Excel vs Sheets: Differences & Similarities

Excel is a versatile tool with rich features but Sheets is great for collaboration. Which one you use depends on what you are planning to do.
Keeping track of all of your data and lists can be difficult and time-consuming. Whether you need to report thousands of statistics or just a simple personal finance spreadsheet, choosing the best spreadsheet software is critical, and it usually comes down to Excel vs Google Sheets. Both software tools are excellent choices for organizing your data into neat spreadsheets. So, we're here to assist you in determining which spreadsheet tool is truly the best!
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In terms of formulas and calculations, the similarities of Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets are very obvious and many of their characteristics are also similar. At the very core, both have data in the form of a table, or rows and columns. 

The main difference between Excel and Google Sheets is collaboration. The latter allows the owner to share links with other users, granting them permission to read or edit the sheet at the same time. In contrast, only one person can edit a file at a time in Excel.

For most professionals, it is not a question of one over the other but rather which tool to use for which particular task. Every once in a while you will find yourself making a decision about which spreadsheet you are going to use because both have their pros and cons.

In this Excel vs Sheets guide, we have done the full homework for you. You will be completely familiar with both tools' advantages and disadvantages and will be able to decide which to use in any given situation.

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Microsoft Excel versus Google Sheets

Let's compare both Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets in order to understand some basic  differences between them.

Table of comparison between Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets
Table of comparison between Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets

This was just a brief overview of some basic features. Now let us dive deeper and look at key areas that set these two great tools apart.

1. Accessibility and Cost

A key deciding factor between Google Sheets and Microsoft Excel is that Google Sheets is focused on online collaboration, whereas Microsoft Excel is mostly focused on offline work.

A basic version of Excel, Excel Online is available without a subscription. If you have a Hotmail, Live, or Outlook email account, or even an Xbox account, you already have access to the web versions of all Microsoft applications.

The deciding factor could be money. With a Google account, you can use Google Sheets for free. Excel Online is also available for free with a Microsoft account but you have to purchase or subscribe for its feature-rich desktop version.

Winner - Excel: Even though Excel is not completely free like Google Sheets, the dependability of a desktop app is invaluable! It's reassuring to know that you can access your files regardless of your internet connection.

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2. User-friendliness

Excel can be intimidating to new users. Hundreds of commands spread across multiple ribbons and tabs, as well as hundreds of formulas, complex data analysis tools, and visualization features.

Any Google Sheets vs Excel comparison would be incomplete without mentioning how user-friendly these applications are. Excel can be intimidating and it takes a lot to process! 

Excel tutorials are among the most popular on YouTube for a reason. It's a massive, complex program that can take years to truly master.

The layout and simplified toolbar system of Google Sheets is much easier on the eyes and for comprehension. Although Google Sheets does not provide as much functionality, it appears to be less intimidating, especially for beginners.

For reference, just look at the command bars for both spreadsheets below:

Excel edit toolbar showing all the tools

Microsoft Excel Ribbon is feature-rich but complex

Now let’s look at Sheets…

Excel spread sheet image

Google Sheets is definitely easier on the eye and less intimidating

Winner - Sheets: Google Sheets because it has most of the functionality many people need for their day-to-day spreadsheet requirements and it is less intimidating. In the event, however, that you are required to process complex analytics then you will have to jump into Excel.

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3. Features and functionality

At the end of the day, the application you use must be capable of the task. Your preference here will be heavily influenced by the type of work you do.

Related: How to Become an Expert in Microsoft Excel

Formulas and Processing Capability

The backbones of any spreadsheet application are its functions and formulas. They assist us in performing simple to complex calculations, automating tasks and processes, as well as organizing, sorting, and analyzing data.

Excel has over 450 functions and formulas, and new ones are added on a regular basis. Access to the best and most comprehensive library of these is priceless.

MS Excel formula toolbar

MS Excel has a massive library of formulas

Google sheets might not have as huge a library as Excel but interestingly enough it has some formulas that are very unique to it only. Sheets has a section dedicated to Google functions, such as GOOGLEFINANCE, GOOGLETRANSLATE, ARRAYFORMULA, and SPARKLINE which are all very unique tools.

M Excel google sheets with formulas

Google Sheets comes with a limited set of formulas but some are unique to it

If you prefer analyzing large datasets, you will quickly become frustrated with Google Sheets due to its cloud-based nature. Large datasets are a challenge for cloud-based apps.

Excel, on the other hand, may be overkill if you are a casual Excel user who works with smaller spreadsheets. If all you need to do is a couple of SUM calculations and some formatting, Google Sheets will suffice.

Data visualization

When it comes to data visualization, Google Sheets is limited. Excel, on the other hand, has a plethora of charts ranging from the basic column, bar, and line charts to waterfall, sunburst, and stock charts.

Excel is your best friend if you want to create visual dashboards and tell the story of your data.

Related: How to Use Excel for Business

MS Excel visualization tools

MS Excel has a wide variety of visualization tools

Tools for business intelligence

Excel includes a robust set of Business Intelligence Tools, such as Power Pivot and Power Query. These powerful utilities boost data analysis.

There are no equivalent utilities in Google Sheets, and even if there were, a cloud-based app's processing power would struggle to handle and process thousands of rows of data. Excel becomes extremely robust thanks to Power Query.

