I've met people who survive on spreadsheets. With a flash and a swish and a zing (and an arsenal of carefully constructed formulas), life and business move forward with ease.
But there's a cap to how much you can achieve with spreadsheets alone. If you want to do something with your data—more than just store it—you want a database tool. While philosophies on databases may differ, our goal is to present the best database software to help you keep all your business information in one place, create relationships between the data, and then build something with those relationships.
Have you ever needed a particular tool for your work, but even after trying dozens of apps, couldn't find anything that fit your needs precisely? That's what these databases are for. After weeks of intensive testing, here are the six best database app builders.
The 6 best database-powered app builders
Airtable for people who love spreadsheets
Podio for collaboration and project management
Infinity for a one-time payment with lots of features
Smartsheet for flexibility
Google AppSheet for building apps for all devices
Zoho Creator for building custom solutions
What makes database software great?
How we evaluate and test apps
All of our best apps roundups are written by humans who've spent much of their careers using, testing, and writing about software. We spend dozens of hours researching and testing apps, using each app as it's intended to be used and evaluating it against the criteria we set for the category. We're never paid for placement in our articles from any app or for links to any site—we value the trust readers put in us to offer authentic evaluations of the categories and apps we review. For more details on our process, read the full rundown of how we select apps to feature on the Zapier blog.
Once you understand the difference between a spreadsheet and a database, you'll better understand when it's time to make the switch. In a database, you can make queries to display only specific, related pieces of data. Database-powered app builders take it one step further, allowing you to create views and dashboards to better understand your data—and even allowing you to build apps for internal use (everything from forms to automated business processes).
I've spent a lot of time testing, writing about, and building apps using no-code tools. For this roundup, I spent dozens of hours researching and testing database tools, importing data, reviewing templates, and building my own mini-apps. I paid attention to everything from the speed and the complexity of the features to the user interface and learning curve of the app.
Each of the picks you'll read about has something unique to offer, but all of them were judged based on the same criteria:
Ease of use. This means everything from a seamless user interface to helpful documentation for when you get stuck (because you almost definitely will).
Data visualization options. What kinds of visualizations are already available, and can you set up your own using templates?
Flexibility. I was looking for tools that could work across an organization and even hold all your business's processes in one place.
Integrations. Your work is complex, which means you'll certainly have other tools in your tech stack. I looked at how each database tool integrated with other apps, either with native integration support or via Zapier. I also explored what kinds of import and export features were available.
Value for money. I made sure to consider the pricing model, the availability of free plans, and the value for money at the paid plans.
Because the category is so big, you'll find that each platform has a unique approach, and the level of technical expertise required to use them also varies. To keep the scope intact, most open-ended app-building solutions, enterprise suites, and business process management platforms were left out, as the core of the experience and philosophy of that kind of software didn't match what we were looking for.
Each of these apps uses a different branded terminology to refer to databases and sheets. For comparison purposes, we'll use the following terms: databases (the files), spreadsheets or sheets (the pages within the file), and rows (the records or data within the spreadsheets).
Best database software for people who love spreadsheets
If you're used to having spreadsheets run your business, Airtable is your best bet. It's still a spreadsheet at heart, but with a collection of powerful features, including app-building. It feels like the gold standard for the category; and the friendly user interface, along with a very intuitive experience and thorough help content, will support you as you make the switch.
The onboarding process is really thorough: it assists you through every step of importing data or starting from a template. Plus, there's a lot of help spread out in different spots in the app (and outside of it), which gave me more confidence to explore and tinker—more so than with the other apps on this list.
Configuring new views is a breeze. Once you have data, you just click the view type you want to set up on the left-side menu. I was able to create a calendar, a data entry form, and a kanban view of my original content strategy table in minutes, with very little tweaking. There are also light collaboration features: you can mention your workspace buddies, leave comments on database entries, and receive notifications for changes. They're enough if you want to keep a small team on the same page, but you'll still have to depend heavily on your business communication apps.
The apps section offers even more power, but some tinkering is definitely required. Most apps are easy to build right onto your sheets, while some require you to configure a third-party service. You can do things like time-tracking or currency conversion directly within Airtable, but if you want to build something more powerful and comprehensive from scratch, the difficulty ramps up pretty quickly to developer-level.
Airtable also allows you to create custom dashboards, called Interfaces, where you can pull data from all your databases, apply formulas, and see how everything looks at a glance. It's not as easy to configure as database views, but with a little digging and tinkering, I was able to build what I needed without a lot of hassle.
