After taking a college statistics course that introduced me to Excel's complex formulas and functions, I decided at the time I was better off sticking with Google Sheets—even though my friend studying engineering would spite me for it.
In my defense, I don't need to use advanced data analysis tools very often in my line of work. What I need is a relatively simple way to organize data and collaborate with my team. And that's ultimately what the Google Sheets vs. Excel debate comes down to—what you're using a spreadsheet app for.
I pulled upon my experience using both apps and did some additional testing to determine which is best for who. Read on for my analysis of Google Sheets vs. Microsoft Excel.
Microsoft offers two versions of Excel: Excel for desktop and Excel for the web. This article focuses on Excel for desktop, which is more powerful and commonly used, but I'll reference Excel for the web where relevant.
Google Sheets vs. Excel at a glance
Google Sheets and Excel are eerily similar—they often use the same formulas, and you can troubleshoot them in similar ways. But each platform has unique strengths that are geared toward different audiences.
Google Sheets is best for collaborating teams and individuals looking for a simple, no-cost spreadsheet solution due to its user-friendly interface, real-time chat and collaboration features, and free option for individuals.
Excel is best for individuals performing data analysis due to its advanced built-in statistical analysis tools, extensive data visualization options, and ability to maintain fast speeds when dealing with huge amounts of data.
⭐⭐⭐⭐ Extensive library of formulas; lacks some statistical tests and functions
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Extensive library of formulas; includes advanced functions and statistical tests
⭐⭐⭐⭐ Offers a decent selection of data visualization options; not as intelligent as Excel
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Offers more data visualization options; intelligent "Recommended Charts" feature creates charts from complex data sets
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Built for live collaboration, with intuitive tools such as live chat and easily accessible version tracking
⭐⭐⭐ Live collaboration requires additional setup and alignment of Excel versions; fewer intuitive collaborative tools
⭐⭐⭐⭐ Fewer advanced tools; interface is clear and minimally cluttered
⭐⭐⭐ Many advanced features and tools; interface feels a little cluttered; bigger learning curve
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Automatically saves to Google Drive
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Can automatically save to OneDrive
⭐⭐⭐⭐ Huge quantities of data can slow down the platform
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Can handle huge quantities of data with minimal impact on performance
⭐⭐⭐ Limited, as shortcuts cannot conflict with browser shortcuts
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Contains a multitude of built-in shortcuts with no conflicts, including shortcuts that Google Sheets lacks
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Free for individual use; business plans for Google Workspace (including Docs, Slides, Forms, etc.) cost a monthly fee
Business Starter: $6/user/month
Business Standard: $12/user/month
Business Plus: $18/user/month
⭐⭐⭐ The desktop app costs a flat fee, and Microsoft 365 requires a subscription; device access is limited
Excel desktop app: $159.99 (flat fee for one device)
Microsoft 365 Personal: $69.99/year
Microsoft 365 Family (1-6 people): $99.99/year
Google Sheets is more user-friendly and accessible; Excel is more advanced
If you're looking for a basic spreadsheet app at no cost to you, Google Sheets has you covered. If you need more powerful tools for managing and manipulating data and don't mind dropping some cash on a spreadsheet app, Excel may be a better fit.
I can't lie—the Excel interface comes across as a little intimidating for the spreadsheet novice. It includes several tabs jam-packed with features, many of which are left unlabeled or represented by tiny icons that a skimming eye could easily miss. When navigating through tabs, I found myself feeling a little claustrophobic and overwhelmed with options.
Meanwhile, Google Sheets' interface is relatively minimalistic and includes labeled options organized into dropdown menus. Since it doesn't cram its features into the header, it remains uncluttered and easier to navigate.
Google Sheets also proves itself to be more accessible than Excel when you consider the cost of each platform. Google Sheets is free for individuals, whereas Excel costs $159.99 per device or $69.99 per year with a Microsoft 365 Personal subscription. That said, Excel's higher price point and busy interface make more sense when you consider its features.
Data analysis and visualization
Both Excel and Google Sheets offer a vast collection of formulas, though Excel's is slightly more extensive—we're talking nearly 500. This makes tasks like accounting, data organization, and statistical analysis a breeze.
Where Excel really shines is in advanced data analysis. Navigate to the Data tab, and you'll notice an option to perform a What-If Analysis. This enables you to test scenarios using Excel's advanced formulas. For example, you could use this feature to determine how many units you'd need to sell in the final month of the quarter to achieve financial goals.
Excel also offers better pivot table features for summarizing large sets of data, including an entire tab called PivotChart Analyze filled with options to manipulate and visualize your table, such as generating a bar chart summarizing the data.
Google Sheets also allows you to generate pivot tables, but it doesn't let you manipulate or visualize the data with advanced pivot table features.
