Access vs Excel: When to Use Excel & When Access Is Better

Written by co-founder Kasper Langmann, Microsoft Office Specialist.

A lot of Microsoft Office users have questions about Access and Excel. 

Specifically, some are confused when about the right time to use Access over Excel and vice versa.

In short, Excel is for data analysis and Access is for data management.

But there’s more to it than that. In this article, we’ve outlined the different pros and cons of each program so you’ll have a better understanding of when to use one over the other.

Kasper Langmann, Co-founder of Spreadsheeto

Microsoft Excel

home page of microsoft excel

Microsoft Excel is one of the most-used software programs both in the financial and business worlds. Though it was launched in 1985, updates are still made regularly.

Simply speaking, Excel is a program in the Microsoft Office suite used to create spreadsheets. Spreadsheets are tabular documents where you can input data in rows and columns.

Kasper Langmann, Co-founder of Spreadsheeto

In addition, users can organize, format, and calculate their data in the spreadsheet with formulas as well as predefined formulas called ‘functions’.

What we like about Excel

Excel and Access have some overlapping uses. That’s why for this section and the succeeding ones, we’ll be focusing on things we like and don’t like about the program in comparison to the other.

Learning curve: There’s only a short learning curve for Excel. Once you hop into it, you can get productive right away.

Since most are familiar with organizing data in a table, doing so in Excel is intuitive. In addition, many functions in Excel are easy to learn.

If a learner experiences difficulty along the way, there are literally hundreds of online tutorials from blogs as well as books about Excel.

preview of microsoft office excel online

Ease of use: In Excel, it’s easy to store data, make calculations, format cells, etc.

And although Excel has lots of advanced uses like pivot tables and analysis toolpak, it wouldn’t take more than 15 minutes to learn their basics and use them.

In addition, there are lots of Excel templates out there, both free and paid, that you can use to simplify your tasks. There’s no need to build everything from scratch.

Kasper Langmann, Co-founder of Spreadsheeto

What we don’t like about Excel

Non-relational worksheets: By default, worksheets in Excel are flat. That means to say, they are not related at multiple levels.

Basically, data in Excel are connected within their rows and columns but no more than that without special functions.

Hard to scale: Excel has great flexibility. But as the data grows over time, some problems may arise.

As projects get more complicated, it becomes it a challenge to manage them. Not to mention, the usage of volatile functions which are sometimes necessary, could cause your workbook to run slowly.

Microsoft Access

microsoft access front page

The first official version of Microsoft Access was released in 1992, a good 7 years after Excel was launched.

Access is a Microsoft database management system (DBMS). It’s a relational database engine that’s used for both small and large database deployments.

In a sense, a database is like a more mature cousin of a spreadsheet complete with its own advantages and disadvantages.

To this day there are lots of DBMS in the market. However, Access is one of the easiest-to-use due to its Excel-like graphical interface.

Kasper Langmann, Co-founder of Spreadsheeto

What we like about Access

Multiple relational models: Unlike in Excel, databases in Access are related.

The advantage of this is that it’s easy to store information in one place and refer to it in other places. A table can simply be referenced in other tables and when the date changes, it’s automatically updated in all the referenced places.

Easily add new records: With Access, you can add new records continually without the need to add new fields.

Furthermore, unlike in Excel, you don’t have to retest the formulas and check if they’re still working every time you add a new record. Results are always consistent.

Due to that, you can generate accurate reports every time you need them.

Kasper Langmann, Co-founder of Spreadsheeto

Date-entry forms: Access is made to handle big databases. A large database comes with a great data-entry task.

However, Access makes it easier by providing forms and features so you can easily enter records.

What we don’t like about Access

Hard to learn: You can say that Microsoft Access is the Suite’s most advanced and complicated software.

With that in mind, the learning curve for Access is quite high. In fact, a few programming skills will prove quite helpful.

Experience is a must: You can quickly make a database. But to fashion it in an orderly manner and make it future-proof, you need experience.

Lots of planning should happen behind the scenes. Both skills, training, and experience are vital to figuring out how to best define normalized tables, link them, and structure the data so they’re easy to edit, query, view, and report.

Poor data visualization: Access is a no-go when it comes to visualizing data.

There are a few charting options in Access but they’re not as advanced (and stunning) as Excel’s. However, a workaround on this is to export the data to Excel and work your visualization.

Kasper Langmann, Co-founder of Spreadsheeto

Access vs Excel

So… Which one should you use? Access or Excel?

To help you decide, here are some questions to guide you:

  • What’s your objective?
  • Which one best describes your priority: financial/statistical model or manipulating databases?
  • Is data visualization important for what you want to do?

The answers you have can clearly show you which program is better for your needs. 😊

Kasper Langmann, Co-founder of Spreadsheeto

But if your work leans more on creating and manipulating databases, Access is the best tool for it. If you use Excel for it, you’ll have problems scaling it in the future.

Plus, entering your records are better in Access as it has features that allow you to create data entry forms.

Another matter to note is expertise. Excel is easy to learn. On the other hand, you might need to learn a few programming principles if you’re planning to use Access.

Both software has charting features. But if you’re planning to use it in a presentation, you’re better off using Excel’s graph and chart features.

Both applications are bundles with the Office 365 Suite.

cost of office365 with excel

If you plan on buying one without the rest of the applications, you can do so. Both are priced at $129.99 (non-commercial use Excel is $69.99).

Wrapping things up…

Depending on your needs, one is better than the other.

But if you’re really torn on which to use, there’s another way:

Why not use both? You can use Access to manage your database and import your data to Excel when you need to make computations and graphical representations. After all, they’re made by the same company — Microsoft — so they’re not made to contradict each other.

Kasper Langmann, Co-founder of Spreadsheeto