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Microsoft Access versus Excel: The Differences

Updated on July 11, 2017

Spreadsheets Versus Databases

Microsoft Access and Excel are two totally different programs. Access is a database program while Excel is for spreadsheets and financial calculations.

You would use Access to collect, manipulate and sort different types of data: names, addresses, titles, identifying codes, and so on. The primary use of Excel is to create financial spreadsheets. Excel has basic functions to sort data, but its primary use is performing financial calculations and manipulating numbers.

Excel's Strengths

With Excel, you can compile financial data and manipulate it using a variety of built-in formulas. It's an extremely powerful spreadsheet program that can perform dozens of different computations, from basic mathematical operations such as addition or multiplication to more complex calculations such as averages and percentages.

You can create extremely complex financial "what if" scenarios where you change different variables and see what the consequences of those changes would be. I've used Excel this way in the real world and it's invaluable. For instance, you might see how changes in interest rates, wages, commodity costs, or some combination of factors affect the profitability of your business over a specific time period. What happens if interest rates rise but wages remain flat? Or if gas prices rise faster than other commodity costs? Excel makes it easy to change one or two variables and see how it affects the bottom line.

The software also has graphing capabilities and can produce pie charts, line graphs, and bar graphs. These features are great for translating your data into a visual form that's more quickly understood. Graphs make it easier to spot trends and are great for presentations.

Excel does have limited data sorting capabilities but you wouldn't want to try to create and maintain a complex database with it.

Bar graph
Bar graph

Access's Strengths

Microsoft Access can be used for any situation where you have a large amount of information and you want the ability to extract portions of the data according to specific criteria.

With Access, you can collect, sort and manipulate data such as words, phrases, names and numbers. For example, you could do a database of employees or members of a club, storing all their personal information: name, age, address, phone number, and so on. Then you could ask the program to give you a list of those individuals that fit a specific set of parameters: for example, employees with over ten years of service or employees in a certain department or city. (While you could store and sort this type of data in Excel, you couldn't easily extract portions of your data that meet certain criteria.)

Access also allows you to create and format custom reports using your data. Reports give you the ability to select and display different combinations of data in ways that are useful to you.

Data printout
Data printout

Don't Use Excel as a Database

People who aren't familiar with database software will often try to store database information in a spreadsheet. While Excel can be used this way, it doesn't offer the full range of capabilities that Access does. You're much more limited in the ways you can search and return data, and you can't funnel selected portions of your data into customized reports the way you can with Access.

If you have a small amount of data and don't need complex search capabilities or custom reports, you can probably get by with Excel; otherwise, you'd do well to invest in a proper database program such as Microsoft Access.

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© 2008 John Chancellor


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  • profile image

    JohnB 2 years ago

    Excel is best if you want to keep a few sheets to do summary statistics or aggregate data on. It is easier and most likely only superior for that

    Access is best if you want to create separate sheets of information although match information up on different sheets or if you want to make classifications and subgroups of information which may overlap

    It is always best to have several neat sheets in one database than one messy one. An example of a sheet you dont want to keep is something like this - Name Address Order 1 Order 2 Order 2 Club 1 Club 2 Club 3 etc

    It is best to create a separate table for orders and club memberships alone. Also it is best to keep information which is not related on separate sheets and ones that directly are on the same one

    If certain things always repeat and go with each other and if there is often occurences of this its best to summarize the repeating data on a new sheet. This is if a certain name that comes up more than once for a varying category always has the same address and phone number especially if this the case with many of them in related categories

    This can save a sheet from getting too long or wide. Yet if you want to match things up for an occasional reason - you would need access for it

  • profile image

    VBA 6 years ago

    Excel is only for small amount of data, but Access can be used even for enterprise wide information system and can be hooked up with other database softwares like Oracle, SQL server and others to query data from them through an ODBC driver.

  • Violette DeSantis profile image

    Violette DeSantis 10 years ago from Broomall, PA


    Great answer. I was going to answer this as in my database days I was always "thrilled" to receive data in a spreadsheet that was better served in a database structure.

    It still amazes me the misconception people have that Excel can be used instead of a database. If you want to set up some data fast in Excel do so; but I highly recommend importing it to a database when time allows.

    Great Hub!