Related: Excel Data Analyst Ultimate Guide

Pivot Tables

PivotTables will be very familiar to you if you analyze data. It took some time for Google Sheets to catch up to Excel in terms of PivotTable functionality.

One advantage Google Sheets has over its rival is that PivotTables automatically update when new data is added to the source. You must remember to press the Refresh button in Excel.

Format as Table

The ability to format a range of data as a table is a powerful and useful feature in Excel. To make this idea easier to comprehend, tables can be named and referred to in formulas.

The ability of tables in Excel to auto-expand to accommodate new data is, however, their single best use. With a single click, charts and pivot tables that use table data can be updated to include the new rows.

Google Sheets automatically updates PivotTables, but there is no equivalent feature for formatting data as a table.

GoTo Special

The GoTo Special feature in Excel allows you to highlight specific cells in a worksheet based on their contents. Highlight blank cells, cells with formulas, cells with constants, and even cells with conditional formatting or errors.

This is an excellent tool for troubleshooting and completing tasks quickly. This feature is not available in Google Sheets. You can only jump to a specific cell reference.

Winner - Excel: What can excel do that google sheets can't? More formulas, more features, faster processing, and improved data visualization all set Excel apart from Sheets.

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women working on excel and discussing the project
Photo by Artem Podrez from Pexels

4. Collaboration

Most collaborative workplaces already use Google Sheets, and because it is entirely online, spreadsheets can be easily shared.

If Google Sheets' web-based nature is a disadvantage in terms of features and functionalities, it is a huge advantage in terms of collaboration. The level of collaboration that Google Sheets allows is far superior to that of Excel.

While Excel has made progress in enabling collaboration and making it easier to use, it is still not as smooth (or friction-less) as Google Sheets.

If you need to collaborate with someone using Excel, for example, these files must be saved on OneDrive or SharePoint.

While these tools are used by large enterprise clients, the majority of people are familiar with Google Drive, which is where you save your Google sheets.

Collaboration in Google Sheets is seamless, as multiple people can edit the same sheet from different devices (be it a desktop, laptop, tablet, or mobile).

You don't even need to worry about saving your Google Sheets document because it is saved in real-time. This is also available in Excel in Microsoft 365, but it is not available in previous versions.

If you are looking at getting a feel for the full Microsoft 365 suite and its potential here is a short course that can earn you a certificate while you are learning and adding critical skills for the next big job interview!

Winner - Sheets: Overall, Google Sheets has an advantage when it comes to collaboration.

4. Automation

Although Sheets may be more user-friendly for those who are already familiar with JavaScript, Excel's native automation language is a little simpler to grasp.

Automation is one area where Google Sheets and Excel differ significantly. While Excel's backend programming and automation language is VBA (Visual Basic for Applications), Google Sheets uses Google Apps script (similar to JavaScript).

While VBA is much easier to learn and use, it is only available in Microsoft applications such as Excel, Word, and PowerPoint.

So, if you only need to automate using these applications, VBA is ideal. However, if you want to automate tasks that require interaction with other applications (such as databases and web applications), VBA will be limited.

Google App Script, on the other hand, can work with a wide range of applications, but it is more difficult to learn (if you don't already know JavaScript).

Winner - Tie: Excel has recently been working on its backend, attempting to include JavaScript because it is far more robust and versatile than VBA. The target audience for Google Sheets is mostly freelancers, teachers, students, and small businesses, so they are less reliant on automation than Excel users, to begin with. A lot of Google Sheets automation is done with third-party tools like Zapier.

A data analyst working on MS Excel
Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels

5. Keyboard Shortcuts

When using Google Sheets in a Chrome tab or any other browser, such as Firefox or Brave, you can only use Google Sheets-specific keyboard shortcuts. They cannot have a keyboard shortcut that interferes with the browser or other popular web applications, limiting their options.

Excel, on the other hand, does not have such limitations. Excel also has a plethora of keyboard shortcuts that are extremely useful, which Google Sheets completely lacks. In Google Sheets, for example, there is no keyboard shortcut for pasting data as values or applying or removing filters.

So, if you're switching from Excel to Spreadsheet and are used to keyboard shortcuts, prepare to be frustrated a bit.

Winner - Excel: Because we are lazy and prefer to have everything at our fingertips. 😁 When it comes to keyboard shortcuts, Excel is the clear winner. This is one of the cases where having a standalone application is advantageous.

How to quickly choose between Excel or Sheets for a project

Was this information useful or did you get overwhelmed? This brilliant decision flowchart by Spreadsheetpoint is the ideal tool if you want to quickly take a call on which spreadsheet tool to use for any given project.

Flowchart explaining Excel can be used for any project

Source: spreadsheetpoint.com - Google Sheets vs Excel – Which Is Better In 2022?

As you can see that Excel is the preferred software if you work for a professional organization with large amounts of data that need to be analyzed in complex ways. A certification with Excel skills makes you very attractive to employers.

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Related: Are Community Colleges Accredited?

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Final Thoughts

There is no clear winner between Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets when you want to compare them side by side. It is critical to consider the context in which you will use the application when selecting it.

To summarize, both tools are excellent for their respective purposes. Excel is a more powerful tool that handles large amounts of data and is feature-rich. You also pay for this in terms of $$$. Google is free, light, great for collaboration, and user-friendly but it cannot handle very large amounts of data.

This guide has shown you the pros and cons of Google Sheets vs Excel and given you a good idea of which tool to use under which conditions.

Frequently Asked Questions

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