Spreadsheets are ubiquitous: people use them every day to track inventory, budgeting, data tracking and a million other things. And while Microsoft Excel has been the spreadsheet of choice for years, there are other (free) alternatives you might like more.
Whatever your reason for using a spreadsheet, chances are you've ever used Microsoft Excel. And while the software is more than capable of tackling anything you throw at it (even Grandma's knitting patterns and your little brother Minecraft's building plans), Excel is expensive and even lacks a few features that make it more useful would make. Fortunately, there are plenty of free alternatives available, many of which are equally powerful and easy to use.
What to Look for in a Microsoft Excel Alternative
Free spreadsheet software should be as powerful as paid options and come packed with all the tools you need to spread your heart out. Here are the main features that good spreadsheet software should provide and why they are important:
- an intuitive interface: spreadsheets are designed to handle complex tasks, but that doesn't mean the software itself should be clunky or difficult to use. The best Excel alternatives have a sleek modern look and smart tool organization and are filled with a ready-made artillery of built-in formulas, functions and templates. The software must also have cross-platform support so that you can access it from anywhere.
- Live Collaboration Support: If your team needs to collaborate through a spreadsheet, it is imperative that the software support concurrent collaboration. Likewise, the program should also be able to keep track of who makes what change and when and allow you to lock individual cells (or the entire document) so that no unwanted changes can be made. It should also allow you to set the spreadsheet as read-only and enable other permissions for users.
- Powerful Functions and Formulas: Whether you keep stock inventory, handle accounting for your department, or graph data for an upcoming presentation, your spreadsheet software must have a wide variety of formulas ready. Basic options for simple math are a given, but if you need something more advanced, such as statistical or logic functions, or the ability to create a custom function, the software should be able to handle that too.
- Dynamic images: Not that it's not much fun looking at thousands of cells with text and numbers, but graphs and charts are a little easier on the eyes. Visuals show you data at a glance and are an indispensable item for presentations. Good Microsoft Excel alternatives support dynamic charts and graphs that are updated in real time as your data does and should allow for extensive customization so that you can make your images look and work exactly the way you need them.
- Advanced Features: Most people will probably never bother with the advanced features of most spreadsheet software, such as custom macros, filters, pivot tables, conditional formatting, or the ability to calculate large data sets and to analyse. However, it's nice to know that those features are there when and when you need them.
Best cloud-based Excel alternative: Google Sheets
Google Sheets (free) has become as well known as Microsoft Excel. Google users already have access to this app, and the ability to integrate with other Google products (such as Google Forms and Google Data Studio) makes it easier to stay on track while working on your projects. Spreadsheets also stores everything you create in the cloud, so you can access your spreadsheets from any desktop, iOS or Android device.
The software is easy to navigate and use with its sleek and minimal appearance. Simultaneous collaboration support is great for teams, and it even has a built-in group chat room where everyone on your team can talk about the document while working. You can comment on cells and set specific user rights for individual cells or the entire document. A robust Help section for Sheets is also ready to help if you have any questions.
Spreadsheets has plenty of built-in formulas, as well as plenty of pivot tables, conditional formatting options, and templates that can save you time and effort. It includes robust customizable graphs and charts for visualizing your data, which are dynamically updated like your data. Google Sheets also stores detailed documentation of changes and supports version control.
Best for Apple Users: Apple iWork Numbers
Apple's version of Excel, iWork Numbers (free), is available to anyone with an iCloud- account (including PC users), but the mobile app is only available for iOS users (sorry, Android). Numbers, of course, supports the Apple pencil, so if you're working from your iPad, you can take notes and draw diagrams manually. The app also supports real-time collaboration, shows you real-time operations, and lets you save and export documents as Excel files if you need to work with anyone using Excel. If you want to keep an important document safe in Numbers, you can lock it with a password, Touch ID or Face ID.
In the true minimalist form of Apple, the standard of Numbers is a blank sheet instead of a grid (as Excel and its alternatives offer), and the features are sparse and minimally represented. If needed, you can easily add charts, tables, and other content or choose a template to get started. Numbers has over 700 customizable shapes that you can shape for data visualization, as well as plenty of options to customize the display of fonts, tables, and cell borders. The app's tools can handle complex functions and formulas, and the Smart Categories feature provides table layout and summaries for deeper insight into your data.