It’s hard to imagine how businesses used to run prior to the 1990s when MS Excel took over as the go-to spreadsheet. Hated by some office workers and loved by many, this tool has become an integral part of any business, online or offline.
But now, it seems, the era of Excel being used by every business that wants to analyze their data is approaching its end. Large corporations can afford to create and host databases that contain terabytes of historical data. These are way more useful for data analysis and data mining than Excel.
Small businesses are turning to databases like Airtable for tasks traditionally reserved for spreadsheets.
If your organization uses Excel for everything from earnings reports to tracking employee productivity and is considering switching to Airtable, this article is meant for you. Let’s take a deep dive into Airtable vs. Excel and try to understand what solution is best for your business.
The biggest difference between Airtable and Excel
The biggest difference between Airtable and Excel is that Excel is a spreadsheet and Airtable is a database. This makes a world of difference but doesn’t tell us the whole story.
There’s a misconception that spreadsheets are small and manageable and databases are huge, intricate data systems that require an IT team to run. While that may be true in some cases, it’s just a misconception. There are spreadsheets that store thousands of records. There are databases that only have dozens.
|Main Principle||Database spreadsheet hybrid||Spreadsheet app|
|Formulas||Provides a limited set of formulas||Hundreds of formulas for versatile analytics|
|Data Visualization||Data visualization tools can be added as extensions||Many built-in options|
|Premade Templates||Hundreds of templates for workflows||Thousands of templates for calculations|
|View Options||Multiple ways of viewing data||Limited options|
|Collaboration Features||On top of the basic features, many templates & view options facilitate collaboration||Basic features|
|Integrations & Automations||Integrations and automations are easy||Integrations are easy, automations require coding|
|Mobile App||Easy to use||Easy to use, but spreadsheets are not the best for mobile view|
|Pricing||Starting at $10 per person per month||Starting at $5 per person per month|
|Best for||Tracking workflows & collaboration||Data analysis & visualization|
Airtable is a relational database
Airtable is a perfect example of a relational database that doesn’t have to be huge. When using some Airtable templates, it may look like a spreadsheet, but it’s not. It’s a database you can use to build apps. A database that can contain ten or a thousand records — whichever you need for your work.
In a spreadsheet, you can enter any amount of text or numerical data. You can run quite complex calculations on it and visualize it in multiple ways, but ultimately, the data stays in the cell and doesn’t change.
In a relational database like Airtable, the data you see in the spreadsheet form above is stored in a backend database. It can be used in multiple app templates, and if you change the data either manually or automatically in one place, the whole record changes in the backend. This means no more manual spreadsheet updates.
What’s more important, you can view that data in a number of ways. Here’s the example from above in the form of a calendar.
In the end, the difference between Airtable vs. Excel doesn’t come down to how it looks, even though Airtable surely wins in that regard. It’s about how you use them.
Excel is a spreadsheet app
With Excel, you can run statistical analyses of tens of thousands of sales records. You can even build predictive financial models if you’re skilled enough.
But more often than not, spreadsheets are used like apps. A content calendar, an employee productivity tracking sheet or a sales funnel sheet, are all very simplistic apps. Apps that don’t require complex calculations.
People use them to store and manipulate data — store the idea for a social media post, the person responsible for it, and progress on the task. Neither of those functions requires you to execute a =SUMIF formula, and all benefit from app-like features. For instance, uploading likes and views of that social media post, or being able to jump to the corresponding marketing campaign and see broader statistics.
That’s where Airtable excels. But that doesn’t make Excel obsolete. On the contrary, Airtable can take on the functions that weren’t made for Excel and lets your organization use it as intended — analyzing large volumes of numerical data.
Excel vs Airtable feature comparison
Now that you know the main difference, let’s look at some low-level differences between the two.
Airtable lets you use the same formulas as in Excel, but formulas get very limited functionality in this app.
With Excel, every cell can contain a formula that references any other cell or field in the spreadsheet. In Airtable, formulas apply to the whole field. That is, you cannot do a sum of two specific values in a column, but can make an operation with the entire column.
This isn’t that bad as you can do calculations conditionally. It’s possible to filter the field by multiple criteria and only apply a formula to the values that match them.
That covers most basic calculations that an average spreadsheet user may need but still doesn’t reach the flexibility of a standard spreadsheet like MS Excel.
Excel has two functions it does best. It’s great at working with large amounts of numerical data and visualizing it in multiple ways. Airtable doesn’t have data visualization built-in on the base level and relies on extensions to work. You need to add every type of chart or pivot table manually through the extensions folder in your database.
But this doesn’t mean Excel wins outright. Both platforms use pretty much the same data visualization tools and both allow a high level of customization in them. Whether your organization will benefit from using Airtable or Excel largely depends on the type of visualizations you run.
Despite the rather cumbersome setup process, Airtable is actually pretty good at relational data visualization. This includes org charts and flowcharts. The main selling point here is that they’re interactive.
Due to Airtable being a database, creating an org chart in it makes much more sense. All the elements of the chart are linked fields and you can click on them to see more information on each team member.
For visualizing numerical data, Excel is still better. It’s much easier, and there are no limits to how many data visualization tools you can use. In Airtable, data visualization tools are connected as extensions, and the number of extensions per database is limited.
The premium plan gets you only ten extensions per base, and that’s a bit low considering that integrations eat up your extension allowance. With Excel, you won’t have to limit yourself to a couple of charts and can use the toolset to the fullest.
It may seem that Excel has far fewer premade templates. After all, when you check the Airtable templates market, you see hundreds of them. However, Excel has been around for decades and has been used by millions of people.
