Collaboration among team members is an important feature, especially in companies where not all the employees work out of the same building — or even the same city. I tested how well Excel and Google Sheets let me work on the same document simultaneously with others, making edits, seeing what edits other people are making, and chatting with them while working.
When it comes to live collaboration, Microsoft Office has traditionally lagged behind Google’s G Suite. Although collaborative online editing has been available to Office users in some form since 2013, live collaboration wasn’t incorporated into the desktop clients until Office 2016 was released in late 2015 – and even then Excel was left out in the cold.
In July 2017, Microsoft finally brought live collaborative editing features into the Excel desktop client for Windows – but only for Office 365 subscribers who have updated to Version 1707 Build 8326.2058 or later. (At some point Microsoft will roll out the feature to the non-subscription version of Excel, but the company isn’t saying exactly when.)
I tested live collaboration from both the latest Excel 2016 desktop client and in a browser using Excel Online.
Whether you’re collaborating from the desktop client or Excel Online, the spreadsheets you want to share must be stored on OneDrive, OneDrive for Business, or SharePoint Online. And if you’re using the desktop client, you’ll need to set the AutoSave slider located in the upper-left corner of your Excel window to “On.”
For Office 365 subscribers who have Version 1707 Build 8326.2058 or later, here’s how to share a spreadsheet from within the Excel desktop client: Click the Share button on the upper-right of the Excel screen. The Share pane opens. Enter the email addresses of the people with whom you want to collaborate in the “Invite people” box and type in a message if you want. By default, the people you share the document with can edit the document, but if you want, you can give them read-only access by clicking “Can edit” under the recipients list and choosing “Can view” from the drop-down list that appears. There is no option for allowing people to comment but not edit the spreadsheet.
When you’re done, click the Share button. (For more detailed instructions, see “How to use Excel’s new live collaboration features.”)
Sharing an Excel spreadsheet using the web-based version of Excel is very similar, although the interface looks a little different. Click the Share button at the top right of the screen. On the screen that appears, enter the email addresses of the people with whom you want to share, type in a note if you want, choose their access permissions and click Share.
Whether you invite people from the desktop client or Excel Online, Microsoft sends an email to the people with whom you want to collaborate. When they click the “View in OneDrive” button, they’ll be sent to the spreadsheet. At this point, they can view the spreadsheet, but not edit it. To edit it, they need to click Edit Workbook and choose how to edit the spreadsheet. Most people should select Edit in Browser; they can then edit the document right in their browser window. If your recipients are Office 365 subscribers who have Version 1707 Build 8326.2058 or later, they can choose Edit in Excel for live collaboration from their desktop client.
You can see the changes others make in real time via a colored cursor indicating others’ presence (each person gets a different color). When they finish doing work of any kind — entering data into a cell, creating a chart and so on — the changes appear. In my tests of the desktop client, I sometimes noticed a few-seconds delay between when a new collaborator started to edit a spreadsheet and when their cursor showed up onscreen. After that initial lag, the changes often, but not always, showed up instantly. When I tested Excel Online in a browser, I saw no lag between when someone made changes and when those changes showed up in another person’s spreadsheet.
In both the online version and the desktop client you’ll see a list of the people currently collaborating with you on the document. Click someone’s name and you’ll see the location of the cell they’re currently working on (for example, K5). You can also use this list to change or revoke anyone’s view/edit privileges at any time. You can also live-chat with your collaborators, but only via Skype. If they don’t have Skype or don’t want to use it for chat, you’ll be out of luck.
Note that you get extra collaboration features if you use SharePoint or the enterprise version of Excel, including being able to find collaborators using your corporate address book.
Google’s G Suite was built with real-time collaboration in mind, and it shows.
To invite others to collaborate with you on the document, you click the Share button on the upper right of the screen and type in the email addresses of the people with whom you want to share. Google Sheets looks through your Gmail contacts list as you type, so that you can quickly choose the right person. If they're not in your Gmail contacts, you can just type in their email address.
For each person, you can decide whether they can edit the document, only comment on it or only view it. Type in an optional message and an email gets sent to your collaborators.
When they receive the email, they click on Open in Docs to open the file. Everyone invited can work on the document simultaneously, and can see what other people are doing. Everyone is identified by a colored cursor, and you can watch them work in real time. Hover your mouse over the cursor to see someone's name.
Google Sheets also offers live chatting; just click the chat icon. I found live chat to be particularly useful for collaboration, letting us discuss edits as they’re being made and decide who will work on which sections of the document, among other things.
At any point, you can change people's collaboration and editing rights after you've first set them. Click Share > Advanced to see a list of everyone with access to the document. From here, you can change their access rights (from editing to only reading, for example), and handle global settings for how people can access the document.
