Excel Add-Ins are similar to smart phone apps and graphic plug-ins. That is, they are separate applications written by independent programmers that provide enhanced capabilities for the primary software. You can get Add-Ins for Word, PowerPoint, and other popular programs as well. Most Add-Ins are either free or have a minimal cost and, generally, use very little memory.
How do Add-Ins work?
Add-Ins are very diverse, so they function quite differently. They’re produced from hundreds of sources and cover every imaginable topic. These are the 10 main types, though many of these categories overlap:
Charts & Graphics
Financial & Accounting
Productivity & Time Management
Reports & Templates
Many of them are backward- and forward-compatible, but check the system requirements before you download anything. Note that newer isn’t always better: Many of the Add-Ins that were created years ago are still some of the best ones available.
How to verify which Add-Ins you already have
1. To check which Add-Ins you may already have on your system, go to File > Options > Add-Ins. When the View and Manage Microsoft Office Add-Ins screen appears, note that Excel displays the Active Add-Ins on top and the Inactive Add-Ins on bottom.
2. Generally, the Active Add-Ins are displayed somewhere on the Ribbon menu. If not (or, if your Add-In does not appear on the Active Add-In list), activate the Office Add-Ins screen again. Choose an option from the Manage: Drop Down list (in this case, choose Excel Add-Ins), then click Go.
3. Under Add-Ins Available, from the Add-Ins dialog window, check the boxes beside all the Add-Ins you want to use, then click OK.
4. If your Add-In is a COM file, choose COM Add-Ins from the Manage: Drop Down list, then click Go again.
5. Under Add-Ins Available, from the COM Add-Ins dialog window, check the boxes beside all the COM Add-Ins you want to use, then click OK.
Note: The Add-Ins option at the bottom of the Backstage menu only displays the Add-Ins that come packaged with Excel (such as the Adobe Acrobat PDF Add-In). However, you can customize the Backstage menu with another Add-In called Add-in Express or with Visual Basic.
How to locate & install new Add-Ins
There are two ways to locate and install Excel Add-Ins. The first way is to search online for Excel Add-Ins, browse and review the many hundreds of applications, access the website with the Add-Ins you like, then download and install the application directly from that website. The second way is to search and install the Add-Ins directly from Excel.
1. Select Insert > Add-Ins > Store.
2. In the Apps for Office section, select an individual category or click All; or enter an Add-In type in the Search box.
3. When you locate the Add-In you want, click the Add button.
4. Excel opens the selected Add-In you selected in the Task Pane on the right.
Note: Some Add-Ins require you to login or sign up, because some of the features are on the developer’s website. Others (such as SmartCharts for Excel) open directly in the Task Pane and are ready to go. Also, note that if the Add button says Try (instead of Add), the application is not free. Most of the fee-based Add-Ins charge minimal fees, but a few of them are actually very expensive. Be sure to check this before you download the app.
5. Notice that the SmartCharts Add-In starts out with a menu, which is active and ready for you to begin using. Click the SmartCharts Sample/Demo button to view some of this Add-Ins’ impressive features; or click the Start with My Data button and begin building your custom charts immediately.
Take the stars/reviews shown in the Microsoft App store with a grain of salt. We tested most of the Add-Ins mentioned in this article, and many of those that received low ratings are actually quite helpful. Also, I have Excel 2013 and Excel 2016, and everything we tested here works in both versions (probably because they are so similar), regardless of the versions listed (some Add-Ins need to be updated).
Our favorite Add-Ins
Now that you understand how to locate and install Excel Add-Ins, here (below) are some of our favorites. Note that some are new and some have been around for a while. We made our selections based on personal need, the Add-Ins’ features and efficiency, the learning curve, and the cost.
Time Management Add-Ins
Time management Add-Ins are very popular because they track your activities, then produce a host of reports to illustrate how you (and your staff) spend your time. For businesses that bill out their employees’ time, such as law offices, computer support companies and the like, Time Management Add-Ins will save you and your colleagues a mountain of time.
This Add-In works like a stop watch, so you can clock and record all of your activities and/or projects throughout the day. It drops onto your spreadsheet in the task pane (right side) and it’s easy to use. Activity Timer costs $1.49 a monthRemove non-product link. It’s not much, but all those monthly fees add up. I’d prefer to pay a one-time charge and own it.
