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The Best Spreadsheet Software: Features, Uses and Programs

Nicole Fallon
Nicole Fallon

Modern spreadsheet software does more than track budgets. Here's how to find and use the best spreadsheet software for your business.

Nearly every business uses spreadsheets in its day-to-day operations. However, spreadsheet software has evolved far beyond the simple Excel file. There are more spreadsheet software options available than ever, and these programs can be used for much more than financial and data tracking.

Once you learn all of the different ways to leverage a spreadsheet, you can use these programs to do everything, from tracking projects to creating visual data presentations. Here's how to find the best spreadsheet software for your business needs and how to make the most of the program you choose.

What does spreadsheet software do?

Spreadsheet software is used to store, organize and analyze data. Most of the time, the data that is entered is numerical, though spreadsheets can also store addresses and contact information.

Spreadsheets automatically calculate data based on the formula or function that you create and modify for them. For example, let's say you're using a spreadsheet to track how much money you're using from a budget. You can set up the spreadsheet so every time you enter an item you purchased from the budget, the software automatically subtracts the cost from the total budget. If the budget starts at $5,000 and you buy a product that is $400, you input the product and its cost into the spreadsheet, and it automatically does the calculation, showing your remaining budget of $4,600.  

The data in spreadsheets is represented in individual cells. These cells are organized in vertical rows and horizontal columns. They can be resized so you can visually see all your data. Most spreadsheet software lets you create data visualizations for your information. The type of visual elements depends on the software you use; however, the most common are charts and graphs.

Features of spreadsheet software

When most people think of spreadsheets, they think of data entry and simple calculations. But modern spreadsheet software is more than a financial tool. These applications serve as a robust way to help collect, organize and analyze important business data. While every product is different, most come standard with these features:

Rows and columns

Through a spreadsheet's grid system of rows and columns, all of your information is neatly organized in one easy-to-read space.

Formulas and functions

A spreadsheet allows you to design unique formulas to give you insight into your data. Many of these functions can easily be used and displayed by either building a custom formula or function, or using one of the software's preset options. This not only saves you time but also makes your data more accessible so you can use it to inform your decisions.

In a spreadsheet, functions evaluate values, while formulas are used to express the relationship of two or more cells in that spreadsheet, using an equal sign. The most commonly used formulas include basic arithmetic, such as addition, subtraction and multiplication. Frequently used functions include sum, average, count, and the minimum and maximum functions. There are more advanced functions that help you manipulate variables, large sets of data and amounts of time.

Data filtering and visualization

You can create tables, dropdown lists, filters and other tools to organize the information in your spreadsheet. Most spreadsheet software also comes with built-in tools to showcase your data visually, including bar charts, graphs and pie charts in a variety of styles and colors.

Custom formatting

With a few simple clicks, you can apply different formatting to separate information, create headers, merge cells into larger boxes and otherwise customize the look and feel of your spreadsheet. You can also use conditional formatting features to change the color or text style of a cell when certain information is present or missing. This can help you keep tabs on specific information at a quick glance, instead of combing through each individual cell to find what you need.

What can I use spreadsheet software for?

While spreadsheets originated in the world of finance, today's software does more than track your budget. If used correctly, it can perform many tasks that save you time and money. It can allow employees to work more efficiently, giving you and your team a better workflow. Here are some common functions a spreadsheet can serve for a business:

 Accounting

Spreadsheets can keep track of simple numerical data such as your budget, but you can also use them to implement whole accounting systems. You can use a spreadsheet to keep track of invoices you send customers and ones you receive from vendors. You can also use them to track employee wages, including overtime, paid time off and sick leave.

Analytics

Using the data you input into your spreadsheet, you can organize and analyze it in various ways. You can make predictions about how your company will scale based on current data or create simulations with different variables to see different outcomes. With this analytical functionality, you can make informed decisions for your company that are grounded in data.

Presentations

Data can often be complex and hard to explain. With so many different variables and numbers, it's difficult to share your findings and information verbally. Using spreadsheets and their graphic abilities, you can easily display and explain large, complex amounts of data in an easy-to-digest visual format that's perfect for presentations, landing pages and more.

Project management

If you're using a cloud-based tool, you can use spreadsheet software as a centralized place for employees to collaborate on projects and track progress. Using conditional formatting and data validation lists, spreadsheets can be set up to visually represent project statuses and who's working on which tasks.

When it comes time to choose spreadsheet software for your business, one or two programs may come to mind. However, there are many different types of spreadsheet applications that offer different advantages depending on the user.

Here are a few of the most popular spreadsheet software programs and why business owners love them:

1. Microsoft Excel

Introduced in the late 1980s, Microsoft Excel is one of the most popular and well-known spreadsheet software programs. It is often viewed as the gold standard of spreadsheets and offers a wide range of features, from basic mathematical formulas to more complex automations and programming solutions via Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) macros. For licensed Microsoft Office users, Excel is accessible as a desktop software or web-based application.

"I use Microsoft Excel most often because of its versatility and wide user base," said Michael Sena, founder of Excel Consultancy Senacea. "The Excel web app also comes in handy, allowing you to embed spreadsheets on the website. It can be miraculous for creating online calculators."

