5 free alternatives to Microsoft Excel

If you don't want to pay for an expensive Microsoft Office subscription, here are five alternatives to Excel that you can get for free today.

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Image: BrianAJackson, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Spreadsheets are part of the modern business world, and that means someday you're going to have to look at one. The kinds of features you need from your spreadsheet application can vary, though, with many users never coming close to needing the robust features of Microsoft Office's Excel.

For those of us that aren't accountants crunching numbers every day, Microsoft Office, which includes Excel, can be prohibitively expensive. You're looking at paying $99 a year for a business user, $6.99 a month for home use, or $149.99 for an Office Home and Student 2019 license.

If you don't have that kind of money, or don't need those kinds of features, or simply want to save cash, there are plenty of viable alternatives to Microsoft Excel that are available in the cloud and installed on your computer. Best of all, these alternatives are free.

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1. Google Sheets

Google Sheets is Google's cloud-based answer to Microsoft Excel, and it's capable of doing the vast majority of what the average Excel user needs. It's also hosted in the cloud and runs in a web browser, so it's platform independent and can be run on Windows, macOS, and Linux systems.

You never have to worry about losing a single calculation, either—Google Sheets saves everything in Google Drive, making a crashed computer of no concern to your important data.

As with Google's other office tools, Sheets features real-time collaboration that allows multiple users to edit a document at the same time. Users can see the cursor position of other people in the document, see what they're doing as they're doing it, and chat right in the document window.

Advanced features that some Excel users need are missing, though, so if you're an Excel power user it's a good idea to find out if the features you need are available before migrating. There have also been reported issues of formulas in Excel spreadsheets breaking when they're uploaded to Google Sheets, so be aware that you could run into issues moving .xls or .xlsx files from your computer to Sheets.

On the plus side, scripting is still available in Google Sheets, though it's JavaScript based and not Visual Basic for Applications.

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2. Microsoft Office Excel Online

Not to be outdone by Google, Microsoft has created its own online version of Office, which includes a stripped-down version of Excel that is better compared to Google Sheets than to the desktop version of Excel.

It's not to say that Excel Online is unusable or not worth your time—it's definitely more like Excel than Google Sheets, so if you prefer a familiar interface you may want to opt for Excel Online instead of going the Google route.

Recommending Excel Online to the average Excel user is fine—it does all the basics of the desktop version while adding automatic cloud saving in OneDrive, and it has real-time collaboration tools that Office 365 and 2019 lack.

Excel power users may want to steer clear of Excel Online. Many of the features you rely on are gone, restricted, or read-only—there's no VBA scripting, no creating external data connections, no find and replace, and no advanced charting features. All of those capabilities exist in Excel Online, but they're read-only.

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3. Apache OpenOffice Calc

When I talk to Windows users who hate the look of Microsoft Office's post-2007 interface, I always recommend Apache OpenOffice. Calc, OpenOffice's Excel alternative, does a good job looking and feeling just like Office 2003, which is great if you'd prefer a time before the Office ribbon.

Prior to the advent of the cloud and the dominance of Google's online office tools, OpenOffice reigned supreme among those looking for a free Microsoft Office alternative. This is especially true in the case of Calc, which retains most of the important advanced functions of Microsoft Excel, albeit in slightly different forms in some cases.

If you're an Excel power user thinking about migrating to OpenOffice, be sure to read the user guide—it will help you figure out if the functions essential for your work are available in Calc; if they are, you might have found your new favorite program.

There is one major drawback to OpenOffice, which is an issue with other free platforms: A lack of cloud support. There's no native cloud connection or real-time collaboration for Calc, so if that's a deal-breaker, you may want to avoid this one.

4. LibreOffice Calc

Like OpenOffice, LibreOffice is a free office suite that includes its own Excel alternative, also called Calc. It runs into the same restrictions as OpenOffice, in that LibreOffice Calc lacks cloud support and real-time collaboration.

What LibreOffice does have is a surprisingly robust list of features, many of which aren't even present in Excel.

LibreOffice has more functions than Excel, can compare two separate spreadsheet files, has more cell formatting options, and it can even handle imports of legacy spreadsheets from retired applications (Microsoft Works, Lotus 1-2-3, BeagleWorks, Claris Resolve, etc.) formerly available on Windows and macOS.

There are good reasons to give LibreOffice a try and good reasons not to as well, which include: It has limited macro recording abilities, it can't handle outside data sources, it lacks the ability to display many advanced types of charts, and it can't export documents as generic XML.

Before trying LibreOffice, read the features list to be sure your essentials are included.

5. WPS Office Spreadsheets

When it comes to robust features that are a true competition for Excel, WPS Office Spreadsheets cannot be beat and with good reason: It's the only freemium product on this list. WPS Office is actually a paid product, but it does come with a fully-featured free version with one catch—it's ad supported.

Don't let that turn you off from giving WPS Spreadsheets a try—the ads are quick (generally lasting about 10 seconds), and only pop up when you try to print, save to PDF, or use some of its other more specific tools; once you watch an ad, that feature is unlocked for 30 minutes.

If you decide you want to get rid of the ads in WPS Office, you need to pay $29.99 a year, or $79.99 for a lifetime license. That's a lot less than Microsoft's Office pricing.

WPS said it's 100% compatible with Excel, meaning it will open all Excel documents correctly, support everything they contain, meaning "you can open and edit spreadsheets from others, and then save them right from WPS Office knowing others will be able to open them without any issues."

If you're concerned about being able to find certain features, or want to be sure something you use is supported in WPS Spreadsheets, check out the Spreadsheets help topic on the WPS website. I wasn't able to find a convenient chart of features like with OpenOffice and LibreOffice, but you should be able to find what you're looking for by searching there.

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By Brandon Vigliarolo

Brandon writes about apps and software for TechRepublic. He's an award-winning feature writer who previously worked as an IT professional and served as an MP in the US Army.