Google Sheets vs Microsoft Excel: 2021 Comparison

Written by
Laura Tennyson

Although almost every business uses spreadsheets, when it comes to spreadsheet software it’s a battle between just two main rivals: Google Sheets vs Microsoft Excel. The reliable workhorse and its web-based young competitor. How do the two compare?

In terms of flexibility, both programs are incredibly versatile. A deceptively simple table of rows and columns, the humble spreadsheet can be used for pretty much anything. From basic data storage and project management to advanced calculations and complex business analysis.

Spreadsheets effectively enable anyone to make their own mini business applications. As Brian Jones, Head of Product at Excel says: “Excel is, if you think about it, the most widely used programming language”.

For years, Microsoft Excel dominated the spreadsheet market. But with the shift to the cloud, Google Sheets has emerged as a viable contender. Should Excel users consider switching to Google Sheets? Or is Excel still the best spreadsheet software out there?

There’s no easy answer. Both programs have their advantages, and in some cases, it actually makes sense to use Google Sheets and Excel together.

Here I’ll take you through a deep-dive into the two spreadsheet programs so you can figure out which option works best for you.

Key differences

Excel has been the world’s leading spreadsheet software for decades. Indeed, Microsoft estimates that 1 in 5 adults use Excel.

Most people use Excel as desktop, or on-premise, software that they install on their computer. This is usually purchased as part of the Microsoft 365 suite of apps (previously called Microsoft Office). There’s also an online version of Excel called Excel for the web.

In contrast, Google Sheets is a cloud-based spreadsheet app that you access via your web browser. That means there’s no software to install or download; it’s online-only.

Sheets used to be a fairly basic program but it’s been slowly edging closer to Excel in terms of functionality.

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Price comparison

In the past, Google Sheets was cheaper but Excel’s pricing is getting more competitive.

Google Sheets is free with a personal Gmail account, along with the other core Google Workspace apps (formerly known as G Suite), including Google Docs and Slides. For businesses, a Google Workspace plan starts at $6 per month, per user.

For personal use, the online version of Excel, Excel for the web, is also free. It’s available as part of Office for the web. For businesses, the cost is comparable with Google Sheets: $5 per month, per user, when subscribing to an annual Microsoft 365 Business Basic plan.

If you want to use the full, desktop version of Excel, it will cost you $6.99 per month for a personal account, when buying an annual Microsoft 365 subscription. For businesses, prices start at $12.50 per month, per user.

The full desktop version of Excel can also be purchased for a one-off fee of $139.99, or for $249.99 as part of the Office Home & Business 2019 package.

As you can see, Excel’s pricing is more complex. If you’re on a tight budget, Google Sheets is the more affordable option unless you only want to use the online version of Excel.

Our verdict? Best for price: Google Sheets.
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Collaboration in Google Sheets

Google Sheets was the first spreadsheet program that enabled users to collaborate online in real-time.

We take this function for granted now, but before the advent of Google Sheets and Google Docs, working on spreadsheets or text documents as a group was a nightmare.

Remember sending edited files back and forth as email attachments? Spending hours in a spreadsheet, only to find you’d been working on the wrong file version?

In Google Sheets, it’s easy to share your spreadsheet with others. In one click you can grant your colleagues or clients view, comment, or edit access to a file.

Sheets offers clear and simple permissions options when you share a file:

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If you want to make a Google Sheets file public or permanently accessible to multiple people, simply copy the link and share it via email.

Alternatively, you can post the link where anybody can access it, such as on a web page or internal messaging system. Anyone who clicks on the link will open the latest version of the file.

Google Sheets also has a chat window, allowing you to communicate with co-workers while you’re inside the spreadsheet. On top of that, you can leave comments for colleagues inside specific cells.

When Google Sheets first appeared, many people preferred it to Excel because of these collaborative capabilities. While Excel had more processing power, Sheets made it super easy to work on projects as a team.

Things are now changing as Microsoft plays catch up. Let’s take a look at Excel’s collaboration functions.

Collaboration in Excel

Excel was originally built as a desktop app and designed for a single user working alone. The desktop version of Excel provides powerful features that allow you to create complex and large workbooks saved to your computer.

To share your workbook with others and enable co-authoring you’ll need to sync the file to OneDrive, Microsoft’s cloud storage platform.

Once the file is uploaded to OneDrive, you can open the file directly in your browser in Excel for the web.

Excel for the web allows you to share a spreadsheet with others, but you can only grant your collaborators edit access. Unlike Google Sheets, there’s no view or comment-only permissions settings.

Excel for the web’s collaboration settings include editing access and the option to lock the workbook with a password:

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Excel for the web is a simplified, pared-back version of the desktop software.

It doesn’t support large file sizes or some file formats (such as CSV). This can be a problem if you create a spreadsheet in Excel on your desktop but want to share it online at a later date. Some features may not be uploaded to the cloud.

Want to check which features are compatible once your workbook is online? Check out a full list of the differences between Excel and Excel for the web.

In summary, if online collaboration is important for you, Google Sheets still has a slight edge over Excel.

Our verdict? Best for collaboration: Google Sheets.

Data processing

In terms of pure processing power, the Excel desktop app beats Google Sheets hands-down.

