The best Excel alternatives in comparison

Although designed as a spreadsheet programme, hardly any other computer programme is used today for as many different applications as Microsoft Excel. Those who do not want to be tied to the American quasi-monopolist are spoilt for choice! Calc, Google Sheets, Apple Numbers and SoftMaker Office are only the best known among the numerous alternatives. A newcomer among the online spreadsheet applications is SeaTable, which has a significantly expanded range of functions compared to other Excel alternatives and thus revives the competition.

Function and feature comparison

For those who only want a quick overview, the following table compares the central features and functions of the most important Excel alternatives. A detailed description of these programmes follows below, after a categorisation of the spreadsheet programmes considered here.

In this comparison, only local applications that can be used by at least two operating system platforms were considered. For this reason, Apple Numbers as a pure Excel alternative for Mac is not included, nor is Gnumeric, whose developers stopped providing Windows installation files in 2014 and which is now a pure Excel for Linux.

 CalcPlanmakerGoogle SheetsZoho SheetEthercalcSeaTable
DeveloperLibreOffice and OpenOfficeSoftmaker GmbHGoogle Inc.Zoho Corp. Pvt. Ltd.CommunitySeafile Ltd.
PlatformWindows, Mac, LinuxWindows, Mac, LinuxBrowser-basedBrowser-basedBrowser-basedBrowser-based
File formatODSPMDX or XLSX
Costsfree of chargePurchase: 100€
Rent: 30€ p.a.
free optionfree optionfree of chargefree option
Capture
Text fields
Number fields
Date fields
Formulas
Single selection
Multiple selection
Formatted text
Files
Images
Position data
Creator
Creation time
Last editor
Processing time
Relations
Max. Columns
Max. Rows
1.024
1.048.576
16.384
1.000.000
5,000,000 cells256
65.536
n/a2,000 to ∞ depending on subscription
Evaluation
Data validation
Sorting
Filter
Grouping
Conditional formatting
Target value search
Pivot tables
Diagrams
Map view
Gallery view
Timeline view
Integrations
External data
API
Plugins
SDK

Classification of Excel alternatives

Not included in the tabular comparison are the two properties operating mode and availability of the source code. We are now making up for this! A matrix spanning these two criteria provides an overview and a decision-oriented classification.

Classification Excel Alternative

A comparison of spreadsheets 15 years ago would have pitted exclusively local applications like Calc and Apple Numbers from the bottom two quadrants against Microsoft Excel. With the triumph of cloud computing, browser-based spreadsheets have gained enormous market shares and are now more and more the leading applications. It is not for nothing that, in addition to classic Excel, there is now also Excel Online as a web application of the Microsoft 365 package.

The advantages of server-hosted solutions are also undeniable. For one, there is the location and device independence of cloud applications. A browser is all that is needed. The end device and its operating system no longer play a role. Whether desktop or mobile device, at the workplace or on the road, you always have access to your data. The topic of collaboration is just as important. Changes made by one user are immediately forwarded to others - you work together as if you were sitting together in front of the table. All cloud and self-hosted solutions support real-time collaborative work on spreadsheets. Last but not least, cloud solutions are unprecedentedly convenient for administrators and users alike. There is no need for decentralised installation and maintenance of software on workstations.

Although local table solutions have been ticked off, they still have their raison d'être. The most important argument on their side is independence from internet access. Anyone who wants to make a few changes while travelling will not be able to get around them until further notice. Another argument, albeit one that is losing importance, is the wider availability of extensions, such as the macros that are indispensable in many companies. In many cases, these are only available for the desktop versions. The same applies to literature management systems, which are indispensable in science.

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Calc

"The Open Source Spreadsheet of the LibreOffice and OpenOffice Suite".

Before the boom of cloud-based spreadsheet solutions, Calc was the undisputed Excel alternative and still enjoys great popularity among private users today. Calc was as convincing then as it is today with its many functions, broad platform support with installation media for Windows, Mac and Linux, and a large user community that offers extensive documentation. Another plus for Calc: it can be used privately and commercially free of charge.

Calc is found in a similar but not identical form in the OpenOffice and LibreOffice Office Suite. The reason for this can be found in the common past of the two suites. In 2010, LibreOffice split off as a separate project from OpenOffice, which was dominated by Oracle at the time and paid little attention to the project. Since then, the development of LibreOffice has continued independently of The Document Foundation. Oracle withdrew completely from the project shortly afterwards and handed it over to the Apache Software Foundation, which has since given OpenOffice its name.

