The spreadsheet program was one of the first killer applications for the home computer – as in the one program you would actually buy a PC for – and for more than 30 years, Microsoft Excel has been setting the standard for what a spreadsheet app can be.
A lot has changed in technology over those three decades though, and today it's the cloud and the smartphone that dominate the landscape, rather than the desktop computer. So what does Excel have to offer in 2018?
You can pick up Microsoft Excel as part of an Office 365 subscription, or with a one-off purchase of Office 2019 (although the latter doesn't give you ongoing updates and some cloud features).
Microsoft Excel for Office 365: interface
The ribbon interface sported by all Microsoft Office applications, Excel included, was controversial when it was first introduced. Today though, it feels like a natural way of getting all of Excel's many features and functions in front of the user in some kind of order (and Microsoft says it's experimenting with further improvements to the ribbon that should debut in the near future).
That's not to say complete beginners are going to be able to fire up Excel and instantly master conditional formatting and pivot tables, but down the years Microsoft has cleverly refined the program's interface to be just about as neat and tidy as it can be. There's good use of color, icons, drop-down menus and dialog boxes.
The 'Tell me what you want to do...' box at the top is one of the more recent tweaks to the Excel interface (you can find it in the other Office apps as well), and it does a good job of helping you find what you're looking for without taking you through a maze of options and menus. Likewise the formula builder is a useful aid for those who might not have a lot of years of experience with the program.
Excel's interface makes good use of space and imagery, and the right options pop up at the right time – select a chart, for example, and you get options to edit the chart data, style and filters right away, without having to hunt around for those tools on the ribbon menu.
In terms of the way Excel is now designed and appears on-screen, it's much more modern in its use of elements and colors than previous versions, and genuinely part of Microsoft Office as a whole – which hasn't always been the case. The ribbon menus might not be to everyone's taste, but they work.
Microsoft Excel for Office 365: features
If you need a spreadsheet program to do something, Microsoft Excel can do it – that's been a given for a number of years now, and for a long time Microsoft has been refining and tweaking the tools that are available in Excel rather than adding any major new ones.
Recent updates include more advanced chart types, integrated forecasting based on existing data, better pivot tables and cross-tabulation of data, built-in 3D mapping of data and the addition of a Power Query plugin for piping in more data from more data sources in an easier fashion. Whatever type of serious number crunching you or your business deals in, Excel can cope – not necessarily something you can say about Google Sheets.
Also for more advanced users, we've seen the introduction of a broader range of supported data types, including stocks and geographical data. As part of a big drive into artificial intelligence, Microsoft has added a tool called Insights, using AI to highlight patterns and anomalies in data ranges (like a monthly expenditure that's way higher than it should be, for example).
Of course all the basics like charts and formulas are handled with aplomb, even as your sheets get bigger and more complex. Even if you're not a spreadsheet expert, you can put together rows and columns of data, then add associated charts, and have it all looking very professional in minutes – that's part of the power of Excel.
Though it lagged behind the other Office apps in this regard, collaboration and co-authoring tools are now up and running in Excel, and work very well. As long as your spreadsheet is stored in OneDrive, you can work on it simultaneously with a group of colleagues, without losing track of who's doing what and when.
Microsoft Excel for Office 365: mobile and web
As we've already said, the main bulk of Excel has remained largely the same for years – Microsoft has stuffed pretty much all the spreadsheet features it can into the program now, so new updates tend to revolve around visual refreshes or more minor improvements. However, there have been plenty of changes on the web and on mobile in recent years.
Despite somewhat uncertain beginnings, Excel on the web and Excel for Android and iOS are now perfectly capable software packages – tools that are actually genuinely useful when you're using a computer without Excel installed, or when you need to sort out some edits on a phone or tablet.
They can't match the functionality of Excel on the desktop – Excel Online lacks more complex features like conditional formatting, advanced charts, pane freezing, data validation, find and replace, and so on. It works very well as a file viewer, for simple edits, and for collaborating on files, but it's still limited.
It's more or less the same story on Android and iOS. There are plenty of limitations in what you can do, but the interface is modern-looking and well-presented, and Microsoft deserves credit for (finally) developing apps that are going to come in useful from time to time (especially if you regularly find yourself using a Chromebook or tablet).
You can even create spreadsheets on the web or in the mobile apps, if you want to make a start while you're out of the office and then switch to the conventional desktop programs when you get back to your PC. The best way to keep files in sync is OneDrive, though Dropbox is also supported as a storage solution.
Microsoft Excel for Office 365: pricing and verdict
If you don't take the single Office 2019 purchase option, Office 365 Business will cost you £7.90 per user per month (plus VAT) if you're paying annually, or £9.50 per user per month (plus VAT) if you're paying monthly – the respective US prices per user are $8.25 per month (annual payments) and $10 per month (monthly payments). You do get the option of a 30-day free trial so you can test it out first.
There's no doubt Excel is the most comprehensive and powerful spreadsheet package on the planet – nothing else really comes close. What alternatives like Google Sheets offer are, arguably, faster performance in a simpler interface – but Microsoft has still managed to keep Excel looking fresh and modern.
While the web and mobile apps could use some work, they're both very competent at allowing you to keep on working on the move, while the desktop version continues to improve with better sharing and collaboration tools. Excel remains the gold standard of spreadsheet applications.
- We've also highlighted the best Microsoft Office alternatives