Database vs. spreadsheet (with definitions and differences)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 5 July 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

When you're compiling a significant amount of data, it's vital that you use the correct computer application to achieve the intended result. Depending on the situation, it might be better to use either a database or a spreadsheet to get the most out of the information. Knowing the key differences between a database and a spreadsheet can help you to recognise when to use each program in your role. In this article, we look at an overview of a database vs. a spreadsheet, discuss the key differences between these terms and explain when to use them.

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Overview of a database vs. a spreadsheet

Below, you can find an overview of a database vs. a spreadsheet, which includes the definitions of each term:

What's a database?

A database is a computer program that allows users to store data in tables, alongside being able to manipulate and retrieve the information. One key feature of a database is its relational nature, which means that external sources can affect the database's content. These sources can include other databases, manual additions by the user and even digital forms in which users enter information into fields. Due to this auto-populating nature, databases are popular with businesses as they allow them to quickly and easily handle large amounts of unformatted data.

While most databases focus on qualitative information and text, there's still a strong numerical side to using a database. Databases also allow users to complete formulas and present information in a graphical format, as opposed to only using columns and rows to present the data. You can usually do this by using an appropriate external plugin for your database software, which can provide you with a versatile option for presenting all the available information to a viewer.

Related: What does a database manager do? (Plus salary and duties)

What's a spreadsheet?

Spreadsheets are a type of computer application that allows you to present primarily numerical data in a series of rows and columns. This software also allows you to organise data and analyse it by using a range of formulas and calculations. Using a spreadsheet is most common when the data exists at the start of the project, rather than importing data throughout. This is due to there being fewer tools for importing data into a spreadsheet than for a database.

Spreadsheets are a good data visualisation tool for meetings and presentations, as most spreadsheet applications have tools that allow you to create a range of graphs and charts. Using spreadsheets can therefore be a simple way of presenting data, without the need for third-party tools.

Related: How to analyse data: definition, steps, benefits and skills

Key differences between databases and spreadsheets

There are several key factors that differentiate a database and a spreadsheet. Understanding these differences can help you to determine the ideal program to use for your requirements. Below are some of these differences:

Capacity

One of the main differences between databases and spreadsheets is their capacity. Databases don't have capacity limits, other than the amount of space that's available on your hard drive. This means that large companies can benefit from using databases, as they can consistently keep track of their customers and previous sales without having to split the document into separate files. Even when using a live link that auto-populates data into the software, having a database means that it's unnecessary to worry about reaching the limits of the number of rows or columns in the document.

In contrast, spreadsheets are usually limited to a set number of rows or cells, depending on the specific software that you're using. Due to this, if you're currently using a spreadsheet and are anticipating that this may become a particularly large dataset, you can benefit from transitioning to a database before approaching this limit to ensure efficiency.

Data input

Another key difference between a database and a spreadsheet is that the data is typically inputted at different stages. When using a spreadsheet, the data is usually already available, so you can begin analysing it as soon as you've entered it into the document. As the datasets in a spreadsheet are typically static, you can complete all the necessary calculations from a single point in time, which wouldn't be possible if the dataset was being continually updated from an external source. Using spreadsheets is therefore ideal for working with stable data, such as when completing an organisation's financial reports.

In contrast, databases continually store data from a range of different external sources. Databases are, therefore, living documents, so any information you use is subject to change over time. Due to this, databases are ideal for handling data that includes constantly changing information, such as tracking an organisation's members.

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Formulas

Databases and spreadsheets also handle data in different ways. Spreadsheets are primarily in a quantitative format and they focus on converting data into results after applying a range of formulas and functions. In addition to using functions to manipulate data, spreadsheets have other features, such as conditional formatting, which makes it easy to highlight specific values or cells. This means that if you want to convert data from raw information into a more useful set of statistics and visuals, using a spreadsheet can be a relatively simple way of doing this.

In contrast, databases focus more on hosting and storing data, rather than manipulating and using it in the same way that a spreadsheet does. Depending on the specific database software in use, the options for using formulas are fewer than for spreadsheets. Despite this, you can still use mathematical formulas with a database, but it's more of a manual process. This is due to the data constantly changing and the focus on qualitative rather than quantitative data.

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Fail-safes

Depending on how you're using it, the live data flow means that databases have a strong fail-safe in place. This means that if it's necessary to recreate the database, you can do so by simply linking the database with the external sources again and waiting for the data to repopulate. Due to this useful feature, if there's an issue that results in the database's corruption, such as when a server fails or malfunctions, rebuilding the database is a relatively simple process. Companies may therefore favour databases, as they can prevent these organisations from potentially losing datasets.

As with databases, spreadsheets may also have fail-safes in place but these can differ, depending on how the organisation hosts and uses the spreadsheet. For instance, if an organisation saves the spreadsheet on a computer, without any network support, hard drive issues can result in the organisation losing the data. To combat this and to aid collaborative efforts, many organisations increasingly store their documents by using cloud technology. If an organisation saves the spreadsheet in this way, this can help them to avoid losing the document if there's an issue with their local hardware.

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Similarities between databases and spreadsheets

The main similarity between databases and spreadsheets is that both of these pieces of software can store data in a tabular form. While spreadsheets tend to focus on numerical data and databases on qualitative data, both programs can store both types of information. Additionally, both databases and spreadsheets are tables or multiple tables, although a database's table contains fields and records, whereas a spreadsheet's table has rows and columns.

When to use databases and spreadsheets

Due to a spreadsheet's focus on numerical data, calculating complex formulas and using insightful statistical concepts, such as the three-sigma rule, is significantly simpler than when using a database. When the user is handling a large amount of static, quantitative information, using a spreadsheet has more potential for providing them with insight and understanding.

In contrast, databases excel when using qualitative data. For example, this might refer to the names and contact details of an organisation's staff members or those enrolled on a study programme. When using a database, it's much easier to find the individual entries for this type of data. Furthermore, databases can handle significantly more information than a spreadsheet, due to there being no theoretical limit on the amount of data in the document. Therefore, if an organisation requires a tool to find information about its members, a database is an ideal option.

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