Spreadsheets vs. Database: What’s the Difference?

In non-professional contexts, you’ll probably hear spreadsheets and databases used to refer to the same thing. But there are many differences between a database and a spreadsheet, with the most noticeable one being their storage capacity.

Spreadsheets are better used when managing small quantities of data, while databases are suitable when handling the opposite. Follow along as we discuss the differences between spreadsheets vs. databases, detail their pros and cons, and help you pick which is more suitable for your needs.

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At a Glance: Spreadsheets vs. Databases

Spreadsheets Databases
  • For smaller datasets
  • Easier usage and can be operated by anyone
  • Google Sheets, Apple Numbers, and Microsoft Excel
  • Often operated at a low cost
  • Manual input of all information
  • Doesn’t require complex computing languages
  • For larger datasets
  • More complex and often needs professionals
  • MySQL, Airtable, Microsoft Access, and Tableau
  • Requires a higher budget
  • Automated
  • Requires coding languages like SQL and Python

What Is a Spreadsheet?

Personal monthly budget spreadsheet

If you’ve ever used Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets, you’re probably pretty familiar with spreadsheets. But to reiterate, a spreadsheet is a piece of software that organizes your data into rows and columns, forming what we call a cell.

In a cell, you can put various kinds of data, such as texts, numbers, single-cell miniature charts, and formulas. You can manipulate them by forming equations and using the built-in features of the program.

Aside from these, you can also make instant charts like pie, bar, and column graphs, which are useful for presenting visual data reports and the like. They’re interactive, too, since the charts get updated as you change your dataset. Plus, some functions like VLOOKUP() let you search through your data with ease.

Spreadsheets are mostly used for monthly budgeting, keeping track of student attendance, managing form responses (linked through Google Forms and Google Sheets), and many other applications.

Why Use a Spreadsheet?

There are many benefits to using a spreadsheet, including the following:

1. Commonly used in various spaces

One of the best things about spreadsheets is that they’re a staple in any work setting, especially in the accounting departments of various businesses. Plus, the popularity of Microsoft Office, Google Suite, and other productivity tools makes it likely for a computer user to be familiar with them.

Another reason for their fame is their accessibility and ease of use. Spreadsheets can be easily modified and updated, allowing users to make changes to their data as needed. Plus, it can perform complex calculations, such as financial and statistical analysis, quickly and easily.

We have tons of tutorials and tricks you can learn at Spreadsheet Point, in case you’re not yet that spreadsheet-savvy.

2. Inexpensive to create and manage

As long as you have an account on Google, you can already use Google Sheets for a lot of admin tasks for free. You can also access Excel as it’s an inclusion in your Microsoft Office subscription.

Aside from the subscription fees, training yourself or your employees for more efficient spreadsheet management is a lot cheaper since you can access free online tutorials on YouTube and several websites.

3. Doesn’t require complex languages

Unlike databases that often require complex coding languages like SQL (Structured Query Language), spreadsheets only need mathematical operations as simple as 1+1 and the predefined formulas stored in the software you use.

The only thing you have to do is study the said functions by reading various MS Excel and Google Sheets tips and tricks on the web. Most spreadsheet software also includes basic data management features, so ensure to study them.

4. Easily used for collaboration

Spreadsheets can be shared and worked on by multiple users, making them a useful tool for team projects and decision-making. So if you’re working on a spreadsheet with other colleagues, its collaboration feature would definitely be handy. Most spreadsheet software supports this functionality, often through the sharing of links either manually or via email. Some programs like Google Sheets even allow live collaboration.

On top of that, Spreadsheets can also track and record changes, allowing users to see who made changes and when.

When to Avoid Spreadsheets

While spreadsheets are a powerful tool for organizing and analyzing data, there are certain situations where they may not be the best choice. Below are some reasons to avoid using spreadsheets:

1. You need a large data capacity

One thing that’s a pity about spreadsheets is that they’re pretty limited in terms of how much data you can store. For instance, Google Sheets only supports up to five million cells and 18,728 columns per spreadsheet.

That seems to be a lot, right? Well, it’s indeed abundant for an individual but not for companies and other institutions. As your enterprise grows, the information that you’re managing will inevitably go over what five million cells can handle. In such cases, a database management system may be more appropriate.

If you’re a Google Sheets user, you can learn more about its limits in this article: Limitations of Google Sheets (Row/Column/File Size)

2. You need a faster data managing tool

Your spreadsheet program should have no issues running small datasets, especially when you have reliable tech specs and a good internet connection. But as your spreadsheet gets clocked in with more and more data, you can expect it to slow down and even stop being scalable, making it difficult to handle large datasets.

The slower operation is a big no in any professional setting, as it can translate to money lost for every minute of delay. So, you’re better off using other tools like databases if you need more efficient data management.

3. You prefer automated encoding

Spreadsheets can be tedious to operate, given that you have to enter every piece of information through human labor. Therefore, they’re really not the best option for automating complex business processes.

Well, this isn’t absolute in the case of Google Forms, where you can generate a spreadsheet that automatically gets updated for every response taken.

But in other contexts, the same is not applicable. If you are managing large sets of data entries, spreadsheets are indeed inefficient.

4. Data integrity and visualization

Spreadsheets can be prone to errors, especially when data is entered or modified manually. Inaccuracies in data can lead to incorrect conclusions and poor decision-making.

On top of that, they are not the best tool for creating advanced visualization or interactive dashboards, which may require specialized software.

What Is a Database?

client database

Many often mistake a database as something interchangeable with spreadsheets, primarily because of its tabular form, similar to the latter. However, databases distinguish themselves through the use of a better-structured format.

