Smartsheet review

Going beyond spreadsheets

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Our Verdict

As a spreadsheet application Smartsheet beats all competition, but as a project management application it could do better. Additional features make Smartsheet potentially powerful and flexible, but workflows put data first and users second. Configurations and GUI could do with a more user-friendly make-over, something rival project management software does for less money. But if you like spreadsheets, chances are you'll love Smartsheet.

For

  • Takes spreadsheets to new places
  • Powerful and flexible
  • Multiple views
  • A database in spreadsheet format

Against

  • Learning curve
  • Inefficient configurations
  • GUI not the most user-friendly

Smartsheet is a powerful web app that reinvents the spreadsheet to give it a wide range of additional features that makes it incredibly flexible. 

Effectively, it's a database set up like a spreadsheet, so while you have your basic columns and rows for data values, you can add a lot of different parameters to it, add drop down boxes, add symbols and even insert images.

You can also display data in different ways, not least by Gantt or calendar view, and there's a dashboard where you can embed additional information. 

In effect, it aims to do far more than normal spreadsheets can do, aiming to cover functions normally found in project management applications.

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(Image credit: Smartsheet)

Setting up

Signing up should have been simple, but at registration it refused to accept my Gmail account. After a couple of failed attempts I entered my business email, which then kicked in a new registration screen which included an option to login with my Google account. Lack of joined up thinking - not a good start. 

Once inside the admin dashboard there's a video tutorial to introduce features, but it rushes through everything and it's hard to take it all in. Expect to have to pause and replay a lot, because with great power comes an equally great learning curve to ensure you understand the functionality you need to use.

Starting a basic spreadsheet is simple enough - there are different templates provided according to what you need to focus most on. These include Grid, Task List, or Project, which are all basically the familiar spreadsheet format except that Project also integrates a calendar after the first few rows. These templates come with basic headings that you can keep, edit, or add to as required.

Another template, Cards, provides a set of columns that you can easily drag and drop information across. In that way it might remind a little of Trello, but it's still very much cell-based spreadsheets, just set up to display differently.

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(Image credit: Smartsheet)

Managing Data

Of course, there's nothing more intimidating than a blank sheet. However, while there's the obvious option to start from scratch, there is an import option available. This allows data from other spreadsheet formats to be brought into play from Microsoft Excel or Project, along with Google Sheets or Trello. 

I tested this by importing my read-list feed from GoodReads, and found that while the data imported fine, there were some minor formatting issues which were quickly fixed using the replace command. 

One of the big advantages of Smartsheet is being able to add additional information to your normal spreadsheet format, such as inserting images or comments. If you do this, a little icon will appear in the relevant column, which is effectively a hyperlink to the file in question. 

On the one hand, using icons is a useful way to see that information has been added. On the other, though, you can't actually see what's been added without navigating through the cells. A mouse hover simply confirms that something has been added, but it would be better if it actually revealed what's there.

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(Image credit: Smartsheet)

Additionally, there's no livestream to show what changes are being made to a file that other collaborators can easily see. While Smartsheet is supposed to highlight changes to a file for the benefit of other users when they next log in, as we all know it's easy to login in to start something, only to get called away for something different and have to come back and login again. 

Even a single user might like to actually have an activity stream showing tasks done, rather than having to check individual cells in a spreadsheet to confirm what they have or haven't completed. 

Both of these issues work against user efficiency, which should really be a core component in software like this. 

It's also important to note that while you can export data from Smartsheet into Excel, PDF, or Google Sheets, it's only the core spreadsheet data that is exported, and that additional data unique to Smartsheet may be lost.

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(Image credit: Smartsheet)

Ease of Use

If you know your way around spreadsheets, then it shouldn't be too hard to find your way through the basics of using Smartsheet. What does take some time getting used to is all of the additional bells and whistles you aren't familiar with, and might not know are there.

There are a lot of help prompts triggered by clicking through various options, and there is a learning library provided to help with user training - with the caveat that the videos rush through features rather than introduce them, so expect lots of having to pause and playback, which may not go down too well in group training.

While it needs underlining that this is a powerful piece of software that can do so much more than Excel, it has its own logic that can also be frustrating. 

For example, when I started entering work-related data, I quickly discovered that default settings exclude Sunday or national holidays. This meant that tasks begun on a Saturday that were expected to go on for two days actually showed as taking three in the calendar view. 

