The cloud has enabled a true mobility of experience for many workers, and while the largest and most complicated spreadsheets still require a fully-featured Excel install, that may not be the case for all users. For those on the road, or those simply trying to escape the cubicle farm, cloud-based spreadsheet apps are enticing, and may even be good enough.
For this reason, we tested the three major online vendors, including Excel Online, Google Sheets, and Zoho Sheets. Which one works best for you? Find out below.
Thankfully, all three of these services support all calculations, vlookups, concatenates, etc. However, they are still not created equal.
Unfortunately, Microsoft’s offering is the most pitifully featured of the three of them, even missing standard features like Defined Names, Pivot Tables and Pivot Charts.
But even features like Text-to-Columns Remove-duplicates are missing, with only a brief note to say, “Open in Excel Desktop” instead. Unfortunately, Microsoft handicapped their online offering entirely for the purpose of selling Office 365, which certainly bites them in the butt.
Of note, Excel Online is limited to documents smaller than 5 MB.
Sheets supports creating and editing everything I’ve mentioned above that Excel Online does not, although Text-to-Columns and Remove Duplicates are strange exceptions that can only be found through add-ons.
Thankfully, more knowledgeable devs have filled the add-on library with additional features. Unfortunately, like most app stores, the vast majority of what’s in there is garbage or incredibly niche, and may require digging.
Finally, Google Sheets is limited to spreadsheets with less than two million cells.
Zoho’s offering natively supports everything Excel Online doesn’t, even things Sheets requires add-ons for. In addition to data validation, Zoho Sheets even offers some formula troubleshooting via a Goal Seeker and Solver function.
Also, I found myself preferring Zoho’s macro support over Google’s. Your preference for Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) vs. Google Apps Script may vary, but Excel gurus will certainly prefer the fact that Zoho supports VBA. However, the ability to record, save, and run macros is much more invaluable for the vast majority of spreadsheet junkies.
Finally, Zoho Sheets is limited in its online version to files no larger than 10 MB.
To test compatibility, we threw older docs with 97-2003-based visual elements as well as brand new sheets with Pivot charts, Sparklines, Histograms and newer Excel graph types.
Excel Online performed admirably here. Every formula, graph, sparkline, etc. that I threw at it was rendered perfectly.
Older sheets required a short conversion process, but seemed to render fine afterwards. Even this old sheet with a ‘97-based scatter graph worked perfectly fine.
Oddly enough, Excel Online cannot create new Pivot Tables or Defined Ranges, but can utilize them when they already exist on the spreadsheet. It should also be mentioned that while Sparklines appeared, they show up only as an object image, and cannot be modified.
Google Sheets does not like older docs at all. Unfortunately, the older doc I mentioned above would not open at all, even after removing all graphs and visual elements. What’s worse is that Sheets doesn’t troubleshoot import errors.
The newer spreadsheet was another matter. Most Pivot Tables and Charts, Sparklines, and Defined Names worked and populated within the formula bar. However, Sheets did not support any Histogram-style graphs built in Excel, and one of my pivot charts converted into the mess shown above.
Unlike Google Sheets, Zoho’s offering managed to open older spreadsheets once most of the object images were removed, and without converting it to Zoho’s native format at that.
However, Zoho doesn’t like newer spreadsheets. Sparklines and Histograms were completely missing. A chart with 3 levels of data was completely broken.
All the 3D Pivot charts based on only 2-level data sets converted to Zoho format just fine.
Sharing and Collaboration
Microsoft has made great strides in the collaboration game recently, finally adding real-time collaboration within OneDrive last year.
In practice, it actually works well. Real-time edits show up fairly quickly and are automatically noted with the user name in case you missed the change.
Collaboration is possible with anyone you send links to, regardless of whether they have a Microsoft account. Unfortunately, no link passwords or expirations are available for single items.
Google also offers full collaboration links to be sent to non-Google users. However, Google also offers a couple more options like restrictions on re-sharing, downloading, and printing.
Google also offers speedier real-time collaboration than Excel Online.
But I was frustrated by the lack of an audit trail. Unlike their own excellent Docs app, Sheets will not display who made what change where, just a notice of where the users’ cursor is currently.
Zoho Sheets also supports speedy real-time collaboration as well, but with an integrated chat box. Unfortunately, Zoho has the same lack of edit notes as Google Sheets, but at least offers an audit log that you can check within the Review tab.
Zoho only allows free accounts to send collaboration links to other Zoho Docs users.
Paid users under a $5/month Standard plan or $8/month Premium plan can send public collaboration links, as well as set password protection and expiration dates, unlike the other two services. But the paywall is a bit annoying.
However, Zoho is integrated into many services with their own sharing and collaboration options, including Google Drive and Dropbox.
Inevitably, all three services fit into different needs. Those that are still fully integrated into the Excel ecosystem, and don’t need a lot of features in their mobile experience, will want to use OneDrive and Excel Online.
However, Zoho Sheets comes up as the surprise runner-up. Zoho actually contains enough functionality and enough collaboration features that it could be a great overall option and due to its Drive compatibility, even a replacement to the somewhat anemic Google Sheets or an editor in Dropbox.
Have a favorite spreadsheet service of your own? Let us know!