2. Google Sheets

Google's spreadsheet software is a built-in feature of every free personal and business Gmail account. As part of Google Workspace, Google Sheets integrates with other programs such as Google Analytics, Google Data Studio and Google Forms, making it easy to import and export data from your spreadsheet. Many business owners prefer Google Sheets due to its cloud and web-based "anywhere" access, and the familiar interface and functionality that mirrors Microsoft Excel.

"Although Excel has a cloud platform, it is difficult if a device doesn't operate with an official Microsoft Office license," said Stephen Light, co-owner and chief marketing officer at Nolah Mattress. "Google Sheets doesn't require any downloads and is easily accessible by merely typing the site URL sheets.google.com."

3. Airtable

Airtable can function as a basic spreadsheet, but this robust tool can also be switched to a calendar, Kanban, form or gallery view to help users instantly visualize the same data in different ways. Its highly customizable user interface also allows you to create relationships between data sets within each "base" or table, and can be integrated with external services to build a powerful business management tool.

"Airtable provides the ability to create automatic routines," said Andy Kolodgie, owner of The House Guys. "For example, users can design a form in Airtable, post it to Facebook, and automatically return all the responses from the form into Airtable – and then create relationships based on that data."

4. Apache OpenOffice

Apache OpenOffice offers a basic spreadsheet application with its free, open-source productivity suite. It supports multiple file formats, including those from Visio, Corel Draw and Microsoft Publisher, and ODS files are compatible for upload to Google Sheets.

"Open-source [software like OpenOffice] is a great option, as it costs nothing and has a community of developers behind it, which continuously helps improve the functionality and usability of the software," said Jonathan Kelly, SEO manager at 1stonthelist.com. "[It also] offers many add-ons/plugins to make the productivity of the software even more streamlined."

5. Handsontable

At a glance, this JavaScript data grid looks and feels like Microsoft Excel. However, Handsontable has dozens of customization features via useful plugins. Tech-savvy users can edit the source code to suit their specific needs.

"[With Handsontable], I can work with large volumes of data without concern of slowdowns or other performance issues," said James Surrey, founder and chief editor at Review Home Warranties. "As someone who [has] a lot of data to analyze and sort through, these are all important features that make my daily assignments more hassle-free."

6. Sheetgo

This no-code automation tool lets you and your team collect, manage, and share data and create custom workflows within a familiar spreadsheet format. With Sheetgo, you can create remote connections with other Sheetgo users and transfer files, including ones stored in Google Drive folders.

"Being able to transport Excel sheets makes it easy to share files with my employees – all of whom are working remotely at the moment," Michael Kipness, founder of Wizard Race and Sports told business.com. "I can transfer entire sheets or just single columns, rows, or specific cell colors. The easy sharing ensures my staff and I are looking at the same sheets."

7. Smartsheet

If you use spreadsheets for project data rather than numbers, Smartsheet is a great option. Its simple user interface allows you and your team to manage projects and create reports all in one place. Smartsheet also includes a handy form feature that can be distributed to clients, employees and other business contacts, which then feeds data back into your sheet.

"We use [Smartsheet] for metrics and pull everything into dashboards, which really helps, because we can track what number and type of transactions are happening with each client," said Vicky Brown, CEO of Idomeneo Enterprises Inc. "We also use the application extensively for onboarding, both new employees and clients."

8. Zoho Sheet

Zoho Sheet is another free spreadsheet web application that has an abundance of features. There are over 350 functions available, including an option to create custom functions in your spreadsheets using a minimal amount of coding.

"We primarily use [Zoho Sheet] because of how powerful the collaboration tools are," said Rex Freiberger, CEO, Gadget Review. "I've found it far less laggy than Google Sheets. There's also real-time chat and the ability to preserve past changes in case something needs to be discussed."

How to choose the best spreadsheet software

When you're ready to choose spreadsheet software for your company, there are a few specific factors that you should consider.

  • Cost: If your company doesn't need to do a lot of complex data analysis, free spreadsheet software should be sufficient for your company. However, if you're looking for more robust features, it may be worth it to explore a paid option with greater functionality.
  • Ease of use: Spreadsheet software only creates efficiency if you know how to use it. All of these applications have a learning curve, but once you know the basics, they should be easy to use. Many spreadsheet software options have clean, basic interfaces that make them easy for any user to learn.
  • Functionality: When choosing software, consider how your team will use it. Functions such as visualization and accessibility between applications will give you a more optimized workflow, should you need them.
  • Integrations and compatibility: If your business partners or clients use other types of software, you'll want to make sure your spreadsheet program is easily accessible to them and/or allows for compatibility between file types. You may also wish to explore software plugins and integrations that make your spreadsheet software more powerful and multifunctional.
  • Collaboration and version history: As more companies shift toward a permanent remote work model, you'll want to make sure everyone has access to the same versions of the various spreadsheets you create. Cloud-based software typically allows for real-time collaboration, commenting and version history, so no one's data is ever lost or overwritten.
Image Credit: AndreyPopov / Getty Images
Nicole Fallon
Nicole Fallon
business.com Member
Nicole Fallon has written hundreds of B2B-focused articles on topics such as marketing, business technology, leadership, and HR/organizational management. In addition to covering small business trends and software reviews, Nicole runs a digital marketing agency, where she and her team create high-quality content for a wide range of B2B and B2C brands.