Microsoft Excel vs. Google Sheets: Which works better for business?
- 16 August, 2017 20:00
Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets are the two best-known spreadsheet applications available today. Both are polished and very useful — so much so that it’s easy to cling to the application you’re currently using without learning how the other has improved over the years. If you (or your business) chose one spreadsheet app and rejected the other years ago, there may be good reasons to reconsider.
To find out where Excel and Google Sheets stand today, both individually and compared to each other, I tested them by trying out the most common tasks users perform, including starting a new spreadsheet, inputting data and formulas, formatting cells, creating charts, adding extras such as links to external data sources, and collaborating with others.
To test all that, I decided to create a typical spreadsheet that many business professionals might need to assemble: a budget tracker. I built one that tracked eight months of monthly income and expenses for an imaginary company, including both results and projections.
Because it’s a multiplatform world, I worked on the spreadsheet using a Windows PC, a Mac, an iPad, an Android tablet and an iPhone. I used both the local clients and the online version of Microsoft Excel. Google Sheets is web-based but also has client versions for Android and iOS, so I tested those as well.
To keep things simple, the descriptions that follow are all based on the Excel 2016 Windows client (the current, stable version that is part of Microsoft Office 365). Some of the features may appear differently on a Mac. Naturally, the instructions for the browser-based Google Sheets are the same for both Windows PCs and Macs.
And before I forget — there is one glaring difference between the two that should be mentioned: price. Although Google Sheets is part of Google’s licensed G Suite package for businesses, it remains free for individual use.
Microsoft Excel is available as part of Microsoft Office, which has a variety of different iterations for personal or business use, and is available as either an annual subscription or a one-time purchase. For example, Office 365 Home costs $100 per year and can be used on up to five PCs or Macs, five tablets, and five phones; it includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher and Access, along with 1TB of OneDrive cloud storage. If you don't like subscriptions, Office Professional 2016 offers the same applications for a single PC at a cost of $400. There are other packages available as well. And, of course, there are a number of plans for business that have per-seat annual licensing fees.
Creating a spreadsheet
Perhaps what’s most important about a spreadsheet is how easy it is to create one, and then to input data and formulas. How the spreadsheet looks is important as well, especially if you use it to present data to others. So I began by looking for a usable, editable template I could turn to my purpose. Then I edited it, input the data, and added and tweaked formulas. If no suitable template was available, I started from scratch.
When it comes to budget templates, Excel has an embarrassment of riches, whether it’s a business budget or a special-purpose budget, such as for a marketing event. There’s a good chance that you’ll find one that fits what you’re looking for and that can be easily edited.
When you create a new spreadsheet, you are presented with a list of 30 templates, including several for a variety of budgets. And that’s just a small selection of what’s available — you can also search from within Excel through Microsoft’s collection of thousands of online templates. I searched using the term “budget” and found 93. When I clicked each template, I got more details, including its purpose, what it’s suited for and a snapshot of a sample spreadsheet.
When I found one perfect for my budget, I downloaded, saved and named it. And within a few minutes I had a well-designed spreadsheet, ready to go.
The template included not just budget categories, such as operating expenses, personnel expenses and income, but also sample data, working formulas and very nicely formatted headings and text, ideal for presentations.
Not that I could just start entering data. I had to do some editing first, because I wanted to create a month-by-month running report about each month’s estimated versus actual spending, and this template had only one month in it. And, of course, my categories for income and spending were different from the template’s.
It was easy enough to do by renaming some categories and deleting others. Especially useful was the fact that the formulas were intelligent enough to take things into account when I deleted a category. For example, when I deleted a category called Asset Sales from the Income section, Excel automatically deleted the Asset Sales section of the formula that calculated total income. I didn’t have to make manual adjustments to the formula. I also added data and formulas for a new section called Net Income that would subtract total operating expenses and personnel expenses from income — one that was important to me but surprisingly not in the template.
Even though the template’s headings and text were beautifully formatted, I tried changing them, just to check out Excel’s formatting capabilities. Excel shines here: The Home tab in the Ribbon offers great tools for formatting text by changing fonts and their attributes, as well as for adding colors to cells.
