Introduction, Excel and OpenOffice Calc
For a lot of people, working with spreadsheets is a necessary evil. Something they must endure to get their job done. Spreadsheets can be very useful and can make number-crunching much easier, but often people aren't fully trained on the software they are using, or aren't using the best software that they could be. In fact, many people will be hard-pressed to name a spreadsheet application beyond the ubiquitous Microsoft Excel.
Excel is a good spreadsheet tool and we'll discuss its features and functionality shortly. As part of Microsoft's Office productivity suite, however, it has benefited greatly from being bundled with Windows PCs for a long time. It is by far and away the dominant player in the spreadsheet software market. Where spreadsheet software is concerned, many people will have only used Excel.
Despite this, there are other spreadsheet applications available that can do just as good a job as Excel. For people who already have Excel installed and are comfortable with it, it may be convenient to stick with what you know. For those who are less tied to Excel, however, or those who spend a lot of time using spreadsheets, it may be worth looking around at some potential alternatives (many of which are free).
This article takes a look at some of the most popular spreadsheet software packages available, including Microsoft Excel. It provides an overview of each, taking a look at their different functionalities and benefits.
Price: From £109.99 one-off, or £5.99 per month (both as part of Microsoft Office)
Microsoft Excel should need no introduction. It was made available as part of the Microsoft Office suite in 1990 and is the industry standard where spreadsheet software is concerned. Today, Excel is available both as an on-premise piece of software that can be bought and installed with a one-off payment as part of Office, or as a cloud-based offering that can be paid for on a monthly basis as part of Office 365.
Excel provides a great deal of basic functionality that we now take for granted. It is, of course, possible to calculate formulas, extrapolate trends and work with sets of data. Charts can be produced to illustrate data sets and data can be filtered and sorted as required. The newest version of Excel, however, provides a host of more advanced features as well.
Excel is available across a variety of different platforms, including Windows, Mac, iOS, Android and Windows Phone. Users can create and edit spreadsheets on one device and continue working on them on another device, wherever they are. Its possible to share workbooks online and collaborate on them with others, helping to ensure that everyone is using the same version. It's also possible to share your screen and present Excel online via Lync when delivering data presentations.
Other tools are aimed at speeding up the process of working with Excel. Flash Fill detects what users are trying to do and offers a prediction of the final outcome, allowing them to fill a series of data quickly and with ease. Similarly, the Quick Analysis tool lets users convert data into a chart or table in two steps or less.
Apache OpenOffice Calc
OpenOffice was created as a free, open source alternative to Microsoft Office. It began life as StarOffice in 1985 and was acquired by Sun Microsystems in 1999. Acording to the OpenOffice website, "Sun continued to sponsor development on OpenOffice.org for the next 10 years, a period during which not only did the project grow tremendously and became truly global, but the user base also saw an extraordinary increase, and as of the end of 2010 was estimated to be in excess of 100 million."
In 2011, the platform was donated to Apache, which continues to run it, and Apache says it has presided over 100 million downloads since the acquisition.
Using OpenOffice can feel a lot like using an old version of Microsoft Excel, and its spreadsheet module, Calc, is no different. That isn't necessarily a bad thing. Users will find the interface and functionality familiar, albeit with fewer bells and whistles. Apache says it aims for new users to find the software intuitive and for more experienced users to find the data manipulation functionality comprehensive.
Amongst Calc's main features are DataPilot, which allows users to import raw data in a variety of formats, Natural Language Formulas that allow users to type commands with normal words, and the Intelligent Sum Button that inserts a sum function or a subtotal automatically, depending on context. Calc also offers a variety of Wizards to guide users through different processes and support for multiple users.
LibreOffice, Google Sheets, Zoho Sheet
At this point, it's worth mentioning LibreOffice. LibreOffice is based on the same source code as Apache OpenOffice, having been forked off from the product in 2011. Much of the look, feel and functionality is the same.
Like OpenOffice, LibreOffice is free and open source, and its spreadsheet function is also called Calc. It is suggested that LibreOffice has been developed more quickly than OpenOffice, but there is little difference between the two and any decision likely comes down to user preference.
Sheets is part of Google Docs, Google's productivity suite and its answer to Microsoft Office. While Sheets does not have the same amount of functionality as Excel, it does more than enough to be adequate for most purposes. In fact, its more stripped back approach could be seen as a benefit. There are fewer fancy features to get in the way, allowing the user to focus on the core functionality.
Sheets offers the functionality you would expect from a spreadsheet application, such as using standard formula elements, drag-to-fill for extrapolating trends and simple formatting tools. It is deeply integrated with Google Drive, meaning that all documents are saved to the cloud and can be downloaded in different formats if required. It's also possible to access Sheets via a browser, smartphone or tablet.
As with other Google Docs products, Sheets allows users to work on documents with others at the same time. Users can see how others are editing the sheet and a chat window allows for quick and easy communication. It's possible to share individual worksheets publicly or with specific people – and to set permissions for other users.
Amongst the other features available in Sheets are an auto-save function that means users never have to remember to press save again and a version history, meaning that users can revert to an old version of a worksheet if needs be. It's also possible to work offline and to install add-ons that extend the application's functionality.
Price: From free
Zoho's wide-ranging product portfolio extends to the office productivity market, and as with its other products, Zoho Docs (of which Sheet is a part) is available via a freemium model. Users can get an initial 5GB of storage along with basic functionality for free, while US$5 per month (around £3, AU$5.50) will get you 250GB of storage and some extra features. Users can upgrade, downgrade or cancel their plan at any point.
Zoho Sheet is much like Google's similarly named Sheets offering. It offers the straightforward functionality that users require without lots of flashy extra features. Users can collaborate in real-time and access their worksheets from any device at any time. The standard functions language is available and users can autofilter data to match specific conditions, apply conditional formatting, set up macros and use pivot tables.
As with Google Sheets, Zoho Sheet lets users create charts based on their data, and download worksheets in different formats. Spreadsheets can be published online, embedded in websites and shared with others. It's also possible to view the version history of a worksheet.