Overall, Airtable is a polished tool that'll make your transition from classic spreadsheets a painless experience—and let you do so much more. You can make Airtable even more powerful by connecting it to Zapier, allowing you to do things like create calendar events from new Airtable records or create new Airtable records from form responses.
Create detailed events in Google Calendar from new Airtable records in views
Airtable difficulty: Beginner
Airtable pricing: Free plan available, with access to unlimited databases and 1,200 records (rows) per database. Paid plans start at $10/month/user.
Best database software for a one-time payment with lots of features
If you like Trello, you'll feel at home in Infinity. The interface and navigation, down to how you can edit rows in your sheets, feels like Trello with a bunch of added database features. It's uncluttered and intuitive, so you'll have an easy time jumping in.
Infinity is a strong database tool, with automation, dashboards, multiple views, integration with Zapier and a small set of other apps, and a solid support section to help you make the most of it. I like the fact you can have multiple databases accessible straight from the left-side menu and then create and nest the views within it like folders.
It's kind of like a less-cluttered Airtable—but also a little lighter on the features. But at the end of the day, the reason Infinity made this list is because of its pricing model. Based on how many users you have and how much storage you need, you can pay a fixed price once and have access to all the features and support forever. In the future, if you need to upgrade, you'll only pay the difference between the tier you're in and the tier you want to move to.
Making a long-term commitment to a platform may feel risky. What if the developers stop updating it? Fortunately, Infinity has a public roadmap showing what's been implemented and what's in store for the future. You can take a look and judge if the app is moving in the right direction. There's no free trial, but you can test the functionality in the templates section. When you preview each one, you're seeing an embedded version of Infinity, and you can get a feel of most of the features there.
If you have a lot of data and you know you'll need a tool for the long haul, Infinity's combination of features and pricing model can maximize your dollars. Make the most of it by using Zapier's Infinity integrations, which will let you do things like create new Infinity items from calendar events or to-do list tasks.
Infinity difficulty: Beginner
Infinity pricing: One-time payment starting at $149
Best database software for collaboration and project management
Podio is kind of like a corporate Airtable alternative—but that's not the only difference between the two apps. In addition to everything you'd expect from a database platform with app features, Podio invests heavily in team collaboration and project management. There's a feed and an activity log page for each workspace, where you can see what's changed recently and view comments, updates, and requests all on one page.
If you're a manager, there's a calendar for you to track how projects are going, a tab to see how employees are doing in terms of workload, and an overview of the tasks on the immediate horizon. It's a really strong tool to keep everyone on track. It's a little more complex than Airtable, and I didn't love that some important actions are hidden in a menu with a wrench icon that's a little inconspicuous unless you stop to scan the whole page.
Podio calls each database an app: you can use templates or even complete "App Packs" for things like human resources or marketing, to name a few. It's a great way to get started on the right foot, which is great since the app is a bit complex. Unfortunately, you'll need to upgrade to higher-priced tiers to get access to things like automation or advanced dashboards.
If you're running a team and complex projects, Podio offers features that not only keep track of your business's data but also keep track of what's going on during execution. Take it up a notch by using Zapier's Podio integrations to do things like saving form submissions in Podio or adding Podio data to your email marketing tool.
Podio difficulty: Intermediate
Podio pricing: Free plan available but limited to 500 rows; paid plans start at $7.20/month
Best database software for flexibility
Smartsheet strikes the best balance between collaboration (e.g., various user types and conversations), project management (e.g., task view across projects), and all the features you'd expect from a database, leaning a bit on an enterprise approach.
I liked the onboarding process: it was in-depth without keeping me there too long. (If you need help later on, there's a help center with learning tracks, which is like a bunch of online courses for Smartsheet.) The interface and utilities are similar to Google Sheets, so you'll feel at home if you're upgrading from there. It's a bit cluttered, but it's intuitive enough—you won't spend a lot of time looking for what you need.
One thing that was super frustrating as I was tinkering with my database and building an app is that Smartsheet doesn't have immediate autosave: the data that you enter isn't saved right away (you have to do it manually). It'll only autosave if you leave a sheet open and move away for three minutes. Close tabs at your own risk!
The app-building features start at a pretty high price point (Enterprise), but Smartsheet made it onto this list because of its versatility. And you can do even more with Smartsheet by connecting it to Zapier: get notifications for new rows, create tasks in other apps when there are new Smartsheet rows, and more.