I then copied the first monthly budget I had created by clicking its tab, selecting Move or Copy from the screen that appeared (making sure to check the box “Create a copy”) and then clicking OK. I did this several times to make several copies, then renamed each new tab so it represented a month: January, February, March, April, May, June and July. Then I went into each tab, and changed the data to fit the appropriate month.
Voila! With only a little effort, I had built a handsome-looking eight-month budget detailing expenses, income and net income, and comparing all of that to projections.
If you’re looking for a great selection of templates, Google Sheets isn’t the place to go. I found only 16 templates — period. Considering that Excel has 93 templates for budgets alone, Google Sheets’ pickings are pretty slim.
Google had only a single business budget available, named “Annual business budget” and created by Intuit QuickBooks. At first glance, it looked ideal for my task. It has separate tabs for income, expenses and a summary. For each tab, I would only need to make edits to the categories. However, as I examined it, I realized it had no way of tracking estimated versus actual spending. And customizing the template was extremely difficult: There were so many internal links to formulas and calculations that tracking them down and editing them seemed almost impossible. So I finally abandoned the template and instead started from scratch.
It was an easy but time-consuming process. Formulas are available via Insert > Function, or can be input by hand. For a full list of what’s available, there is a Google page titled Google spreadsheets function list. You can also get there within Sheets via Insert > Function > More.
Google Sheets doesn’t offer nearly as many tools for dressing up your spreadsheets as does Microsoft Excel. Excel has dozens of fonts available; Google has one. Excel has many pre-set ways of formatting cells with color, text headings and more; Google has only the most basic of tools. The end result: Google Sheets spreadsheets look basic and bare-bones.
Sheets does do a good job of importing spreadsheets from Excel. Simply upload the spreadsheet and open it in Sheets. In my admittedly straightforward spreadsheets, formulas, charts and formatting came through, including the Excel spreadsheet I created from a template for this story.
Creating a spreadsheet: Bottom line
Microsoft Excel is worlds ahead of Google Sheets when it comes to template selection and tools for cell and text formatting. If how a spreadsheet looks is important to you, the choice is clear: Choose Microsoft Excel. With Google, you’ve got only the basics. However, for inserting formulas, there’s no real difference between the two.
Since charts are one of the best ways to clarify the meaning of data, I created a variety of them for my test budget: Pie charts to show categories of income and spending, line charts to show income and other data over time, and bar charts to compare categories for a single month. I also explored each program to see what other kinds of data visualization tools they offered.
Creating charts in Excel is simplicity itself. The fastest way is to highlight the data you want to chart, and from the Insert tab choose “Recommended Charts.” Excel then shows you thumbnails of the types of charts that are most suitable for the data you’ve chosen. The thumbnails use the data you’ve highlighted, so you can see precisely how the chart will look. Scroll through the recommended charts, click the one you want to use, and it gets created. It’s that simple. I created half-a-dozen charts and found the recommendations were always on target.
You don’t have to stick with the recommendations, though. If you haven't found an appropriate chart type after you highlight the chart data and choose Insert > Recommended Charts, you can click on All Charts and scroll through Excel’s vast selection.
Excel has 17 different chart types, including more popular ones such as column, line, pie, bar and area; more complex ones such as radar, surface and histogram; and some that are known mainly to data professionals, like box & whisper. And many chart types have multiple subtypes — for example, among the bar charts you'll find clustered bar, stacked bar, etc., and each of those has two variations.
The upshot? It's highly unlikely that Excel won't find the chart type you want to use. (For more information about some new chart types available in Excel 2016, see our "Excel 2016 cheat sheet.")
As with the recommended charts, the thumbnails in All Charts use your data, so you get a preview of the chart you’re going to create. You can also simply highlight your data, select the Insert tab, click the down arrow next to the chart type you want to create (pie, line, bar and so on), then choose the precise chart you want from the charts that display.
Note that you don’t have to highlight data before creating a chart. From the Ribbon’s Insert menu, you can choose a chart type you want to create, and after the chart is inserted into the spreadsheet using default data, you can right-click the chart and choose Select Data. From there, you select the data you want to include from your spreadsheet.
