Spreadsheets are ubiquitous: people use them every day for tracking inventory, budgeting, data tracking, and a million other things. And, while Microsoft Excel has been the go-to spreadsheet for years, there are other (free) alternatives you might like more.
Whatever your reason is for using a spreadsheet, odds are you’ve used Microsoft Excel at some point. And, while the software is more than capable of handling anything you throw at it (even Grandma’s knitting patterns and your little brother’s Minecraft building plans), Excel is expensive and even lacks a few features that would make it more usable. Thankfully, there are plenty of free alternatives available, many of which are just as powerful and easy to use.
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Free spreadsheet software should be just as powerful as paid options and come stocked with all the tools you need to spreadsheet your heart out. Here are the most important features good spreadsheet software should offer, and why they’re important:
- An Intuitive Interface: Spreadsheets are designed to handle complex tasks, but that doesn’t mean that the software itself should be clunky or difficult to use. The best Excel alternatives have a clean modern look and smart tool organization, and are stocked with a ready artillery of built-in formulas, functions, and templates. The software should also have cross-platform support, so you can access them anywhere.
- Live Collaboration Support: If your team needs to work together through a spreadsheet, it’s imperative that the software supports simultaneous collaboration. Likewise, the program should also be able to track who makes what change when, and to allow you to lock down individual cells (or the whole document) so no unwanted changes can be made. It should also let you set the spreadsheet as read-only and enable other permissions for users.
- Powerful Functions and Formulas: Whether you’re tracking warehouse inventory, handling accounting for your department, or creating charts from data for an upcoming presentation, your spreadsheet software has to have a wide variety of formulas at the ready. Basic options for simple math are a given, but if you need something more advanced like statistical or logical functions, or the ability to create a custom function, the software should be able to handle those as well.
- Dynamic Visuals: Not that looking at thousands of cells of text and numbers isn’t a ton of fun, but charts and graphs are a little easier on the eyes. Visuals let you see data at a glance and are a must-have item for presentations. Good Microsoft Excel alternatives support dynamic charts and graphs that update in real time as your data does, and should allow for extensive customization so you can make your visuals look and work exactly how you need them to.
- Advanced Features: Most people probably won’t ever bother with the advanced features found in most spreadsheet software like custom macros, filters, pivot tables, conditional formatting, or the ability to compute and analyze large data sets. However, it’s nice to know that those features are there when and if you need them.
Google Sheets (Free) has become as well-known as Microsoft Excel. Google users already have access to this app, plus its ability to integrate with other Google products (like Google Forms and Google Data Studio) makes it easier for you to stay on track while working on your projects. Sheets also saves everything you create to the Cloud, so you’ll have access to your spreadsheets from any desktop, iOS, or Android device.
The software is easy to navigate and use with its clean and minimal appearance. Support for simultaneous collaboration is great for teams, and it even has a built-in group chat area wherein everyone on your team can talk about the document as they work. You can comment on cells and set specific user permissions for individual cells or the entire document. A robust Sheets Help section is also ready to help in case you have questions.
Sheets has tons of built-in formulas, as well as plenty of pivot tables, conditional formatting options, and templates that can save you time and effort. It contains robust customizable charts and graphs for visualizing your data, which update dynamically as your data does. Google Sheets also stores granular documentation of changes and supports versioning.
Apple’s version of Excel, iWork Numbers (Free), is available to anyone with an iCloud account (which includes PC users), but the mobile app is only available for iOS users (sorry, Android). Numbers, of course, supports the Apple pencil, so if you’re working from your iPad, you can make notes and draw diagrams manually. The app also supports real-time collaboration, showing you real-time edits, and lets you save and export documents as Excel files if you need to work with anyone using Excel. If you need to keep an important document secure in Numbers, you can lock it down with a password, Touch ID, or Face ID.
In Apple’s true minimalistic form, Numbers’ default is a blank sheet instead of a grid (like Excel and its alternatives provide), and its features are sparse and minimally represented. You can easily add charts, tables, and other content as needed, or choose a template with which to get started. Numbers has over 700 customizable shapes you can fashion for data visualization, as well as plenty of options for adjusting the way fonts, tables, and cell borders look. The app’s tools can handle complex functions and formulas, and its Smart Categories feature provides table organization and summaries for deeper insight into your data.
Calc (Free), part of LibreOffice, is a robust spreadsheet program for Windows, macOS, and Linux users. Though the software doesn’t have the beauty and flash of the other alternatives, it’s open-sourced, meaning you have access to much more functionality and the freedom to customize pretty much anything. If you don’t want to start with a blank document, choose a free template to work off of.
LibreOffice Calc has native support for Excel files. You can also customize its appearance so it only shows you the tools and features you want to work with, and its handy keyboard shortcuts make it easy to quickly navigate its interface. The software’s built-in wizard helps you create visualizations from your data and use other advanced features, making it easy to use for new and veteran users alike.
Calc has a neat tool called DataPilot that lets you import raw data from external databases and manipulate it in your own spreadsheet. You can also create dynamic charts and graphs that display updated data in real time. The software offers flexible cell formatting and robust customization options for text, cells, and charts. In addition, multiuser collaboration in Calc is also possible, but this feature isn’t as robust as it is in pretty much any other alternative.
If you’re looking for an Excel alternative that still looks and functions largely like Excel, WPS Office Spreadsheets (Free) is the one to choose. In addition to having a similar layout to Excel, WPS is also compatible with XLS, XLSX, and CSV files, so you can import files from (or export to) Microsoft Excel without issue. WPS Office is available on Windows, macOS, Linux, iOS, Android, and on the web as well (but only as the entire suite); if you want access to just Spreadsheets, you’re still stuck with the entire suite, including the word processor.
WPS has a beautiful modern interface that’s easy to use. It supports track changes and comments, as well as multiuser collaboration with WPS and Microsoft Office users, and it has over 50 keyboard shortcuts for easier navigation. The software supports advanced pivot tables, contains over 100 formulas you can use with your data, and has a what-if analysis feature you can use for finding solutions for data-heavy complex problems. Paying to upgrade to the Premium plan ($29.99/year) eliminates ads, gets you cloud storage, and lets you access the program on up to nine devices (instead of three on the free plan).
Zoho Office Sheet (Free) is great spreadsheet software for many reasons, the first of which is its AI-powered data analysis tool, Zia, which analyzes your data and provides insights to help you better understand it. Zia gets rid of inconsistencies and duplicate values, and automates pivot tables and charts that you can then add to your spreadsheet. You can also “ask” the tool questions about your data, or to analyze said data with certain filters in place, and it will help you find an answer.
Zoho doesn’t lack for other features, either, like real-time collaboration for up to 25 users or a chat panel where users can discuss a documents. The audit trail tool lets you see who made a particular change to the document, and Zoho backs up every document with default version backups so you won’t have to worry about data loss. You can lock down the entire document, or just certain cells, with a password, set read and edit permissions, and publish part or all of your spreadsheet on the web.
The app supports over 350 functions, in addition to advanced functions like pivot tables and conditional formatting. It can automate certain tasks, create validations for data entry, collect data with forms, and import data from external sources like a web page, an RSS feed, or an external file. The app also lets you create custom functions and record macros. Zoho is cloud based and can be accessed anywhere.