Get email notifications for new rows in a Smartsheet spreadsheet
Smartsheet difficulty: Intermediate
Smartsheet pricing: Plans start at $7/user/month, but app-building features are only available on the Enterprise level (custom quotes)
Best database software for building apps for all devices
All the solutions above have a core spreadsheet user experience, and then take that to the next level with a combination of form-building, interactive dashboards, or app configuration. Some tools even throw in project management features and team collaboration.
Google AppSheet has a different philosophy. Upload one of your spreadsheets, and AppSheet will use its AI engine to sketch an app you can use to interact with the data and data types on it. After that, you can customize each page of the app with a set of menus that have the cleanliness that Google has made us expect, but with features that already have a logic closer to a no-code tool. The whole user experience is very Google, both while building the app and in terms of how your final app feels. The terminology is a bit advanced in some of the interactions, but there's a lot of help (including a free Udemy 57-minute video course) to support you through the process.
I uploaded a spreadsheet with data for fictional employees, and AppSheet built a simple profile view and button to let me edit each entry. In five minutes, I was able to create a form to add new employees with a quick Google search and a couple of clicks.
The best part: AppSheet builds apps that are responsive, looking great on any device. You can even include features that smartphones can take advantage of, like barcode scanning (albeit those features come at a higher price point). Other interesting features include machine learning and text recognition to add some artificial intelligence to your builds.
You can build and edit all you want, for as long as you want. AppSheet will only start charging when you're ready to deploy your app to a live setting. While the setup time for Google AppSheet is longer and the learning curve a bit steeper, the range of solutions you can create is potentially much wider.
You can do even more with AppSheet by connecting it to Zapier to do things like creating a new record based on a sale or form submission.
Google AppSheet difficulty: Intermediate
Google AppSheet pricing: Free to build; deploying an app starts at $5/user/month
Best database software for building custom solutions
Moving one step further away from spreadsheets and one step closer to app building, Zoho Creator brands itself as a low-code tool.
Once you land on the dashboard, you'll notice the terminology is different. You can create applications, microservices, and even add analytics tools. You can start with a template (they're very complete, each one with a custom interface, covering multiple use cases), or by adding your own spreadsheets. Once you upload your data, Zoho Creator automatically creates a form to update and add new records to it, as well as a basic report you can configure.
While testing, I was on my way to the marketing templates section when a "Gym Management" template caught my eye. Half an hour later, I had four trainers, a selection of late-night yoga classes, and a way to track the height and weight of each trainee. All with a clean dashboard ready to show membership strength and attendance over the last five weeks, among other useful stats.
The level of freedom is much higher than in other apps I tested, but so is the difficulty to get started. Unless you have some experience with low- or no-code app-builders, jumping into Zoho Creator isn't going to feel intuitive. But after going through the quick-start guide and installing a few templates (and editing them to see what's going on behind the scenes), Zoho Creator shows its potential to let you build any solution you want—as long as you have a lot of time and a decent amount of patience.
If you're looking for a more streamlined, plug-and-play experience, then the other tools in this roundup will serve you better. But if freedom is what you're looking for, this is it. If you go for it, you can automate Zoho Creator by connecting it to Zapier to do things like creating cloud storage folders or project management tasks whenever there are new records in Zoho Creator.
Create Dropbox folders for new Zoho Creator records
Zoho Creator difficulty: Challenging
Zoho Creator pricing: Paid plans start at $25/user/month
Need more freedom and power?
If you go past Zoho Creator, you enter the realm of open-ended app-building platforms, like Bubble. These low-code/no-code platforms offer a range of features that allow you to host, build, scale, and distribute apps within your own company, or even to create new products and services you can sell to customers.
If you're looking for more information on this topic, search for low-code/no-code, the no-code movement, and no-code platforms. These are more advanced and require more time to get used to, but the investment can pay off immensely.
Finding the best database-powered app builders
Database-powered app builders range from upgrading your spreadsheets to allowing you to create fully-functional apps to solve business problems. How much power you need is up to what you're trying to achieve. All the platforms we mentioned in this roundup have either free tiers, a free trial, or a free way to test the basic features. Take them out for a spin, take your time to experiment, and choose the best to add to your business toolbox.
And once you've built a database-powered internal tool, you might be tempted to stop there. But don't: your internal tool might be useful on its own, but it'll be far more useful if you integrate it with other apps to automatically import data, send notifications, and more. Your database builder may include features to send basic notifications and import data, but for everything else, you can connect your database tool to Zapier.
This article was originally published in June 2015 by Matthew Guay.