It would be better if administrators could add their own conditionals as and when they need to, rather than have to keep going back to change default values that aren't required.

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(Image credit: Smartsheet)

Other quirks include that when I imported my GoodReads data and set up a calendar view, all of the books showed not by their title but by their ID code. I couldn't find anything in the normal header commands to correct this, then discovered there's actually a settings icon at the top right - but, you guessed it, there was no way to set which column should display in the calendar view. 

I finally figured out how to change it - but rather than simply designate the book title column as the primary column, I had to create a new column and copy data out from the primary column into it, then copy data from the Title column into the primary one - while renaming all three columns because you can't have duplicate names. Again it's another example of how the software's default configurations can cause more problems than they solve.

That negative aside, the different template formats - and the ability to switch between them - makes it really easy to manage data. For example, with my imported GoodReads reviews, the calendar view quickly made it apparent that GoodReads had bunched a load of my reviews to the same date, which was wrong. 

Fixing it was as easy as drag and dropping data across to new dates, which automatically updated the cells in my spreadsheet. However, no dashboard was made available with my import as expected, which meant there was no way to configure any reports based on it.

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(Image credit: Smartsheet)

Even still, there are some truly great features to Smartsheet, a standout one being the ability to use forms to send data. These forms can be filled in by anyone, such as third-parties who aren't part of your team or even using Smartsheet. When the form is sent, the information is automatically entered into a sheet, such as for a workflow, a requests report, or a metrics table. This can then be managed via a management status dashboard.

The dashboard itself is normally customizable, with the ability to embed additional information beneath it, such as images, videos, forms, etc. This can then be shared with named stakeholders. And at the heart of the software is the ability to manage and track data, getting information to the right people at the right time.

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(Image credit: Smartsheet)

Business Applications

Smartsheet evolves spreadsheets into new and interesting places, and if viewed only in that regard it's a clear market leader. But it also sells itself as a project management application, among other things, and this is where things get a little less favorable. Other project management tools have a more user friendly interface, and arguably more specialized functionality. 

However, what Smartsheet does have is a clear and uncluttered way of presenting data that will be familiar to any spreadsheet user. Yet even then, it's important to remember that while Smartsheet may offer more options than Microsoft Excel and Project, it offers different functionality and that may throw some users. Limitations include the fact that while you can create multiple sheets, you can't create workbooks with tabbed sheets.

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(Image credit: Smartsheet)

Moving back to benefits, there are additional features focused on automating processes and building workflows which moves it nearer to project management. But it will take some training to get staff to a level where they can use intermediate and advanced options like these.

With that aside, it's easy to see how Smartsheet could be sold as a replacement or - better still - an upgrade from Excel or any other spreadsheet program. That's the easy win.

The harder sell is the Smartsheet pricing. There are two main tiers, the first being individual which is priced at $14 (£10.83) per month, which allows collaborators to view, edit, and manage sheets for free.

The second tier aimed at businesses with more than three licenced users and charges $25 (£19) per user per month, but only if billed annually. This makes Smartsheet a lot more expensive than rival spreadsheet programs, while putting it at the pricier end of project management software.

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(Image credit: Smartsheet)

Final verdict

Smartsheet does a lot well, and could confidently replace any existing spreadsheet solution while adding much more value in terms of how much and what it can do. But while it can do a lot for data, it may not do a lot for users. From quirky configurations and the basic user interface, Smartsheet comes with inefficiencies inherent to the system, which rather than boost productivity could end up slowing it. 

On top of that, while there is the option for collaborative working, I suspect most managers will be left having to cover most of the data inputting, so the risk is that it might initially appear to add more to a workload. However, this can be offset by the fact that a single solution is being used to carry all data and management oversight, instead of using multiple packages.

The pricing as well appears uncompetitive, especially with some smart project management solutions out there, such as Trello, Zoho Projects, Monday.com, and Wrike. Smartsheet can't always compete with some of these, especially on user experience, but is priced at the higher end of the market.

Still, for companies that value their data and want to move beyond the basic spreadsheet format and allow their data to do more, Smartsheet offers a very real solution. 

Overall, Smartsheet will probably appeal most to the corporate user, not least because of its initial familiarity, but also the fact that data use and workflows are integral to operations. Small business users may prefer an alternative that has less reliance on cold logic and has a warmer user interface.