Reviews Software

What is Airtable and is it a Google Sheets/Excel killer?

Overall score: 

You want a quick and dirty, shareable spreadsheet, you go to Google Sheets. You want a spreadsheet with pretty graphs and brutally complex formulae, you go to Excel. You want a pretty looking spreadsheet that you can use for planning events, projects and the like, you go to Airtable – at least that’s what this start-up is hoping.

Airtable describes itself as “spreadsheet meets database”, which is a definite left-swipe on Tinder, but sexy enough to pique our interest when we were looking for editorial planning software for this very website. We had ideas, and we needed a place to share, categorise and prioritise them. And we were none too keen on paying for the privilege.

Airtable has this very scenario in mind with a series of ‘Example Bases’ which are sat waiting in your account the moment you’ve registered. Aside from ‘blog editorial calendar’, there are dozens of these templates to pick from and adapt, including ‘novel planning’, ‘pet medical history’, ’employee directory’ and ‘product catalog and orders’, betraying the fact that Airtable fancies a piece of both your home and work life. You can, of course, start a database from scratch, and each base can have multiple tables organised into different tabs.

Each table is sorted into fields (Article idea, deadline, author, etc.) and the great strength of Airtable is that these fields are highly customisable. You can have short or long text fields, multiple or single select categories, checkboxes, dates, phone numbers and more, and each of these fields is sensibly formatted. In the example embedded below, for example, for a furniture store’s product catalog and orders, each of the different ‘types’ of furniture are afforded their own colour code, and you can quickly sort or filter the table on those particular fields.

Want to check out the chairs? Sort by colour-coded furniture type

Want to check how many items are out of stock? Group the table by that field, and you’ll get a group count in the top-left hand corner showing you exactly how many items you need to re-order.

You’ll have noticed a feature that’s not well supported in Google Sheets or Excel – the ability to add attachments to records. Those attachments might be pictures of stock or potential puppies, Word documents containing the copy of a blog post, links to YouTube videos or all manner of other files. Attachments can be sucked in from a host of third-party providers, including Dropbox, Evernote, Github and Gmail and the thumbnails are neatly displayed within each record.

Sense of security

When a cloud service is practically begging you to store confidential employee or company data on its servers, security should be top of your ‘what could possibly go wrong?’ list. Airtable claims data is encrypted both en route to its servers and while it’s sat there waiting to be stolen. Airtable uses 256-bit SSL/TLS encryption while the data’s in transit and 256-bit AES encryption when at rest. The lack of two-factor authentication is a concern if you’re planning to store sensitive data, although you can log in with a Google account, which does offer a double-dose of sign-in protection.

The option to manually export individual tables as CSV files is mildly reassuring, if hardly a comprehensive backup plan. At best, it’s a pain in the backside.  However, even the free plan includes a fortnight’s worth of snapshots if something does go horribly wrong with an edit. Paid-for plans offer six months or more.

 Sticky fields

Our experience with Airtable hasn’t always been a smooth glide down the helter-skelter, either. The service seems to struggle when multiple people are editing the same document. On more than one occasion, we typed something into a field, only to see it disappear when when tabbed into the next field. A refresh of the browser normally returned the missing text, but that kind of uncertainty over whether an edit has been made is about as reassuring asa Get Well Soon card from your local undertaker. That said, it never completely crapped out on us, and it was far less awkward than juggling an Excel spreadsheet between multiple users, or putting up with the more rudimentary formatting option on offer in Google Sheets.

Edits have been known to go on temporary walkabout

Price is right?

You can’t gripe about Airtable’s pricing plans. The free tier offers unlimited bases, up to a maximum of 1,200 records and 2GB of attachment space. Anything beyond that strays into the paid-for plans which start at $12 per user per month, which is quite a steep climb.

Still, we’re not yet sure we’d trust Airtable with anything as important as a 1,200-record database. But for casual planning purposes, it’s likely to remain in our bookmarks bar.

Airtable scores
  • Ease of Use
  • Features
  • Value
4

Summary

A smart-looking way to plan projects or share databases with others. The Airtable has a wobbly leg, though, with its unnnerving failure to always display edits.

About the author

Barry Collins

Barry has scribbled about tech for almost 20 years for The Sunday Times, PC Pro, WebUser, Which? and many others. He was once Deputy Editor of Mail Online and remains in therapy to this day. Email Barry at barry@bigtechquestion.com.

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