Excel has become the de facto standard in spreadsheet programs. Though it wasn’t the original spreadsheet, with Apple’s VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3 pre-dating it, Excel quickly gained popularity in the marketplace. Not everyone wants to pay for a Microsoft Office package to get it, though, and there are people who don’t need it every day. So how can you edit Excel files on an iPad for free?
There are free Excel options and alternatives available for iPad. Microsoft released a free Excel app to Apple’s App Store. You can also use Apple’s Numbers or Google Sheets on an iPad, or several other independent spreadsheet apps, though some Excel features are unsupported on all these platforms.
Many Excel features and functions are utterly unique to Excel. No other apps or platforms fully support Excel, not even the official Excel mobile or online apps. This is important to keep in mind. However, most spreadsheet editing should not be a problem on an iPad. Let’s look at and compare the best free options available for editing Excel spreadsheets on an iPad.
Excel Mobile App For iPad
Available as a free download from the Apple App Store, the Excel app was developed by Microsoft themselves, and it is probably the best option to use in most cases. Since you are using Excel itself to edit Excel files, all functions that the spreadsheet had when it was created should work without a glitch.
This does not mean that it’s necessarily perfect, though. Excel’s mobile app lacks some of the features that some of us are used to on desktop Excel. This list of features is rapidly diminishing with recent updates since Microsoft does not want to lose its leadership position in the spreadsheet market. The most glaring lack is macros and their associated VBS platform.
Though macros are probably not the primary Excel component that you would wish to edit on an iPad and macros are often blocked by default when opening a spreadsheet, this is still a major flaw since many spreadsheets are dependent on macros to work correctly. Unfortunately, there is no proper way around this issue at this time, and Microsoft is not planning to launch VBS on iPad.
The Excel app is available to download for free from the App Store for iPads running iOS 12 or later. You have to sign in to the Excel app to edit spreadsheets, but this is also free; you can simply create a Microsoft account if you don’t have one already. You can then edit the spreadsheet to your heart’s content by selecting the cell you want to edit and tapping the “Edit” button.
One limitation is on iPads with screens larger than 10.2 inches. This includes the iPad Pro. Microsoft believes that these devices are only used for professional purposes, so a paid Office 365 subscription is required to access the Excel app on these large-screen devices.
Excel Online – Access To Excel Through Your iPad Browser
Microsoft made most of their Office applications available to use online through a web browser. These services are also free, with certain limitations, just like the Excel app on iPad.
To access Excel Online, simply follow these steps:
- Open your web browser of choice (most users report it working in Safari without issues).
- Go to www.office.com.
- Log in using your Microsoft account, or sign up for a free account if you don’t have one already.
- From the list of apps, choose Excel.
- You can now import an existing spreadsheet or create a new one with an interface similar to desktop Excel, right on your iPad!
Apple Numbers – Excel Compatible Spreadsheet App
Apple developed its own spreadsheet program called Numbers. Numbers has a Mac and iOS version, and the iOS app is usually installed by default on a new iPad. This is not some Excel clone; it’s a full-featured spreadsheet program that uses its own file format and data system.
Since most of the world uses Excel and it has become the standard, you can easily open and edit Excel files in Numbers, at least on Mac devices. It is a bit more complicated on iPad, however. When you want to open and edit an Excel spreadsheet in Numbers on iPad, the file must be imported and converted into Numbers’ own file format. You can then easily edit the file as you wish.
If you want Excel users to reaccess the file, it must be exported back into Excel’s XLSX file format. This importing and exporting isn’t perfect since the two platforms (though almost evenly matched in terms of capabilities) use different standards. Numbers, for example, is incompatible with Excel’s surface charts, pivot tables, and some graphic elements.
For most day-to-day uses, though, Apple’s Numbers will do just fine for any iPad user. The main advantage of using Numbers rather than any other option is that it’s a native iOS app and probably already installed on your iPad. There’s no need to install something else or to create yet another account. You won’t be bugged to sign up for Office 365 either. It is genuinely free for all Apple users.
Google Sheets: Google’s Excel Alternative
Google made its spreadsheet app, Sheets, available for free more than a decade ago. Initially online only as a cloud app, Google has since released Sheets in various apps for different platforms, including iOS. You can choose to use Google Sheets online in its original form, or you can install the free Google Sheets app from the App Store for a bit more convenience.
To use Sheets, you will need to have a Google account. Files you open and create on Sheets are automatically linked and saved on your Google Drive. None of this is truly surprising when we consider that Sheets was initially created as an online and cloud-based service. The apps simply interact with the cloud software located on Google’s servers.
Google Sheets cannot edit Excel spreadsheets directly, whether you use the online platform in your browser at sheets.google.com or install the Google Sheets app. It can open the files for viewing, but you must import and convert the spreadsheet to Google Sheets format before making any changes.
Thankfully this is a seamless and easy process, so much so that you often don’t even realize it’s happening. But it’s also critical to remember that, like with any Excel “alternative,” importing and exporting are not perfect, and some features may be lost.
This is even more important with Google Sheets since it severely lacks features compared with Excel. Google seems to be focused more on what most of its users need rather than being in direct competition against Excel. This strategy appears to be working for them since many users are starting to prefer the simplicity of Sheets over the intimidating power-house of Excel.
For most day-to-day spreadsheet functions, Google Sheets will do well. It may lack features for business or professional users, especially those who are used to working with Excel, but as a free platform, it is about as good an option as any other platform out there.
