrates with other Google apps.
- You can see your collaborators’ changes in real time.
- Sheets has a built-in chat window.
Can I open Excel documents in Google Sheets?
To open an Excel document in Sheets, you must first upload it to Google Drive. Open Google Drive, click New, click File Upload, and select the document. Then open Sheets and choose one of the following options:
To edit the document, click File, click Import, then select the document.
To view the document, click File, click Open, then select the document. If you change your mind about editing, click the “Open with Google Sheets” button.
Can I open Google Sheets documents in Excel?
To open Google Sheets documents in Excel, you first have to export the document from Google Sheets and save it to an Excel-accessible location (such as your hard drive). In Google Sheets, click File, click Download as, click Microsoft Excel (.xlsx), and choose where to save it. Then open Excel, click File, click Open…, and select the document you saved.
What happens when I open an Excel document in Excel Online?
Some formatting may not transfer over, and charts or functions that aren’t supported by Excel Online won’t work.
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Who is Excel for?
Microsoft Excel has a strong grip on the professional world. This software is best for larger companies handling massive amounts of data. Excel is definitely more expensive than Google sheets, but you get a lot more bang for your buck. If you need to perform advanced calculations or create personalized charts for professional presentations, investing $110 in this software will be worth it, considering Sheets lacks in all these facets. If, however, you aren’t working with lists thousands and thousands of rows long, you may want to consider the following.
Beyond the items that are free, there’s limitation with free Google Sheets in the available storage.
Here are the other pricing options:
Who is Sheets for?
Google sheets is great for those with modest spreadsheet requirements and those who need to effectively collaborate on their spreadsheets. It will get the simpler jobs done without the expense you pay for Excel. I would recommend Sheets to individuals or spouses keeping track of personal finances, or smaller scale businesses who don’t work with large amounts of data.
In the case of Microsoft Excel vs Google Sheets, there is no clear winner. When choosing software, it is important to consider the context you will be using it in.
Why Pick Google Sheets
Google’s free-of-cost, easy-to-use platform means you don’t need to spend extra time or money teaching yourself and your employees how to use it.
Because it is limited in function and customization, I would recommend this software to students, freelancers, or smaller to mid-sized businesses with modest data requirements.
Some companies and individuals will find its features sufficient because it does offer a lot of the same basic options as Excel, just not all of them.
If you need to keep track of a few lists/data sets that aren’t thousands of rows long, you will find that Google Sheets is a good option for you.
Why Pick Excel
If you are part of a company that does a lot of in-depth data analysis and number crunching, you should probably invest in Microsoft Excel.
Excel was built to store and work with massive amounts of data, so you know it won’t slow down or get glitchy as you enter more and more data.
This is not to say Excel is only for large enterprises with large amounts of data. You may just be an individual who needs a software with serious calculation tools. In that case, Excel is the right choice for you.
In the case of Excel vs Google Sheets, both software is great in terms of core features. At the end of the day, what differentiates the two is how they handle data. If your business needs some serious calculations with a lot of data, then Excel is a must-have. If not, you can always use Google Sheets, since it’s free, and switch to Excel if you ever need better computational power.
Microsoft Excel has much evolved in recent years. With the introduction of power Query, Power Pivot and Dynamic arrays functions, the usefulness of Excel has grown exponentially. Professional spreadsheet users have a definite preference to Excel specially with the easy integration with Power BI functionality.