Once you’ve created a chart, you get countless options for editing and customizing it, or for changing the chart type. Right-click the chart to select different data for the chart, format the chart and add borders or fills, etc. Click the chart and then go to the Design tab and you get far more capabilities, such as choosing variants of the basic design or changing colors.
Excel also creates what are called Sparkline charts, which insert very simple line, column or win/loss charts into a single spreadsheet cell. Sparklines are great for quickly showing trends graphically in a compact way — in my instance, showing data such as net income and total expenses over time. To create a Sparkline, you click in the cell where you want to insert it, choose the type of Sparkline you want to create from the Insert menu, then select the data you want to chart.
In short, Excel is a superb chart-creator, mixing ease of use with almost infinite customization and the intelligence to help you choose the right chart for best presenting your information.
One final note: Excel also has considerable capabilities not just for presenting data, but using visual presentation to analyze data using pivot tables, which help you find and display underlying relationships between data that you might otherwise not be able to find. But advanced capabilities like that are beyond the scope of this article.
Google Sheets doesn’t quite have Excel’s chart-making prowess, but it still does quite a good job. The easiest way to create a chart is to select your data, then select Insert > Chart from the menu at the top of the screen. The Chart Editor screen appears with three tabs across its top: Recommendations, Chart types, and Customization. I found that the best bet was to choose Recommendations, which shows the chart types that work best with the data selected. As with Excel, the thumbnails use the data you’ve highlighted, so you get a preview of how your chart will look when you choose any type. Click Insert when you’ve chosen the one you want. That’s all it takes.
I found, though, that the chart recommendations didn’t always work. For instance, I selected two columns, one for labels (months of the year) and another with the actual data (net income). When I did that, Google Sheets choked; it came up with no recommendations, even though the data was clearly well-suited for either a bar or line chart.
As with Excel, you don’t need to use the recommendations, and can instead select chart types from the Chart Editor screen. As for creating a chart without selecting data first, the first few times I tried it, Google Charts told me it couldn’t be done. However, I found that if I inserted my cursor in a cell that was contiguous to a row or column of data, Google Charts would automatically assume I wanted to create a chart using nearby data. If you have a relatively simple spreadsheet with not many separate data areas, this doesn’t appear to be a problem. But with complex spreadsheets, I found that Google Sheets sometimes was confused about what data I wanted to use.
Once you’ve inserted the chart, Google Sheets lets you change and customize it by either right-clicking or left-clicking inside to do things such as changing the legend, title, axes, chart type or color. But those basic edits don’t approach the wealth of Excel’s considerable layout and design options — for example, you can’t choose many different layouts and you don’t get as many formatting options or color choices.
Google Sheets does have a large selection of charts, including not only the common pie, line, bar, area and column charts, but more esoteric ones as well, like radar and histogram. It also offers a Sparklines capability (choose Insert > Chart > Chart Types, scroll down to the Other area, and select Sparkline), but it won’t insert a chart into a single cell. To test it, I selected a column of data that listed net income by month Excel. However, when I created it, instead of a Sparkline taking up one cell, it created a normal line chart.
Charts: Bottom line
Excel wins here. Microsoft’s tool makes it easier and less confusing to create charts, and you have far more options for changing the design, layout and colors.
Sometimes you want more than just basic charts and data. You might want to dress your spreadsheet up with pictures, links to external data, special charts and more. So after I created my report, I checked out Excel and Google Sheets for the extras they offer. Here’s what I found.
Excel has plenty of those extras for anyone looking to make their spreadsheet come alive, ranging from unique charts and graphs to photo tools, links to external data and more.
My budget report included a section about the sales staff’s monthly sales. I decided to try Excel’s “People Graph” (accessed via the Insert tab in the Ribbon), which lets you create charts using graphics and themes designed for data having to do with people. I used it to create a bar graph showing how much in sales each member of the staff booked for a single month. The results are eye-popping visuals that can add oomph to any spreadsheet.
