4 Free Spreadsheet Alternatives to Microsoft Excel

By Helen Bradley | Posted June 16, 2015
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    4 Free Alternatives to Excel
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    4 Free Spreadsheet Alternatives to Microsoft Excel

    Microsoft Excel is the world's leading spreadsheet application, and it's the one by which all others are measured. However, having the Microsoft brand on your small business software can be costly. If you're looking for a no-cost Excel alternative, you have plenty of free applications to choose from including small business apps that operate in the cloud

    In this roundup, we'll look at four free Excel alternatives—one of which is a free version of Excel itself. They're all solid, quality spreadsheet tools that, depending on your small business's needs, can readily replace Excel and save you money. Let's take a look at their capabilities and limitations.

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    Google Drive: A Free Alternative to Excel
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    Google Drive

    Google Drive includes a spreadsheet component called Google Sheets. These Google Drive applications are cloud based, so you need a good, consistent connection to the Internet to use them.

    Google Sheets includes what you would expect to find in data-entry and formatting tools and the formulas you would expect it to support. It offers Data Validation similar to Excel and PivotTables.

    The charting feature is pretty standard for the applications we're looking at -- none of these spreadsheet alternatives offer great-looking charts to match the look of the new charting engine in Excel 2007/2010/2013 (except the Excel Web App), but they all offer standard charts. However Google Sheets does have a built in Map charting tool which lets you chart data on a map. Charts in Google Sheets can be added to a worksheet or later moved to a sheet on their own.

    Also unique to Google sheets is the ability to create a survey or an invitation that you can publish to the Web or email. The replies from these forms are automatically assembled for you in a worksheet.

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    Apache OpenOffice: A Free Alternative to Excel
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    Apache OpenOffice

    Apache OpenOffice is an open source office application, and is available for a range of operating systems including Linux, Mac and Windows. This makes it attractive for a small business that uses a mix of operating systems. The program includes a word processor, a spreadsheet, a presentations tool, database manager and a drawing tool.

    The spreadsheet component of OpenOffice is called Calc. Like Google Sheet, it provides most of the tools that you would need in a spreadsheet program including charts, a PivotTable tool and macros. OpenOffice is popular with organizations seeking quality small business software with built-in Microsoft compatibility but without the high price of licensing actual Microsoft products.

    OpenOffice is a downloadable program that you install on your local computer, and there is also Apache OpenOffice Portable—an app that you can load onto a Flash drive to take it with you. Because Calc runs locally, you don't need an Internet connection to access the spreadsheet. Calc supports up to 1,024 columns of data and 1,048,576 rows, it can export worksheets as .pdf files, save to the Excel 2003 format; and it can open the newer .xlsx format files.

    While charts in Calc don't have the look of Excel's, more sophisticated formatting options -- including plotting charts using two axes—are available for them than for the other applications in this roundup.

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    Zoho Sheet: A Free Alternative to Excel
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    Zoho Sheet

    The second cloud application in this round up is Zoho Sheet. Some of the Zoho small business apps are free and others require payment. Once you've signed in for a free account, select Zoho Sheet to launch the free spreadsheet tool. In Zoho, all the applications are separate, so there is no dashboard style interface that gives you access to everything. In this way, Zoho operates similarly to Excel and unlike Google Docs.

    Zoho resembles the new Excel with tabs and a narrow ribbon toolbar containing icons—most of which will be familiar to Excel users. Icons include Sort, Insert Function, a Chart tool and an AutoSum function. You can open files from your local computer by choosing File > Import > Local File, you can import a sheet from a URL or work on a file that you have already created in Zoho.

    The charting tools in Zoho are pretty much similar to those you would have found in Excel 2003. You can create pivot tables and pivot charts using a tool that works similarly to the PivotTable creation tool in Excel 2003.

    You can create a macro in Zoho Sheet that you can then play back later on and the code is recorded using VBA—this will be familiar to you if you've done any work with VBA or VB previously. You can embed worksheets inside a web page or blog, and you can make them public and share them with others.

    If you're looking for the tools that Zoho provides, then this smart, quick and easy-to-use application won't overburden you with features you're never likely to use.

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    Excel Online
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    Excel Online

    The Microsoft Online Applications—Excel, OneNote, PowerPoint, Outlook, Sway and Word—are all free and all you need to use them is a Microsoft account. These cloud-based small business applications are cut-down versions of their offline equivalents, so you don’t get access to full Excel compatibility online, but you get a good range of its features.

    You can open files saved in the new .xlsx and .xlsm formats and view the workbooks even if you can't use some of the features included in them. For example you can view but not edit Sparklines, but you can't access shapes and VBA code. However you can edit the data that the Sparklines are based on and the Sparklines will update accordingly.

    Excel Online gives you a means to create Excel worksheets that you can share and collaborate on with others. You can upload worksheets from your local machine and download them into an offline version of Excel, and you can share worksheets with other people online. Like Zoho and Google Sheets, you will need access to a fast Internet connection for this browser-based app.

    If you don't want to shell out money for a full version of Microsoft Office, and if you can live with the subset of features included in Excel Online, then it might be a viable application to consider.

We look at four free Microsoft Excel alternatives and show why you can easily keep any of these spreadsheet apps in your office applications toolkit.

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