Web Spreadsheets Nearly Ready for Prime Time

Let's face it--Microsoft Excel is way more spreadsheet application than most of us will ever need. That is part of the appeal of a new breed of Web-based spreadsheet services: They have fewer features, which can make them easier to use for some tasks. I tried out three of the new free services: Google Spreadsheets, iRows, and Num Sum.

Google Spreadsheets offers a typically clean Google interface. A spartan spreadsheet is a welcome change, and the beta service's many formulas, formatting choices, and sorting options are easy to access.

The service lets you import and export spreadsheets as .xls or .csv files, but you can't add tags to make them easier to share the way you can in Num Sum. The service imported my 48KB test .xls file without a hiccup, preserving the formatting remarkably well. You can e-mail your spreadsheet from within the service itself, allowing others to edit or simply view the file.

I missed several features, such as the ability to convert data into charts and the inclusion of a data-entry field at the top of the worksheet. But if you don't mind seeing your spreadsheet accompanied by ads (Google reserves the right to place text ads in the future), this no-cost service is a great way to make your worksheets easy to access and share.

iRows offers powerful and easy-to-use charting features.
iRows offers powerful and easy-to-use charting features.

The charting features in iRows offer more options than Num Sum does: Converting data into bar, pie, and other chart types requires only a few mouse clicks. The service also makes it easy to import .xls, .ods, and .csv files as large as 500KB, although it enlarged the cells of my imported spreadsheet. The inconvenience is minor, since you can resize them.

iRows' spreadsheet controls are easy to find, and the service supports a range of formulas, functions, and sorting options. You can define an iRows user group, or send viewing/editing invitations by e-mail to anyone.

Like many free Web services, iRows places unobtrusive text ads alongside your spreadsheet. The service reserves the right to charge users for ill-defined "large amounts of data," as well as for future features. But in its current state, this free spreadsheet service is a real bargain.

Num Sum's simple interface best resembles that of a desktop app.
Num Sum's simple interface best resembles that of a desktop app.

Trimpath's Num Sum beta service not only shares spreadsheets via e-mail but also allows anyone to comment on those that you mark as public. You can publish them as RSS feeds, too. Num Sum currently displays no ads.

The service lets you import files as large as 500KB: My 48KB test file uploaded instantly, and it retained most of its formatting. The first time you save a file, the service will prompt you to add a description and keywords, which can help others find those files you deem public.

Num Sum's formatting and sorting options are in toolbars at the top of the worksheet. There's a noticeable lag time as you move from cell to cell using the arrow keys, but navigating via the <Page Up> and <Page Down> keys is faster. Num Sum is also the most like a desktop spreadsheet application. Despite its pedestrian performance, its desktop-app-like interface and range of features make it the service many Excel users will prefer.

All three services are great for viewing, editing, and sharing worksheets on the Web, but none has persuaded me to dump Excel yet. Still, of the three, I found Num Sum to be the one that most current Excel users could embrace.

Click on the thumbnail below to see the full-size chart.

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