Screenshot Libre Office Calc

Calc is in no way inferior to Excel in terms of core functions! If you take a closer look, you will also find some features that Excel does not offer. Calc shows particular strength in the area of formulas. Calc's formula assistant knows about 30 more functions than its competitor from Microsoft. In addition, as an open source Excel alternative, Calc offers good support for the OpenFormula standard. Calc is also flexible when it comes to formatting. In addition to the usual cell formatting, Calc knows cell and page styles with which tables can quickly be made attractive and uniform. True to the open source paradigm, Calc also promotes data portability: Apple Numbers and Gnumeric files can be imported as well as numerous older formats (e.g. MS Works, Lotus 1-2-3). The ability to compare two spreadsheet files is another Calc function that Excel users have been waiting for in vain. Administrators also appreciate the possibility to start and run OpenOffice like LibreOffice directly from a USB stick without installation.

The truth is, however, that Calc only has limited macro support and is not flexible when it comes to connecting external data sources. This means that it is not suitable for many business users. For heavy users, the lack of multithreading capability and the absence of Power Pivot remain weighty arguments against Calc. Less ambitious users will most likely notice the reduced choice of chart types. Waterfall charts and histograms, for example, are not available.

Users who only work a little with the advanced functions will have no problems getting started or switching to Calc. The Calc user interface is clear and the menus are logically structured. It is a different story for experienced Excel users. They will see their work efficiency drop at the beginning, as they will have to search for the desired functions more often. It is not the less modern appearance of the user interface that is decisive here, but the different organisation of functions and their mode of operation.

Another obstacle to switching to the Excel alternative Calc is the incomplete support of the XLSX file format used by Excel. XLSX documents can be opened in Calc, but formatting and functions can be lost. The LibreOffice developers themselves describe support for importing from and exporting to Microsoft's OOXML files as "partial". The standard file format of LibreOffice and OpenOffice is ODS, a vendor-independent document format according to the Open Document Standard.

PlanMaker

"The Excel clone from Softmaker".

PlanMaker is the spreadsheet application of the SoftMaker Office Suite from Nuremberg-based SoftMaker Software GmbH. In addition to PlanMaker, the Office Suite from Germany also contains the document processing software TextMaker and the application Presentations.

Screenshot Softmakers PlanMaker

If you are looking for a free alternative to Excel, you will be disappointed with PlanMaker at first: the purchase licence for five private or one business computer costs around 100€. You can also rent the SoftMaker Suite for €3 per month or €30 per year. For those who really don't want to spend anything, there is a functionally limited version of the SoftMaker Office Suite called FreeOffice, which can be used permanently free of charge.

However, anyone who wants to get away from Excel out of antipathy to Microsoft and is looking for a powerful, comfortable Excel clone is excellently served by PlanMaker. PlanMaker offers a comprehensive feature set, an attractive user interface very closely based on Excel and excellent compatibility with Excel's XLSX file format. In fact, the SoftMaker Suite applications can use Microsoft's OOXML file formats for file storage by default. In this respect, PlanMaker eliminates many of the disadvantages that speak against Calc as an Excel alternative.

However, PlanMaker can also score points against Excel in another area: PlanMaker runs on all major desktop platforms and is thus an attractive Excel alternative for Mac and Linux. The free FreeOffice is also available for the three operating system families.

Sheets

"The online spreadsheet from Google"

Sheets is the spreadsheet web application from Google. It offers an attractive user interface, rich data analysis functions and practical team functions. All you need to get started with Sheets is a (free) Google Account - and who doesn't have one? So it's no wonder that Google Sheets is probably the most popular Excel alternative at the moment!

Screenshot Google Sheets

With Sheets, the Google developers have created an application in which beginners and demanding users alike will feel at home. The web-based user interface runs very smoothly, the menus are well organised and even dedicated users will hardly have any functional wishes unfulfilled. On the other hand, it is precisely the omission of some functions that makes Google Sheets attractive for beginners.

Especially when the focus is on collaborative work on spreadsheets, Sheets can play its trump cards as a web application. Google Sheets spreadsheets are stored in Google Drive, which is also linked to the Google account. From there, spreadsheets can be shared with other users with just a few clicks. When editing simultaneously, all editors see the cursor positions and the input of the others in real time. An integrated chat allows direct exchange with colleagues.

