Or should you be using both? Access and Excel both feature data filtering, collation and querying, but which program is suited to your work requirements, and how do you get the best of both worlds?
Understanding What Each Tool Is For
The above table should provide you with an outline to the key comparisons between using MS Access or MS Excel for your data requirements. In an ideal world we all use Excel and Access interchangeably, one for its advanced mathematical calculations and statistical comparisons, the other for its ability to organise and display rafts of data in a structured manner.
Key Questions Before Your Choice
You should ask yourself these key questions before embarking with one piece of software over the other:
- How do you want to organise your data?
- Repetitive? Duplication?
- Action tracking/event management?
- Are you storing and managing, or storing and analysing?
- How much data do you have?
- Do you require formatting for sharable output?
Excel Is for Data Analysis
Excel excels at numerical data, its storage and the many permutations of analysis you might require to uncover any patterns, trends or misnomers in your data. The learning curve for Excel is quite short – in that it may seem extremely daunting to begin with, but you’ll quickly be bending pivot tables for your own use in no time at all.
The latest versions come absolutely jammed full of templates, handy shortcuts and a very friendly GUI, but there are considerations to make. Excel is a superb tool when utilising a few spreadsheets at a time, but when you begin to scale up the size of your database, for instance with a government dataset, Excel begins to creak under the strain.
Maintaining a massive Excel spreadsheet with thousands, if not tens of thousands of entries becomes increasingly difficult and as your data evolves the need to update your formulas, summary ranges and macros may lead to mistakes appearing in your data.
Here are some excellent online resources, tutorials and templates to give you the upper-hand when getting to grips with Excel:
- Learn Excel Without Spending a Penny – reference list for Excel tutorials, covering literally everything you need through one of the links
- Templates for Excel – the MS Office store for Excel templates. Excel 2013 has an extended list when you open the software – give it a browse for more options!
- Chandoo.org – tons of free information covering all learning levels
- MrExcel – similar to Chandoo, has thousands of hands-on how-to videos and tutorials
- YouTube: Howcast Tech – great introductory series, moving toward some intermediate Excel tools
Chandoo, MrExcel and the YouTube series from Howcast Tech are particularly good, each providing outstanding tutorials covering pretty much every tool you might encounter in Excel, brilliant resources for humble beginners right through to the Excel savants amongst us.
Access Excels at Data Management
Access is a slightly different beast to Excel. Where Excel maintains a focus on numerical, potentially one-off data sequences, Access provides a storage solution for information that can be recalled and referenced across multiple places. I will admit the learning curve for Access is problematic in places, but once you have learned the basics of the software, you will find those skills relatively interchangeable with almost any database software.
Perhaps the single largest difference between Access and Excel is the method for record retention. Access records are free for modification at any time. The above image shows Access (top) and Excel (bottom) for comparison. Note, when using Access each individual record is given a specific ID number – the first column – to allow you to sort, filter and query your entire database. And your database is just that – a digital store of information. Adding more information, modifying, removing, filtering and querying it have no impact on the existing record, nor the formulas, summary ranges, tables and reporting you have already set up. When using a massive dataset in Excel, there is a possibility that performing any of the aforementioned tasks could break something, somewhere.
One Step Further Than Excel
Access goes a step further than Excel in terms of pure data storage, featuring specific internal tools to ensure data quality:
- Use lookup lists and validation rules for individual fields at the table level
- Forms can add additional rules to your Access table during data entry
- Responsive to user selection and predefined events
- Referential integrity between tables consistently maintained by Access – making sure all your data makes sense, nearly all of the time
Aggregations of enormous databases are relatively simple in Access, too. Querying and filtering can take place regardless of your mode of storage with Access providing powerful data analysis solutions – but no pivot table!
Similar to our Excel offerings, here are some great online resources, tutorials and templates to give you the upper-hand when getting to grips with Access:
- Easy Access with Templates – official MS Office tutorial for using Access templates to speed your work
- Introduction to Access 2010 Templates – an introduction to selecting and implementing Access templates
- GCF Learn Free – 14 part tutorial spanning data entry to data presentation and much more
- Everything Access – absolutely massive list of Access questions and tutorials
- Baycon Group – in depth tutorials ranging from entering your data to advanced query tables
And the Winner is…
Oh, what a cop-out, sorry…but I hope that we have illustrated each piece of software so your next data storage/analysis decision will be easier. You can import Access data into Excel and vice-versa in a number of ways, infinitely expanding the potential of both pieces of software. The solutions provided by Access and Excel provide a spectrum of data management techniques that evolve alongside our data requirement.
The top bar illustrates the import and export options available via the Access > External Data tab. The second shows similar export options via the Excel > Data tab. Both data tabs provide users with an expanded cross-functionality that allows you the best of both worlds: supreme mathematical calculations, formatting and tables, along with excellent data management, analysis and reportage.
Keen-eyed readers will note the lack of an Excel export tab. Data-sharing between Excel and Access is usually a one-way street, that is, there is no permanent data connection set between the two MS Office platforms when moving from Excel into Access. Using the Access “Import & Link” tab, specific tables or frames within Excel can be selected, linked to and referenced within your database, but the numerical data must be updated at source i.e. within Excel. Your table within Access will consistently update with your Excel input, but once you close Excel, you close the data-link (but keep your data!). For everything else there is always CTRL+C or CMD+C!
Understanding just what each tool can do for you, and for your data can make a massive difference, so use both to your advantage by reading and watching some of the tutorials to gain some hands on experience with these powerful data tools.
Did we miss anything? What are your favourite Access and Excel alternatives? Let us know below!