AO Office: Open-Source Excel And Office Alternative
So far, we’ve only looked at software developed by corporate software giants like Microsoft, Apple, and Google. But there’s an entire movement of people who believe that software should be free, not just as in “cost no money,” but also as in “free speech.” This is known as the open-source movement, and there are a few reliable open-source options to edit Excel files on an iPad.
One of those is AO Office. Based on the OpenOffice.org project, AO Office is a complete implementation of a Microsoft Office-compatible office suite on iOS devices. This includes a spreadsheet app, known simply as Spreadsheet.
AO Office has a significant advantage over some of the alternatives mentioned here, and that is that you do not need to import or export your Excel spreadsheets. No actual conversion takes place. AO Office simply opens the spreadsheet in a compatibility layer. When saving, you can save the spreadsheet as an Excel file again or convert it to the Open Documents Standard (ODS).
Unfortunately, it has the same drawback as other non-Excel options: compatibility isn’t perfect. Certain Excel features are not fully supported, and those are interpreted in an “as close as possible” way, which is often severely lacking. These issues are mostly related to visual elements, though, so the spreadsheet’s functionality should not be affected much, if at all.
AO Office is free to install and use, but there’s a catch. The free version is not entirely full-featured, and it contains ads. The lacking features aren’t a deal-breaker for most since it primarily blocks automatic cloud syncing. A paid option is available that will enable cloud services and remove ads.
AO Office has a 4.3-star review on the App Store. It isn’t perfect, but it is a reliable option for editing Excel spreadsheets on your iPad.
I sat down with AO Office “Calc” in a coffee shop in order to take the photos for this article and I’m a little bit annoyed with it. In my previous attempts at using it from an iPad with no enhancement (keyboard, touchpad) the app “worked” for what it is. However connecting a keyboard to the iPad doesn’t allow you to use it properly and mouse input is spotty at best. While the App has a desktop interface it does not pair well with an iPad Air 4 in desktop mode. I’ve attached a video with the issues I’ve encountered. Note that the footage was taken from the coffee shop I was in.
GlobalOffice Calc: Another Open-Source Excel Alternative
The two mainstream open-source Office Suite branches are OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice. AO Office is based on OpenOffice, but there’s a free iOS version of LibreOffice as well: GlobalOffice.
GlobalOffice is also a complete office suite that includes a spreadsheet program called Calc. Similar to AO Office, Calc can open Excel spreadsheets and edit them using a compatibility layer, so no importing or exporting is required unless you wish to change the file type.
Again, the compatibility is not perfect, and many visual features may get lost in the compatibility process. This incompatibility should not cause any problems with the data in the spreadsheet, though, and you will still be able to edit anything you wish to edit.
One feature of GlobalOffice that could be either a pro or a con is the fact that the app is really just a platform that interacts with LibreOffice online. Rather than installing the functionality directly on your iPad, the work is actually done by a cloud server, and you are simply using the GlobalOffice app to communicate with it.
This is good because it makes the app lightweight while maintaining the power of an entire server. But it could also be a negative since this means you need a stable internet connection constantly while using the app. This fact is the main reason why GlobalOffice only got a 2.7-star rating on the App Store. Still, it’s a free way to edit Excel spreadsheets on your iPad, so it’s worth mentioning.
Fully Independent Excel Editing Apps
Ever since BlackBerry phones came out with the ability to install apps and become productivity tools, app developers have been striving to build fully-compatible mobile alternatives for Microsoft Office. Many of these have risen and fallen over the years after achieving varying levels of success. But few have survived for as long as XOffice and Docs To Go, so they are worthy options for Excel editing.
XOfficeXLS – OpenOffice-Based Excel Alternative
This is another Excel-compatible app based on OpenOffice that runs remotely on OpenOffice servers. Again, that makes the app very lightweight but full-featured with a high level of Excel compatibility, though it’s still not perfect.
A major complaint against XOfficeXLS is that it doesn’t currently work in landscape view, and using a spreadsheet in portrait view is a significant inconvenience. However, for some minor and quick edits, this is not a problem, and XOfficeXLS is an alternative option for people with no love for Google or Microsoft’s options. Just, like with AO and Global, don’t use it with a keyboard.
Docs To Go Standard
Of all the non-corporate options, Docs To Go may be the best alternative for Microsoft Office around. It’s been available for more than 18 years and was the most widely used office productivity suite on mobile devices before Google and Microsoft made their apps available on phones and tablets. These years of experience have made Docs To Go a polished, highly-compatible platform.
Docs To Go includes a small yet powerful spreadsheet editor that is at least as compatible with Microsoft Excel as any of the other apps in this list, if not more so. Some visual elements may not appear as perfect as they would in Excel, but apart from that, you can edit and change Excel spreadsheets without much effort.
The Standard edition is free but has a few limitations. Those are limited cloud support, no desktop syncing, and you cannot open, edit, or save password-protected files. Those limitations are usually not a problem for most day-to-day users, and Docs To Go still does what it’s supposed to do, namely editing documents and Excel spreadsheets, exceptionally well.
As much as mobile technology has developed, it is still impossible to precisely duplicate the power of desktop Excel on an iPad. That is partly due to the limited processing power of mobile devices, but in part, it’s also because Microsoft would not like to give up its primary area of dominance: the desktop PC. Thankfully there are still effective ways to use and edit Excel spreadsheets on an iPad.