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All three of these applications are excellent pieces of software, and they even look pretty similar, but one is very different from the other two. At the end of this article, you will have a clear set of criteria to use in choosing between Airtable and a conventional spreadsheet like Excel or Google Sheets. First, let's zoom out a minute and think critically about why we use any of these tools...
You could categorize this in various ways, but generally I lump all major uses into two buckets:
If you want to keep track of retail inventory, real estate listings, expenses, or a million other common use cases, you create a list with names in the first column and more identifying characteristics in the columns to the left. For example, real estate listings would have the address as the first column, then the price, year built, property taxes, etc. This probably covers the majority of typical uses for spreadsheets, and is what I mean by "storing data".
If your goal is to summarize the data to tell a specific story, you might create a "model". The first thing you think of when you read "model" is probably a complicated web of calculations that economists use to calculate U.S. GDP or something. In that case, the story being told is about the U.S. GDP. A model could be much simpler, though.
For example, a basic budget for throwing a bake sale for the soccer team with subtotals for different categories (food ingredients, utensils, drinks). Maybe you'd also have a separate calculation for who is scheduled to bake and sell the food and how long they'll be there, to calculate the value of time that volunteers have contributed.
Basically, where "Storing Data" is a log of specific pieces of information, a model is the more free-form act of tying different kinds of information together to tell a story.
Why is this relevant to the decision between using a spreadsheet vs. a no-code database like Airtable? Because 100% of the time, Airtable is a better tool for storing data, while for building models (story-telling), I generally still favor Excel or Google sheets. And because I'd wager most of what people typically do with spreadsheets is data storage, I think that many folks would be better suited to use Airtable as their main data management tool. Personally, I use both daily, and I don't see that changing any time soon.
I'll elaborate more specifically on this topic, but there are a couple further differences worth mentioning upfront.
Excel is one of the most important pieces of software ever created. I honestly don't understand how large companies (or small ones) existed before it was released in the early 80s. The world must have been so... disorganized. Personally, the time when I first learned more advanced functions in Excel and automate basic processes was the first time I started to see my work stand out ahead from other co-workers. I understood how be much more productive a single person can be by leveraging the right tool. It's from that starting point that I judge Airtable as an alternative.
Technically, Airtable is a database, or a database-spreadsheet hybrid. I felt your eyes glossing over as soon as I wrote "database". That's because until now, databases have been the un-sexy hidden code that powers ... everything on the internet. Any app or website is really just a combination of a database in the back and a pretty interface on the front. Airtable is a pretty database.
Why does this matter? No one uses spreadsheets as the backend for their app, and there's good reason for that; databases are much better at storing information. They keep things neat and organized, they're fast, and they're extraordinarily easy to sort and filter as needed. In Airtable, a column is called a 'field'. You can create drop-down fields, checkbox fields, phone number fields, and use any of those fields to sort your information. Because you must specify the field type, it forces you to be organized. No more columns with a mix of text, numbers, email addresses.
Databases also allow relationships between fields. This is a really hard concept to understand without doing it yourself, but if you use lots of VLOOKUP, Index(Match)), or SUMIF functions in a spreadsheet, database relationships will blow your mind :). See my fuller description here.
Spreadsheets don't allow relationships between fields, but you CAN sort and filter by creating a table from your data. It is a far inferior system, but tables are used by many to get the job done.
In summary, if you use spreadsheets for storing data, you should definitely try Airtable. When you do, spreadsheets will look like horse and buggies at the entry of the automobile - slow, messy, and soon to be irrelevant. Airtable has a long head start, but it isn't the only company to realize this. All the big players are developing consumer-friendly database apps, including Amazon, Google, and Microsoft.
The flexibility that can lead to disorganized data in a spreadsheet is also the gift that allows very easy modeling. Don't let that perfectly uniform grid fool you - a spreadsheet is like a numerical blank canvas. You can paint wherever you want, however you want.
Airtable does have add-on apps that can be used to create a 'dashboard' to summarize information and tell a story from your data, but they're still pretty early-stage. I've been frustrated a number of times trying to make an Airtable dashboard emulate a document I've created in Excel. Watch for this to develop over time, but for now, I recommend modelling in Excel or Google Sheets.
Excel has been around for more than forty years, and Google Sheets has been around for fifteen. They've had plenty of time to work out the kinks, and also to develop an incredible library of functions, including many that perform complicated financial and statistical calculations. Airtable is adding new functions all the time, and it has an active online community where folks regularly share their own custom formulas to replace most missing Excel functions, but it will take some time for Airtable to reach the breadth of specific functions that are in Excel or Google Sheets. Airtable also has tons of features you can't have in a conventional spreadsheet, but we'll tackle those later.
It is so much easier to collaborate with multiple authors when you don't have to worry about who emailed who the latest draft of whatever you're working on. Airtable and Google Sheets both live in the cloud, giving them the clear advantage here. That said, if you often work without access to the internet on flights or in rural areas, you may prefer an offline solution like Excel. The internet has come a long way - I own a farm in Vermont, and I rarely find myself without access to either WiFi or cell service.
I won't spend much time on this, because it deserves a whole article to itself. Airtable has some very cool automation features that allow you to send email to a full list of contacts, sync with Google calendar, and a growing number of other actions. Both Google Sheets and Airtable have open APIs, which allow "Glue of the Internet" type automation services like Zapier and Integromat connect them to a host of other services. Excel doesn't have this functionality. If you're looking for a spreadsheet app like Excel or Google sheets with more automation and integrations, take a look at Smartsheet.
That's my round up of the main differences between Airtable, Excel and Google Sheets! If you scrolled down to the bottom for the punch-line, I'll make it simple for you: Are you looking for the best possible way to be organized, record and view lots of information? Use Airtable. Looking for a tool that you can use to build complex models to tell a nuanced numerical story? Excel and Google sheets are still the best for that. Personally, I use both Airtable and Excel every single day, but I tend to use Airtable more and more as its features grow.