If you’re relatively new to using spreadsheets and databases, it can be difficult to determine whether Microsoft Excel or Access is the best software for a specific project. Asking yourself a few simple questions can help you choose between Excel and Access when you have data to create, store, or analyze. Let’s take a closer look at some of the points you should consider.
Question 1: What’s my data like? Excel and Access store data in very different ways. Excel stores information in a flat file, whereas Access stores data in a set of tables that can be related to one another. If you are working with a small set of data that is related, Excel may be the best choice for you. For example, the data below is all related to a set of products and the values in the cells are unique. This looks like a good candidate for a spreadsheet:
Access can make your project easier if you’re storing data that can be broken into one or more sets, or tables. For example, the spreadsheet below shows the same product information as above, but with wholesaler information. The wholesaler name and address are repeated many times, which could make the information difficult to maintain. For example, if a wholesaler changes its address, someone will have to update many spreadsheet rows. This data would work well broken into a Wholesaler table and a Products table in Access, with another table joining records from the two:
Question 2: What problem am I trying to solve? It’s important to have the end goal in mind when you choose between Excel and Access for a project. Excel is often easier for simple projects requiring calculations or analysis. If your data is all related and unique, like the first screenshot above, Excel will probably be sufficient in helping you solve your issue. Access can be a better choice when you need a place to enter, store, and query large amounts of data. You can create forms where users can enter and view records more easily than in a spreadsheet format, and you can even add validation and rules to the forms to prevent data entry errors. Access is also a powerful program when you need to answer various business questions on the fly. Excel offers filtering and sorting functions, but Access will allow you to manipulate your data in almost any way you can imagine using queries.
Question 3: Will I be adding data later? Another consideration you should make when choosing the software for a project is the project timeline. Users are generally more familiar with creating spreadsheets, so Excel will usually be the best choice for small, one-time projects. Access is often better suited for longer-term projects, especially if multiple users will be entering and retrieving information. A well-designed database will save duplicate data entry, as illustrated in the second screenshot above, and offers more options for user-friendly forms and reports.
If you’ve carefully considered your project in light of these questions, you should have a good idea of the best software for your needs. Excel and Access are both powerful programs, and choosing the best one for your task will save you time and effort.