To be more specific, a database connects data from multiple external tables, often through something that we call relational data. This is so unlike spreadsheets that place data in cells. Since these tables are only linked, they are built more flexibly but more complicated.

Just like spreadsheets, databases organize your data in rows and columns. But in this case, they are technically called records and fields, respectively. Basically, the records hold your information, while the columns act like your sorting criteria.

Keep in mind that databases need you to operate them using higher-order coding languages, with the most common one being SQL + Python. This makes them easier to modify and manage but also requires higher skill levels.

Relational vs. Non-relational Databases: What’s the Difference?

Databases can be further classified into relational and non-relational, otherwise known as SQL and NoSQL, respectively.

Their key difference is how they store data — relational databases use linked tables, while non-relational ones can also use other formats like documents, key-value pairs, and columns.

For example, you can just add more and more documents to your NoSQL database without the need for restructuring. This almost makes it handle more data than relational databases and, therefore, suitable for large-data applications.

Why Use a Database?

Let’s look at some of the benefits of using a database:

1. Automation and data integrity

One of the best features of databases is that the stored information inside them can be updated without manual input. Not only is it less tiresome than manual spreadsheet updates, but it also keeps the integrity of your data.

This aside, you should know that the fields of databases don’t allow you to store values of different data types. Such a feature helps you avoid mistaken inputs and will keep your dataset cleaner.

2. Large capacity

There is practically no limit on how much data you can store in databases except for the restrictions set by your operating system. Therefore, as long as your computer allows, your database will have no problems storing more than five to ten million records at once.

Moreover, database management systems like MySQL have no cap set on the number of databases and tables you can create. If you’re going to handle data at large scales, then they are indeed what you need.

3. Consistent data

Databases typically use linked tables or objects. So when updating information, you only need to modify the table where it is located, and the update would reflect everywhere in the database.

For example, you need to modify the address of one of your customers due to their location change. You only have to go to the table that contains their profile and update it there. The updated version would be the one to appear when you give queries using SQL.

This promotes consistency in your data and is also much more efficient than if you were to update multiple copies.

4. Better time efficiency

Using databases, you don’t have to manually gather and copy all your information into one spreadsheet.

Also, recall that databases are built to handle more information than other tools — they won’t easily slow down and crash. This lets you avoid potential downtimes brought on by technical issues.

In terms of human input, you should also know that databases require login credentials from each user that would make changes to them. Therefore, every update done manually is traceable. This allows for faster tracking in case of update errors.

5. Setting permissions and restrictions

Another great feature of databases is heightened security. All users must be accredited before they can update the information inside, and all changes are accessible in real-time. Such traceability lets you keep your database secure and private.

When to Avoid Databases

While databases are a powerful tool for managing, organizing, and analyzing data, there are certain situations where they may not be the best choice. Some reasons to avoid using databases include:

1. Limited budget

A downside of databases is that they often require you to pay for technical services. There’s also the need for specialized knowledge on setting up and maintaining them, which you can get either by training or by hiring.

There are some free and open-source databases that you can try, like MySQL, ClickUp, Airtable, and more. But as with most no-fee software, their free versions may be limited in terms of functionality.

2. Small dataset

There’s no need for you to spend money on databases if you’re managing relatively small datasets. That would be akin to using a treasured sword to unalive a chicken. You may be better off sticking with spreadsheets in case this is indeed the situation.

3. No dedicated time

If you’re planning to set up the database yourself, you would need to study certain computing languages to fully bring out its benefits. You might have to take paid classes for this, albeit there are free courses you can take on the web.

In simple terms, you would need to allocate time and resources unless you’re willing to hire external help.

Spreadsheets vs. Database: How to Choose Which One Is Best for You

Indeed, spreadsheets and databases have their pros and cons, which leads us to this question: “When would you use database software instead of a spreadsheet?” To determine the answer to this, here are some considerations you’d like to take.

1. The type of data you’ll store and manage

Databases can store different types of data aside from pure texts and numbers. Some of them include videos, documents, and photos. This makes them more versatile than spreadsheets.

Admittedly, you can also try copying and pasting photos on a spreadsheet. But the problem is that it isn’t exactly designed for that. On the other hand, a spreadsheet is the best choice to handle textual and numerical data only.

2. Significance of data integrity for you

Spreadsheets allow you to store various kinds of data on any cell on an arbitrary basis. This can easily lead to inconsistent and unorganized data. Databases, on the other hand, have fields that automatically reject data that differ from the previous ones. It simply rejects wrong types and therefore accounts for better data validation.

3. Deep search vs. basic filtering

Spreadsheets allow you to do basic filtering of your data either through built-in features or the use of cell functions. But that’s it. Meanwhile, databases allow for deeper and more intensive searching using the parameters that you set using computing languages.

4. Sharing vs. collaboration

The collaboration features of most spreadsheet software aren’t that great, to be honest. Some of the caveats include lagging and errors in tracking who made the changes. If you’re not comfortable with that, databases may be more suitable for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Is a Database Better Than a Spreadsheet?

Databases are better than spreadsheets in terms of storage capacity, the number of data types handled, update speed, and collaboration. However, these advantages are only applicable when you’re dealing with large datasets. For small sets of data, spreadsheets may be better.

2. What Are the Similarities Between Spreadsheets and Databases?

They both are capable of storing data and presenting them in tabular formats. Aside from this, the two have the ability to process your data to make calculations. Lastly, they can also be used collaboratively among teams.

Final Thoughts

We hope we cleared up the confusion between spreadsheets vs. databases, as well as their individual benefits and downsides. Overall, databases are for you if you’re going to deal with millions of data, while spreadsheets can be more cost-effective for smaller sets.

If you’re planning to use  Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets for data tracking or storage, browse our other articles to get some useful tips!


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