While Google Sheets shines when it comes to collaboration, you have to accept certain limitations when it comes to advanced functions compared to Excel. Especially when it comes to visualisation, the options are not quite on the same level as the original. The options for creating high-quality, consistent charts are a bit more versatile in Excel. Still.

Google is well on its way to catching up with the top dog Excel. Since its humble beginnings in 2006, Sheets has developed rapidly. And the further development continues. At the beginning of 2020, for example, a version history of changes was integrated. If the existing functions of Sheets are not enough for you, you can "upgrade" further functions via add-ons from the G Suite Marketplace.

Newcomers will probably have an easier time with Sheets than with Excel. Newcomers will also quickly find their way around after a short familiarisation phase. The biggest problem when switching is not so much the use as the migration of data. It is impressive how many Excel features Google Sheets recognises and imports (e.g. data validation). However, reports of no longer functioning formulas or destroyed charts after the import still exist.

Sheet

"The Zoho Office Suite Online Spreadsheet".

Zoho Sheet is the web spreadsheet of the Indian Zoho Corporation and part of the Zoho Office Suite. This has attracted some attention in recent years, not least because it can be used by private individuals free of charge. Other parts of the online office suite are Zoho Writer (word processing), Zoho Show (presentations) and Zoho Notebook (notes). In addition, Zoho's offer includes more than 40 integrated, web-based office apps and thus presents itself as a G Suite alternative. A closer look is therefore worthwhile in any case.

Those who suspect further similarities to Google Sheets due to the similarity in name and the claim as G Suite Killer are not wrong. At first glance, Zoho Sheet appears to be a Google Sheets clone. The menu structure is virtually identical; differences only become apparent at second glance. Zoho Sheet and Google Sheets are also close in a direct comparison of functions. Web forms, pivot tables, conditional formatting, versioning and extensive collaboration functions including sharing, real-time collaboration and chat are available in both. Those who are comfortable with Google Sheets will have no trouble with Zoho's Excel alternative.

Screenshot Zoho Sheet

However, one does Zoho Sheet an injustice if one denies it individuality! In the area of data analysis, Sheet offers more than its Google counterpart with a solver and a target value function. Due to its less market-dominating role, it also shows itself to be pleasingly integrative. Tables created in Zoho Sheet can be stored in the user's own online storage - Zoho Docs for individuals, Zoho WorkDrive for teams - or in an integrated account of Google Drive, Box, OneDrive as well as Dropbox. File export is possible in .csv, .xlsx and .ods files.

One of Zoho Sheet's strengths, which recommends it as an Excel alternative especially for newcomers, is its macro support, which also includes one for Visual Basic for Applications (VBA). The powerful scripting engine of Google Sheets requires JavaScript-based scripts for macros Google Apps. For Excel users who previously developed in VBA, this means a massive change or learning a new programming language.

The race between Zoho Sheet and Google Sheets is a close one and the question of the superior Excel replacement cannot be answered without the context of the concrete application. Especially in the area of data visualisation, Zoho Sheet offers fewer options than Google Sheets. Zoho also does not support drawing. For some users, the limitation to 65,000 rows and 256 columns may also be a significant restriction. In any case, Zoho Sheet is a good Google Sheets alternative for all those who have switched to Excel and do not consider an Excel sheet without a macro to be a real Excel spreadsheet.

Ethercalc

"The open source web spreadsheet for easy collaboration".

The lesser known Ethercalc is a simple web-based spreadsheet application developed by a small community. As open source software, anyone can download Ethercalc and use it without restrictions. The developers provide packages for all important server platforms including a Docker image. At https://ethercalc.org, the application can be tested and used without user registration.

At first glance, the rudimentary, somewhat dusty-looking user interface of Ethercalc is striking. The functions provided by Ethercalc are also rather limited compared to Excel and the other cloud-based Excel alternatives. This is particularly noticeable in the formatting and simple analysis of data, such as sorting. While wizards make these tasks simple and convenient with Excel and its ilk, with Ethercalc this is associated with some click work via the corresponding menus. The possibilities for data visualisation are very limited, a filter function is completely missing.

Screenshot Ethercalc

In terms of functionality and comfort, Ethercalc is not on a par with the other Excel alternatives. This is partly due to the small developer community, but also to the general objective of the project.