Take special care when working with these global settings, because they can be confounding when you first come across them. You have a wide range of choices about whether people who are not on your sharing list can access the document, ranging from the anything-goes “On - Public on the web. Anyone on the Internet can find and access. No sign in required” to the restrictive “Off - Specific people. Shared with specific people.”
Live collaboration: Bottom line
Not all that surprisingly, Google Sheets is superior to Excel for collaboration. Excel doesn't offer chat unless all your collaborators use Skype, and it doesn't offer the same permission levels that Sheets does. Google Sheets makes it easy to collaborate, includes chatting, and has more sophisticated levels of sharing rights.
Sometimes the best way to get feedback on a spreadsheet isn’t via live collaboration but by having one person at a time review it and suggest changes. Collaborators have more time to consider their suggestions, and you don’t all need to be working on the sheet at the same time.
The ability to mark up a document — to be able to see the changes that you or other people have made — is a must-have for word processing documents, but the feature doesn’t translate well to spreadsheets, given their space constraints. If you’re used to the excellent review and markup features in Microsoft Word and Google Docs, you won’t find them in Excel or Google Sheets. You can, however, add comments and read others’ comments. We decided to see how both applications handled this feature.
To make a comment on an Excel spreadsheet, go to the Review tab on the Ribbon and click on New Comment. A text box with a yellow background appears, with your name (if it's available) at the top. In the Windows version, there’s an arrow outside the text box, pointing to the cell that your comment is related to. At the same time, a small red triangle in the corner of the cell indicates that it has a comment. (The Mac version doesn’t have the arrow but does display the red triangle in the cell.) After you type in your comment, you can resize the text box and/or move its location.
When you click somewhere else on the spreadsheet, the text box vanishes. To read the comment, click on or hover over the cell, and the text box appears. Comments can also be read by clicking Previous, Next, or Show All Comments when you're in the Review tab.
I found this moderately useful at best. Comments have no threading capabilities — that is, there’s no way to have a back-and-forth conversation among several people. Each comment is its own island, separate from others.
Also, you can’t comment on charts — click a chart and the Comment feature on the Ribbon is grayed out. Given that charts are a great way to visually display information, this is a serious drawback.
To start a comment in Google Sheets, put your cursor in a cell, then select Insert > Comment. (You can also right-click a cell and select “Insert comment” from the menu that appears.) A box appears with your name at the top. Type your comment into a text box and click Comment. As with Excel, a triangle (this one is orange) appears in the upper-right corner of the cell, indicating that a comment is there. Click the cell or hover the cursor over it to read the comment.
But Google Sheets has a few tricks up its sleeve when it comes to comments. Anyone with access to the spreadsheet can click on the comment and reply to it. People can then click on that reply and reply to it, and so on, so that it becomes an ongoing conversation. You can create a link to any comment, and then send that link to someone. And once the conversation is finished, the original commenter can click a button called Resolve, and the original comment, along with its replies, will disappear.
Looking for a specific comment — or just realized that the problem wasn't resolved after all? If you click Comments on the upper-right of the screen, a comment pane appears showing every comment and comment thread, including those that have been resolved. You can add more replies here — and if you reply to a resolved thread, it becomes live again.
As with Excel, charts can’t be commented upon, although it first appears that you can. If you click on a chart and then click Insert > Comment, the usual comment box appears. However, the comment is associated with the last cell you were in rather than the chart.
You can also insert a simple text box that doesn’t include any of the features of Comments by selecting Insert > Note. I found no use at all for this feature; you likely won’t, either.
Comments: Bottom line
Google Sheets is the winner here. Its ability to thread comments, use a commenting pane, and link to comments makes its commenting feature quite useful, in contrast to Excel’s minimally functional capabilities.
Working on different platforms
Like many people, I use several devices, including Windows PCs, a MacBook Air, two iPads, an Android tablet and an iPhone. So I tested how the spreadsheets worked on multiple devices. I also tried the free web version of Excel, called Excel Online, to see how it stacks up.
In recent years, Microsoft has finally paid serious attention to the Mac version of Office, which it had let languish. Office 2016 for Mac looks and works much like the Windows version. Excel for the Mac has the same Ribbon-focused interface, although it also has a menu above that for doing a variety of tasks, such as opening and saving files or inserting items. This can make things slightly confusing when you switch between the Mac and Windows versions of Excel, because you have remember to use that menu in addition to the Ribbon.
One other difference is that the File tab in the Windows version isn’t available in the Mac version. To do some of the tasks on the Mac that are on the File tab in the Windows version, you’ll have to go to several different places on the Mac. For example, in the Windows version of Excel, you head to the File tab if you want to protect (in other words, lock up) a workbook or worksheet. In the Mac version, you have to go to the Review tab on the Ribbon.
