Access vs. Excel: Which One Should You Use for Your Next Project?
In this article, we will look at Microsoft Excel and Access and evaluate:
- Their similarities
- Their differences
- How to connect them
First, let’s look at what they are.
What are Excel and Access?
Microsoft Excel and Access are both parts of the Microsoft Office Suite. Many small businesses will have these programs in their software stack.
Last Updated October 2022
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A popular spreadsheet program, Microsoft Excel stores data in rows and columns, and has excellent charting features.
MS Access is a database program, also known as a database management system. Unlike other databases like SQL Server, you can install Access on your own machine without the need for a separate server.
Excel and Access similarities
What are the similarities? Well, in both programs you can:
- Insert data into cells or rows.
- Perform data analysis on the data.
- Create visualizations based on the result.
However, there are significant differences between these two programs.
Excel and Access differences
Ease of use
Excel is easy to learn, at least at first. You only need to know how to use arrow keys or the mouse to navigate into cells, and how to enter data using the keyboard and could build an analysis.
If you want to use functions, you can start with simple formulas such as SUM and COUNT and build from there.
At the beginner level, however, Microsoft Access has a learning curve. You cannot use it instantly without some prior training.
- To insert data, you have to create tables and maybe forms.
- To create analyses, you need to know how to make queries.
- To produce any visualizations, you need to know how to create reports.
This can create difficulties when you are learning the software. However, the time needed at the beginner level is often overstated. In my Access course, we create our first tables, forms, reports, and queries in an hour and a half. At the end of that time, you will know what each of these different objects does and how to create them.
Data is very easy to enter in Excel. You just select any cell and start typing. However, this ease also brings drawbacks. Because of this ease, you could enter data anywhere, even in places where it does not logically make sense.
For example, suppose you have a column called “Date Received.” You could enter any sort of data in this column, including text and numerical data. To counter that, it is possible to turn on data validation, but you would rarely use this method in practice.
Additionally, it is hard for more than one person to enter data in Excel at the same time.
In Microsoft Access, you cannot enter data immediately. First, you need to create an Access database. This stores your tables, queries, forms, and reports. Afterward, you need to create a table with columns for the different fields.
These columns are strongly typed. This means that you can only enter compatible data into the column. If you had a date column, for instance, you could not enter numbers or text into it. This makes your initial data entry much more robust than Excel.
You can define columns as Primary Keys or “No Duplicates.” You can also limit valid values to only those contained in a list or columns in other tables.
Additionally, multiple users can add data at the same time.
Help in entering data
In Microsoft Excel, few built-in forms can assist you in entering data. This means that you need to enter data directly into a spreadsheet or an Excel Table. This is not very user-friendly. For example, suppose you wanted to add an explanation of what a column meant. You would need to put this comment in a separate cell or spreadsheet, or in a comment in the heading to that column.
In Microsoft Access, your database comes with built-in forms. To access them, you first need to create a table to hold the data. Once that is done, then you can use the Form Wizard to generate a form. This will allow for easier data entry.
You can create charts or graphs fairly quickly. However, it takes time to learn how to create advanced graphs.
Other options include:
- Pivot Tables
- Get and Transform
- Power Pivot
Again, there is a learning curve to use the more advanced functionality of these options.
In Microsoft Access, you create queries in a graphical interface. This joins different tables together without needing to use complicated formulas. Once you have learned how to construct it, it becomes easy to do. You can also use queries in SQL (Structured Query Language).
You could then create reports based on the results of your queries. Again, producing a basic report can be done in a couple of minutes using a Report Wizard. Refining reports, however, can take much longer.
Number of rows
Excel is limited to just over one million rows per spreadsheet. If you want to create an analysis using a data set bigger than this, you need to use advanced features such as Get and Transform. Big data sets can slow Excel down. This is because of the number of formulas you will have to use to create this analysis.
Microsoft Access does not have any such limitations, other than a file limit of 2 Gigabytes. This allows you to have millions or tens of millions of rows in Access tables.
Connecting Excel and Access
You can connect your Excel data to your Microsoft Access data and vice versa. If you have data in Excel, you can create a connection between Excel and Access instead of retyping it into Access. To do this, go to External Data – New Data Source – From File – Excel.
When you do this, you could either import it into Access or create a link.
- Importing the data is a one-off event. After this, there is no connection between the spreadsheet and Access.
- If you create a link, then the connection remains. Whenever you expand the data in Excel, you can refresh the data in Access so that you have up-to-date data.
Alternatively, you could store all data in Microsoft Access and link it into Microsoft Excel. To do this, you would go to Data – Get Data – From Database – From Microsoft Access Database.
After selecting the database, you can then choose the table or query to import. You can then press “Load” to create an Excel Table with this data.
If the data later changes in the Microsoft Access table, you can update the data by clicking Refresh.
Do you want to learn Microsoft Access? Then why not look at my course “Microsoft Access – from Beginner to Specialist.” We start by looking at the basics of creating tables, queries, forms, and reports. We then dive deeper into each of those items so you can access more advanced functionality. At the end of the course, with a bit of practice, you could enter an official Microsoft exam. Wouldn’t that look good on your CV or resume?
Do you want to learn advanced Excel? Then why not have a look at my course “Analyzing and Visualizing Data with Microsoft Excel.” It includes Pivot Tables, Get and Transform, and Power Pivot. Additionally, why not have a look at this article on advanced Excel skills.
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