The focus of Ethercalc is not on the evaluation of large data sets, but on collaboration and location-independent data collection. As a table on the web, you don't need an installed programme, but can make adjustments on the go via mobile phone or tablet, and thanks to real-time support, all changes are immediately visible to everyone else in Ethercalc. An export function is then available for the evaluation of the recorded data, which enables simple transfer to XLSX, ODS, CSV and HTML.

SeaTable

"The collaborative web spreadsheet for more than numbers and text".

SeaTable is the latest application in the circle of Excel alternatives considered here. Like Google Sheets, Zoho Sheet and Ethercalc, SeaTable is a server-based spreadsheet application that combines an attractive user interface with powerful analysis and collaboration functions. In addition, SeaTable does many things differently from the competition and thus enables many new use cases that were and are not possible in Excel and its ilk.

The fact that SeaTable does things differently from other spreadsheets is obvious from the first time you open a table. Instead of a uniform table grid that only understands text, numbers and formulas, a SeaTable table can also store images and files, checkboxes, position data and user references. Other field types that SeaTable offers are single and multiple selections. Single selection fields are similar to dropdown lists, which can be mapped in Excel via data validation. However, the selection fields in SeaTable are more flexible and easier to use. Multiple selection fields, which have no equivalent in Excel, help to categorise and keyword data. With these extended field types, all conceivable types of information can be stored in a table. Different storage locations for different types of data are thus a thing of the past.

SeaTable is the Excel alternative

Another function that is not available in any of the other applications are links. With links, data records can be related to each other and dependencies or affiliations can be mapped. (Not to be confused with cell references in Excel.) This is possible within a table and across tables, e.g. turnover in one table and branches/salespeople in another table. Using the corresponding analysis functions, these can be easily evaluated graphically and in tabular form in the online Excel alternative. SeaTable thus brings functionalities that are otherwise only known from database systems into a simple, intuitively operable form.

Of course, SeaTable also has the classic functions of a spreadsheet: filters, sorting and grouping bring data into the desired form, with pivot tables even large data sets can be evaluated quickly and the various chart types present data visually. But as with the supported data types, SeaTable also goes a step further than the other Excel alternatives and online spreadsheets when it comes to display options. SeaTable's advanced views provide visualisation options for non-numeric data types: Map View allows address and geodata to be displayed on a map, and Gallery View clearly displays image data stored in a table side-by-side. Appointment data recorded in a table can be displayed and edited in the calendar and timeline views, as is otherwise only known from project management applications.

Screenshot SeaTable Statistics

As a solution of the new approaches, SeaTable also makes no compromises when it comes to the topic of operating form. SeaTable can be used comfortably as a hosted SAAS solution. The free subscription is permanently free of charge. Unlike the other online Excel alternatives, SeaTable is also available as software for your own server. In this way, SeaTable is also suitable for all those who are confronted with strict data protection requirements. Two different editions are available: The SeaTable Community Edition is free and partly open source. The Enterprise Edition, which has to be paid for, offers extended functions for corporate use, such as central user authentication, clustering and object storage support.

SeaTable follows a similar path to Google Sheets - and thus pleasantly conventional for developers - when it comes to extensions. Via API and SDK, extensions such as automations, integrations and functional additions can be developed with manageable effort. These can be installed with a few clicks via a plug-in store. Given the young age of the solution, it will be exciting to see what innovations will be added in the future.

SeaTable beginners will first have to get used to defining the information types per column before entering data. However, the intuitive spreadsheet user interface makes this challenge manageable. Migration from Excel is further facilitated with import functions for CSV and XLSX files. However, due to the data formats used by SeaTable, information may be lost during import.

Rich selection of good Excel alternatives

If you want a powerful spreadsheet application, you don't have to resort to Excel! The available alternatives do not have to hide in terms of functionality or usability. Even the free alternatives are more than worthwhile.

The well-known Excel alternatives in this comparison are functionally similar to Excel and offer a similar user experience. The cloud solutions are full-blown solutions that map the majority of Excel functions and also score points with collaboration functions. SeaTable stands out from the crowd with its advanced data formats, database functions and application-oriented views. SeaTable is the only application in this comparison that is equally available as a cloud and self-hosted application. The decision between data sovereignty and convenience can thus be made freely by everyone.

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Ralf Dyllick-Brenzinger
Ralf Dyllick-Brenzinger is the founder and managing director of SeaTable. He is the strategic mastermind of SeaTable and the master of numbers. He loves his fiancée's cookies and a good bike ride.

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