In fact, Excel proves itself supreme when it comes to creating any type of data visualization. For example, when I selected a large set of data and clicked Excel's Recommended Charts option, it presented various logical ways that I could present elements of the data, such as units and unit costs over time.
Google Sheets lacks this feature and offers fewer data visualization options altogether. When I selected the entire data set, Sheets created a nonsensical graph rather than automatically pulling relevant data. To make it look anything like Excel's chart, I'd have to manually adjust it.
Google Sheets is more collaborative; Excel is better for solo work
My co-workers and I aren't necessarily hanging out in Google Sheets as if it were an online video game, but… sometimes we are? Sheets allows multiple teammates to edit the same spreadsheet at once, showing one another's cell selections and edits in real time. This makes it easy for entire teams to collaborate on the same spreadsheet and keep edits consolidated.
Like most other Google apps, Sheets also offers a chat feature that appears when multiple people simultaneously work in the same spreadsheet, making it easy for teammates to communicate in real time.
It even keeps version history very handy at the top of every document so you can easily sort through who made each change and restore previous versions. Because mistakes happen (especially when collaborating with a lot of people).
Excel, on the other hand, isn't necessarily known for its collaborative features. While Excel for the web offers real-time collaboration, there are so many versions of Excel for desktop that version compatibility issues can make collaboration finicky. For example, see the sharing error below resulting from table format issues.
Granted, Excel doesn't market itself as the collaborator's dream. It's built to run offline as a desktop app, whereas Google Sheets is an online-first tool that has teamwork built into its DNA. While you can use Google Sheets offline, you have to enable offline mode to do so—an easy, albeit extra, step.
Since Excel is an offline application (assuming you aren't using Excel for the web), it doesn't integrate with tools like Zapier. This limits your ability to automate your Excel workflows and integrate it with other apps, something you can do endlessly with Google Sheets.
Excel has everything you need built in; Google Sheets relies on third parties
Excel is your one-stop shop for data analysis and comes equipped with advanced tools to help you manage and analyze data. For example, navigate to Excel's Data tab, and you'll see advanced statistical tests such as t-Tests, z-Tests, and ANOVAs built into the platform. Meanwhile, to perform an ANOVA test in Google Sheets, you first need to download the XLMiner Analysis Toolpak—it's no wonder my stats professor insisted we use Excel.
Of course, you'd expect a spreadsheet app to offer some stats features, but Excel's built-in tools go beyond the expected. For example, the app has a Data from Picture option that can pull data from an image and organize it into cells. I gave this feature a shot using an image of a table with data that I found on Google Images. Here's a screenshot of my result, followed by the image:
While I'd need to merge some cells to precisely match the table, I was impressed with how well Excel read the data and placed it into cells. This feature isn't available in Google Sheets natively, though I did find an add-on called ExtractTable that Sheets users can install to perform this same task.
While having a huge library of add-ons can help you accomplish niche tasks, there are some downsides. Apart from the extra time it takes to install them, third-party add-ons can be finicky if they don't update alongside Google Sheets.
Not only can this potentially cause glitches with your spreadsheets, but it may also put you at risk of cyber threats if developers fail to update their add-ons or apply effective security measures. Plus, if something goes wrong, it isn't up to Google to assist you—it's up to the developer, who may or may not offer any support.
Google Sheets vs. Excel FAQ
Google Sheets and Excel look so similar at first glance that they're often confused with one another, so let me unpack some common questions about the two apps.
Is Google Sheets the same as Excel?
Google Sheets and Excel may look similar at first glance, but they are decidedly not the same. While they're both spreadsheet programs, they each have different strengths. For example, Excel has the capacity to hold far more data than Google Sheets without slowing down, and Google Sheets' price tag ($0) and collaborative features give Excel a run for its money.
What can Excel do that Google Sheets can't?
Excel offers some advanced features that set it apart from Google Sheets, like built-in advanced statistical tests, better data analysis tools, more keyboard shortcuts, and the ability to import data from more external sources.
Do accountants use Excel or Google Sheets?
You'll find accountants who use both Excel and Google Sheets. Their choice may depend on their industry's preference or their own personal preference. While most accountants have historically leaned toward Excel, organizations are increasingly gravitating toward Google Sheets. They'll usually also have a dedicated accounting app to support them.
Excel vs. Google Sheets: Which should you choose?
Excel is best fit for those who work solo and need advanced data analysis tools, whereas Google Sheets is better for teams that need a simple spreadsheet solution with great collaborative features.
When making your decision, remember that Zapier only integrates with Google Sheets and Excel for the web—not Excel for desktop. If automation and app integration are important to you, Google Sheets and Zapier have you covered.
Zapier is a no-code automation tool that lets you connect your apps into automated workflows, so that every person and every business can move forward at growth speed. Learn more about how it works.