So on top of the several templates that you can find in any Excel on your work computer and a huge library of premium ones on the Microsoft website, there are thousands of free templates available on the internet.
Excel vs. Airtable rank on par in terms of the number of useful templates, and Excel even wins when it comes to the overall quantity. The major difference between the two is that Excel templates often serve for calculations, and Airtable templates are better suited for workflows.
A typical Excel template is a document with all the complex formulas and data visualizations set up and waiting for your data. Airtable doesn’t really have that. A typical Airtable template is a micro-app with all the relations, automations, and workflows set up that waits for you to add the steps and track the progress.
There’s no clear winner here, both platforms use templates for very different things.
Now, a category where there is a clear winner is the view options. Airtable takes the lead by a huge margin.
In Excel, there aren’t that many view options. It’s a spreadsheet, and it’s not that complex. You can hide some UI features to leave more space for the data, but there’s no escape from the grid view.
Airtable is a database, so displaying values in different forms is not a problem at all. You have already seen data being displayed on a grid and in a calendar form in the examples above. One of the most useful data views for handling workflows is the Kanban view.
With this way of presenting data, you turn a task tracker spreadsheet into your own version of Trello.
The platform also offers to view the data in the form of a timeline, a Gannt chart, a gallery, or a form for simplified data entry. Recently, Airtable added the option to design an interface of your own with a drag and drop builder. That’s a lot more than you could ever expect from Excel.
Airtable is built for creating, tracking, and managing workflows. Naturally, collaboration is much easier on this platform.
Both platforms share the baseline collaboration features if you have the web version of Excel. You can work on documents together, leave comments, and chat with other collaborators.
What Excel can’t offer is the ability to drag and drop tasks from one in progress to one done. Or automating Slack messages when the status is updated. Those little but extremely important details make Airtable superior.
Integrations and automation
Both Airtable and Excel can integrate with other apps and services. Airtable has a couple of built-in integrations. Excel provides versatile add-ins to integrate workbooks with different online services and databases. Both platforms can be integrated with other apps and even with each other using third-party integration tools. For example, Coupler.io allows you to automate exports of data from Airtable to Excel on a schedule.
If you use Airtable for managing sales, you can find that its analytical capabilities are lacking. In this case, you can set up a Microsoft Excel integration with Airtable using Coupler.io and schedule exports of the data to your Excel workbook. You can use it for historical storage or run analytics and visualization on it.
In addition, you can export data from Airtable to Google Sheets or BigQuery. Excel is mostly used as a destination for your data, which means you can automate exports from Jira, Trello, Shopify, and many other sources without any coding.
You can run integrations using Excel as a source, for instance, sending bulk emails through MS Outlook. But considering that Airtable is much more versatile in terms of creating workflows, it’s more practical to collaborate on an email sequence there and then use it as a starting point of integration.
Automations are also a bit more practical in Airtable. Excel automations require writing macros in VBA, a Microsoft proprietary coding language. That automatically disqualifies most basic users from automating Excel.
Airtable automations can be set up without any coding involved. You can change and create fields using different triggers like field change, webhooks, or specific frequency. Automated actions also include cross-platform ones like sending Slack messages or Gmail emails.
Both platforms have mobile apps, and pretty functional ones at that. Excel’s app allows users to do pretty much anything they can do on the desktop. However, due to the nature of a spreadsheet, it’s very inconvenient to view from a smartphone.
There’s nothing you can do about it — smartphones are narrow, and spreadsheets tend to be wide. So if you absolutely need to write a formula or view the document on a mobile, you can. But doing any serious work may prove hard, and the quality of the app has nothing to do with it.
The Airtable app isn’t quite as functional. For instance, you can’t create formula fields in it yet. However, since Airtable is meant for creating small apps that refer to a database, working with it is much easier.
You can check your editorial calendar, or move tasks from to-do to done in the mobile app just like you would on a desktop. Unlike the Excel app, it simply makes more sense to use it.
In terms of pricing, Excel is a clear winner in our Airtable vs. Excel comparison. But not when it comes to comparing costs with benefits. Excel’s web version starts off at $5 per user per month and doesn’t go over $20. This package includes all features and comes with additional tools like MS Word.
Airtable does have a free version, but it’s severely limited with only 1200 records and one extension per database. Considering that extensions include reporting and data visualization tools as well as exporting tools, it doesn’t look good. The pro plan costs $20 per user per month, but if you want unlimited extensions and a database of more than 250,000 records, you’ll have to go for the enterprise plan.
However, if your organization needs Airtable’s functions more than it does Excel, the price isn’t that big of an issue.
When Airtable is a good choice
Airtable is best suited for managing and tracking workflows. It’s the best choice if your organization needs:
- Planning and executing marketing campaigns
- Running a content calendar
- Tracking employee productivity
- Event planning
- Inventory tracking
- Basic reporting & visualization
When Excel is a good choice
Excel is best for working with large amounts of numerical data and reporting. Here are the tasks it can help your organization with:
- Business analytics
- Financial data analytics
- Advanced data visualization
Airtable vs. Excel: What do you choose?
Between the two, Airtable vs. Excel, there is no clear winner that can substitute the other perfectly. Airtable does outperform Excel in the role that spreadsheets often perform, tracking small amounts of data needed for workflows. But it doesn’t have an edge in the role spreadsheets are meant for, data analysis.
So if your team is using Excel to collaborate on email sequences or plan events, try Airtable, it’s immeasurably better.
If you need both functions, there’s no reason to drop Excel entirely, you can use both. Besides, these two platforms are easy to integrate, so you won’t be losing any data or have to do manual data entry.Back to Blog