Mostly, though, the Mac and Windows versions look and work the same, and I switched between the two without any confusion.
The iPad and iPhone versions of Excel are excellent — particularly the iPad version. The layout is very similar to the Windows and Mac versions, with six tabs across the top: Home, Insert, Formulas, Data, Review and View. The features on the tabs mimic the equivalent ones on Windows PCs and Macs. Not all of the features are available, though. For example, you can’t create several types of charts including PivotCharts, and the cell and text formatting are much more limited than in the desktop versions.
When I opened my budget worksheet on the iPad version of Excel, I found that it replicated the spreadsheet perfectly from the desktop versions, including charts and cell and text formatting. I could also make and review comments.
The iPhone version is more stripped down than the tablet version, to accommodate a phone’s smaller screen and virtual keyboard. However, it’s great at displaying spreadsheets, including charts, which look on the phone precisely they do on a PC screen. You’ll want to turn your phone sideways to match Excel’s orientation, though.
To input data and formulas in the iPhone version, you go to an entry box near the top of the screen, next to an fx symbol. You type in numbers, text and formulas, and choose from Excel’s formulas via a virtual keyboard. You can also format text, cells and numbers using a menu at the top right of the screen, as well as share a worksheet and search through a worksheet. You won’t have most of the capabilities found in the Windows version, and it doesn't display comments. But for reading a spreadsheet or basic input, it does the job.
I also tested the Android version of Excel for tablets. It mirrors the iPad version but has one additional feature — besides the Home, Insert, Draw, Layout, Review and View tabs on the Ribbon, it also has a File tab, similar to the File tab on the Windows version. As with the Windows version, you can open and create files from here, as well as print, share a file and change Excel settings. It also has a feature the Windows version doesn’t have — you can see the version history of a file you’re working on. However, it doesn’t let you export the file to a different format or manage your Office account.
Finally, I tested the web-based version of Excel. It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of the desktop clients, but it has everything you’ll need for basic spreadsheet work. The look is quite similar to the desktop version, including the ever-present Ribbon with File, Home, Insert, Data, Review and View tabs. You can easily create and edit formulas, create charts, make comments, see others’ comments, and so on.
You won’t be able to do complex formatting, create certain charts such as PivotCharts, or do other advanced tasks. Another drawback: You can’t save spreadsheets in the same variety of formats that you can in the Windows version — for example, you can't save as .XLS, HTML,.XML or .CSV. And you can only work on spreadsheets stored in your OneDrive or Dropbox account.
If you have the Excel client installed on the computer that you’re using, though, you can open the file in the full application by clicking Edit in Excel at the top of the screen. And in one way Excel Online is superior to the desktop clients: It lets you do real-time collaboration, which, as I write this, is available in the Windows version only to subscribers to Office 365 who have updated to Version 1707 Build 8326.2058 or later, and isn’t available in the Mac version at all.
All in all, the web-based version of Excel holds up well when compared to Google Sheets, although isn’t nearly as good as Sheets for collaboration and commenting.
Because Google Sheets is web-based, working with it on a Mac is identical to working with it on a Windows PC. There are also Google Sheets apps for Android and iOS tablets and phones.
The tablet and phone versions of Google Sheets for iOS are identical, with the same straightforward interface. Tap a cell, and a box appears at the bottom of the screen that lets you add text or formulas. Icons across the top of the screen let you do things such as format text and cells and view comments. In both the tablet and phone versions, you can choose to work offline when you’re not connected to the internet, just as you can do in the web-based version. You can also collaborate with others live in the same way as you can in the web-based version.
The Android tablet version looks and works almost identically to the iPad version. However, there are some interesting differences. The Android app won’t let you view comments, for example. On the other hand, the Android version has a data validation feature that lets you restrict the kinds of data that can be entered in specific cells, while the iPad version doesn’t.
Working on different platforms: Bottom line
Excel’s overall look, feel and feature set is similar among all its platforms, making it easy to move from one to another. In Google Sheets, the tablet and phone versions look different than the web version, but not enough to make it difficult to switch between them. In short, both tools do a good job of making it easy to view and edit spreadsheets on a range of different devices – there’s no clear winner here.
Which is better for your business, Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets? That depends on your needs.
For a larger template selection, better cell and text formatting, a greater choice of chart types, and better layout features, Excel is the clear winner. And although I didn’t test its advanced spreadsheet and data analysis tools, it’s renowned for those as well.
But for working with others, you’ll want to choose Google Sheets. It offers easy live, internet-based collaboration, something the Mac client version of Excel doesn’t have and only certain users of the Windows Excel client have. Google Sheets’ commenting capabilities are superior as well. And if you’re looking to gather feedback from people about your spreadsheet, it lets you do that easily by using a questionnaire.