Popup Clock from XLTools
This Add-In time tracker is part of the XLTools suite, which is accessed directly through the Ribbon menu on its own tab. It pops up beside the active cell with a “To Do List” that prompts you for the time/task information. Use the Popup Clock to populate an entire range with time values. You can insert time data into tables, columns, rows, merged cells, non-adjacent cells, or any custom range and the settings can all be customized. The onetime cost is $14.95Remove non-product link.
Utility Add-Ins cover a number of processes such as screenshots, renaming current files, finding and removing external links, setting default paths to current file, closing multiple files at once, removing all macros (VBA code) from current file, barcode scanner, and much, much more.
This Add-In is a real treasure. It has so many features, it could almost be a standalone program. It auto numbers better, faster, and has more options than Excel’s built-in Fill tool. You can color code some of the formulas so it SUMS and COUNTS based on the cell color, it repairs trailing minus signs with ease, transpose a single column into a table in seconds, select or filter by strikethrough formatted cells, and dozens more utility features to make tasks faster and easier. A single user license is $49.00Remove non-product link, but its many features are worth the cost.
Scan-IT to Office Barcode Scanner
Everyone needs a barcode scanner at some point in time, and this one is quite versatile. It works with Android, iPhone, iPad, and MS Office programs 2013, 2016, 365, (online and desktop versions) for Microsoft Windows and Mac. It supports Linear Barcodes (EANs, GS1 DataBar (RSS-14), RSS Expanded, and UPCs) plus 2D Codes (QR Code, Data Matrix, PDF417, and Aztec Code). Provides an adjustable barcode prefix and postfix, adjustable character sets for encoding, batch-scanning mode, and more. And you can scan data with one device into several documents, or you can use multiple devices simultaneously to scan data into a single document. Fees are subscription-based: $4.49 a month or $29.99 a yearRemove non-product link.
Filter Mate Add-in & Filters
Another time-saver Add-In that accelerates the long, slow, painstaking process of searching defining, and filtering data in columns, ranges, and tables. Uses a feature called Filter Hop to jump between filtered columns with a click, ends time-consuming horizontal scrolling across the spreadsheet, and provides built-in filter menus for easy changes. It offers minimal features for a fee-based Add-In ($22.22)Remove non-product link, but still quite handy.
Charts & Maps Add-Ins
SmartCharts for Excel
This free Add-In claims “instant analytic charts” for Excel, which means single-click views and data discovery. In addition to the standard line, bar, pie, and bubble charts, SmartCharts (SC) provides a variety of trend and multi charts, all with no modeling. Just point and click any Excel table to see which of the SC best represent your data. If in doubt, SC makes suggestions. The cost is $1.49 to $4.49 a monthRemove non-product link for subscription-based or 24,49 € plus tax (30,12 €) for single-user license. See this link for additional pricing options.
HandyMap Address Lookup
This Add-In is just one of six in the “map” collection by a company called AdaptPoint. It’s interactive with multiple views, place markers, and lookups by city, county, state, zip code, or country. Used together with its other companions in this collection, you have a product with many more features than the standard Google Maps, and it works inside Excel and Word, which eliminates all that bouncing around between programs. Cost: $7.99 per Add-InRemove non-product link (site licenses also available).
This Add-In boasts that it creates “Data Stories,” not just charts, which means they create 360-degree data visualizations, that is, their charts explain data sets from all angles. According to Mzamose, Modern Charts are “more than just a chart,” they are, in fact, a complete presentation of your data sets. Cost: subscription-based at $1.49 a monthRemove non-product link.
Templates and Reports Add-Ins
This Add-In has over 200 templates, and they’re all freeRemove non-product link. They definitely rival the fee-based products, with templates for business, budgets, planners, invoices, etc., but not as many options within each category. Click the link above and scroll down to the categories list to view the templates by topic.
ICE Excel Add-In templates
This Add-In is more task-specific, focusing on complex real-time market analysis spreadsheets, but they are quite unique. The templates integrate with your current Excel environment and provides live access to historical market data through its connection to the ICE Data Services. Many of the templates are free. Fees are subscription-basedRemove non-product link and vary drastically depending on how many of ICE’s services you require.
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JD Sartain is a technology journalist from Boston. She writes for PCWorld, Network World, CIO, & several other tech magazines.