To create a People Graph, you’ll have to agree to install an add-in. After a moment or two, it launches. Click the Data button on the upper-right of the chart, fill in the title, and click Select your data. Then click Create, and the app inserts a vivid, somewhat customizable chart — a Settings button lets you change the layout, graphics, colors and so on. Keep in mind, though, that the customizations are limited when compared to other Excel charts. Also, at first you may think you can’t move the graph after you create it. But if you fiddle around a bit, you’ll be able to do it — move your cursor to the edge until the cursor looks like a cross, and then move the graph.
Another add-in, Bing Maps, lets you layer data on top of a map. As with People Graph, it’s available directly on the Insert menu. I wanted to use it to show how much income was generated for my business in a specific month, by location. It took me several tries using it to get it right. It’s best to first select the data you want to chart, and then click the Bing Maps button. Even then, though, I had to do some extra work to get it right.
The add-in only works if the first column has the location data. So I had to redo the data on the spreadsheet. Once I did, it correctly mapped the data, but not in a particularly useful way. It showed all the locations of my business as circles on a map, but nothing more. To see the sales figures, I had to click each individual circle. It would have been much more useful to have bars on each location, representing the sales at that location.
You move the Bing Maps chart the same way you move the People Graph.
There’s plenty other things Excel offers for dressing up reports, though. I wanted to add photos, so I chose Insert > Online Pictures, which brought up a screen for searching through Bing Images. I tried multiple searches to see what I could add. Whether it was oil wells, snakes, robots or anything else I tried, I found many usable images, all of which were tagged with the Creative Commons license for reuse. (You can also expand the search by looking for all images, not just those with a Creative Commons license.) You can also insert your own photos in the same way, by choosing Insert > Pictures and navigating to the image you want to use.
Whether you’re adding an online image or your own, inserting it in the spreadsheet is simple: Click it, then click Insert. You can also edit the image in multiple ways, including basic photo editing such as color correction and adding artistic effects, adding borders and more. To do that, click the photo, and a Picture Tools tab appears in the Ribbon with a variety of photo editing tools.
Next, I decided I wanted to insert stock quotes into the report that would update on a constant basis. That capability isn’t built directly into Excel, but is available for free with the Stock Connector add-in from the Microsoft Store. I tried it with a couple of stocks, and it updated every 15 minutes.
There are many other features you can add that are available from the Data tab, including live data from SQL databases, tables on the web, and other sources.
You can also use drawing tools, available from Insert > Smart Art.
In short, if you’re looking to dress up spreadsheets and reports, Excel is a vast, useful universe – although you might find some extras more useful than others.
Google Sheets has a superb extra that does a lot more than make a spreadsheet or report look prettier. Google Forms lets you easily create forms to get feedback on the data, the format or the presentation — in fact, on anything.
To use Google Forms, you select Insert > Form, and you're sent to a new page that lets you create a questionnaire using several formats, including multiple choice, checkboxes, freeform text entry and more. You can add graphics and videos, add the date and time, require that questions be answered or not, etc.
Once the form is done, it doesn’t live in the spreadsheet itself. Instead, you send the form via email (you can either send a link or the form itself) to those you’re soliciting feedback from. They fill out the form, and the information is tabulated and the results charted on a page in your spreadsheet that only you have access to.
In addition to Google Forms, Google Sheets has a handful of ways to dress up the spreadsheet. You can insert images from your computer, your Google Drive or the web. Its image search is superior to Excel’s, because you can filter the search by photos, clip art, line drawing or any type. The feature automatically looks for images are available for free for commercial reuse with modification. (Note that it's always a good idea to check before using one for anything but personal use, no matter the labeling.) However, Sheets has no image-editing tools.
As with Microsoft, there’s a library of add-on tools (choose Add-ons > Get add-ons), but I found little there for dressing up spreadsheets.
Extras: Bottom line
If you’re looking to gather feedback about your spreadsheet, Google wins this round by a mile. The Google Forms feature is an exceptionally useful tool for quickly and easily gathering feedback. All the data collection is automatically done for you and tabulated on tabs on your worksheets.
Google’s image search is also better than Excel’s, although Excel has excellent image editing tools, something Google lacks. Excel also has a number of other features that can add value to a spreadsheet, although some — such as Bing Maps — still need work.
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.