First of all, Google Sheets can be limited by the speed of your internet connection. For the typical spreadsheet that’s not a problem, but if you start to approach the maximum file size limit of 5 million cells, it can slow down or crash. Google Sheets isn’t built for huge volumes of data, and it may lag if you push it to the limits.

The desktop version of Excel, on the other hand, can store up to 17 million cells before you’ll need to consider using a different program (like the language and environment for statistical processing R).

With Excel, there are no internet latency issues, and you can work in heavy, multi-tab files limited only by your computer’s memory.

If you work with large data sets, or you need to carry out complex calculations in files containing multiple worksheets, Excel is the better choice.

For the average spreadsheet user, Google Sheets is likely to be sufficient for day-to-day data processing.

Our verdict: best for powerful processing? Excel.

I love the collaboration functions and the simplicity of Google Sheets. The top-bar is simple and clean: you only see what you need. If you need advanced tools, you can access them on demand using add-ons from the Google Workspace Marketplace. The advantages of the Excel desktop app are that you can work with huge spreadsheets and you can work better offline.

Ausias Fuster

Data Analyst, Sheetgo

Features & functions

If you want to do something complex with your data, you can almost certainly do it in Excel.

Excel has a huge range of inbuilt features and functions, whereas Google Sheets is more basic. If you want to use a specialist tool in Google Sheets, you might need to install an add-on.

Excel also offers more customization options, allowing you to pin frequently-used functions to the menu bar for quick access, for example.

Because Excel has been around for longer, there are also lots of free resources and training tools available. That includes thousands of pre-built templates, such as these free templates for budgeting and personal finance.

The customizable ribbon in Excel offers multiple menus including the data toolbar:

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Google Sheets is an intentionally stripped-down alternative to Excel. You can tell just by looking at the menu bar — Excel has a lot more options. Complex chart types such as 3D pyramids, pie-of-pie charts, and some analytical tools are missing from Google Sheets.

Nonetheless, Google is constantly adding more functions, features, and chart types to Sheets — so it’s worth checking for the latest updates.

On top of that, you can access hundreds of powerful add-ons from the Google Workspace Store.

Google Sheets also has a couple of innovative native functions that aren’t even available in Excel, such as the GOOGLEFINANCE function that pulls live stock market data directly into your spreadsheet.

OK, so which tool leads the way for features, Excel or Google Sheets?

Excel has a bigger range of inbuilt features, hands down. That’s great for spreadsheet pros, but some users might find it overwhelming and complex.

If you only need basic spreadsheet functions, you might find Excel’s menus and interface cluttered. Google Sheets offers a simpler experience, with many of the same functions.

Our verdict? Best for features: Excel.

Automation

If you find yourself repeating the same actions in your spreadsheets, such as formatting a range of cells, macros are a really handy tool. They let you automate spreadsheet tasks by recording your keystrokes. You can then trigger a macro whenever you need to repeat the action.

In the past, macros were only available in Excel, but you can now create a macro in Google Sheets too.

Record a macro directly from the Automate tab in Excel:

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For spreadsheet users with coding skills, you can program your own custom macros in both spreadsheet formats. That’s VBA in Excel or Google Apps Script in Google Sheets.

When you’re working with spreadsheets online, you can take automation to another level by creating connections between them.

Connecting your spreadsheets allows you to move data from one Google Sheet to another, or from one Excel workbook to another, for example.

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Using Excel and Google Sheets together

If you can’t decide between the functionalities of Excel and Google Sheets, you might want to use both spreadsheet formats at the same time. This is actually becoming pretty common as companies migrate to the cloud.

When your team switches to Google Sheets, you may have some colleagues who are reluctant to leave Excel. That often includes accountants and data analysts who have created complex workbooks in Excel that they don’t want to abandon.

There are other reasons for working cross-platform. Perhaps you work with Google Sheets internally, but receive Excel files from an external client who only uses Microsoft. Or maybe you export data from specialist software into Excel but prefer the collaboration functions of Sheets.

Either way, you can work with both by setting up a synchronized system.

Sync Excel and Google Sheets

Excel and Google Sheets aren’t directly compatible. While it’s fairly straightforward to export a Google Sheets file to Excel, the reverse isn’t possible —and you can’t simply copy-paste ranges of cells from one format to the other.

If you want to move data back and forth between Excel and Sheets smoothly, you’ll need to connect your files and set up an automated system.

Learn how to transfer data from Excel to Google Sheets or from Google Sheets to Excel automatically.

Google Sheets vs Microsoft Excel: which is better?

As you can see from this side-by-side comparison, there’s no clear winner!

Both Excel and Sheets have their pros and cons. Excel is an advanced and mature piece of software, but Google Sheets has recently made huge strides to catch up. These days, there’s very little difference for most spreadsheet users.

With its simple interface, low price tag, and well-designed collaboration functions, Google Sheets is a user-friendly and affordable option for beginners and most business users. As it was purpose-built for the cloud, it works brilliantly if you prefer online spreadsheets.

For those doing complex calculations and working alone, the desktop version of Excel is a more advanced and heavyweight data management solution. It offers more customization options and it’s not affected by internet latency.

Thanks for reading!

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