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What is a Spreadsheet?

By Cathy Rogers
Updated: May 16, 2024

A spreadsheet, also known as a worksheet, contains rows and columns and is used to record and compare numerical or financial data.  Originally, they only existed in paper format, but now they are most likely created and maintained through a software program that displays the numerical information in rows and columns. Spreadsheets can be used in any area or field that works with numbers and are commonly found in the accounting, budgeting, sales forecasting, financial analysis, and scientific fields.

Computerized spreadsheets mimic their paper predecessors. The advantage of using computer programs is their ability to update data and perform automatic calculations extremely quickly. In the software, the intersection of a row and a column is called a cell. Rows are generally identified by numbers — 1, 2, 3, etc. — and columns are identified by letters, such as A, B, C, and so on. The cell is a combination of a letter and a number to identify a particular location within the sheet, such as A3.

To maneuver around the cells, the user uses the mouse or the tab key. When the contents of one cell are changed, any other affected cell is automatically recalculated according to the formulas in use.  Formulas are the calculations to be performed on the data. They can be simple, such as sum or average, or they can be very complex. Spreadsheets are also popular for testing hypothetical scenarios. 

Setting up a worksheet can be fairly time consuming, although templates and samples are available with most software packages.  Software programs can be formatted with titles, colors, bold text, and italics for a professional look. Users can also create graphs and charts based on the data. Many packages have the ability to print mailing lists or labels as well.

The original spreadsheet software was VisiCalc, designed for use on Apple computers.  Now, many commercial software packages are available for Microsoft Windows® and other operating systems.

Individuals, in addition to businesses, use this software for a variety of tasks that involve numerical data. Teachers can use them to store and average grades, while other individuals can use them to track a personal budget or store sports team statistics. Spreadsheets are one of the most popular uses for personal computers.

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Discussion Comments
By Mor — On Dec 12, 2012
@croydon - I think the important thing is to strike a balance between being too dry and being too creative when it comes to presentations of any kind. You don't want the people reading or watching the presentation to just see a bunch of spreadsheets without real world applications involved.

That's why the analysis functions in different spreadsheet software are such a boon. You can really get into the point of what you're trying to get across without having to show them every little step along the way.

By croydon — On Dec 11, 2012
@anon113232 - Well, it depends on the presentation and the type of program you're using to create the spreadsheets. Really, you just have to get creative. If you've got a lot of statistics, you can do something with charts and diagrams, or if it's a simple collection of data you might be able to get away with a simple spreadsheet.

Most programs that deal with spreadsheets (like Excel) have different abilities when it comes to presentation and it's just a matter of making up your own mind as to what is appropriate for the presentation you want to create. You can probably find free spreadsheet templates online as well if you look carefully.

By indemnifyme — On Dec 07, 2012
@strawCake - That's a shame. Spreadsheets are really useful, and not just for doing office work. I've never seen an accounting spreadsheet, but I use spreadsheets for my budget and occasionally for other things too. You should try to find a good tutorial online and give spreadsheets another try.
By strawCake — On Dec 06, 2012
I have to admit that I'm someone who rarely (OK, never) uses spreadsheets. I know they're extremely popular, but I just can't get the hang of them. Luckily, I don't really need to use them for my job, so I kind of got off easy in that department.

I did have to learn spreadsheets when I was in college and took an introductory computing class though. I did pretty terrible in that section, except for the very basic lessons. I'm much better at word processing.

By Azuza — On Dec 06, 2012
@betterment - That's a good idea. I use a budget spreadsheet too, but I just store it locally on my laptop. I might look into using some kind of online storage for it so I can look at it while I'm out and about. I think that could be really helpful.
By betterment — On Dec 05, 2012
@dobrinj - I've seen those spreadsheets that operate in the browser. I use cloud-based storage for some of my files, and one of the programs I use can generate documents within the storage system in the browser window. A spreadsheet template is one option, so I use a spreadsheet in that program to track my monthly budget.

As you said, you can access the spreadsheet anywhere you have an Internet connection, which is really convenient. Sometimes I want to pay bills using an app on my phone, so it's nice to have access to my budget when I'm not at home.

By anon252276 — On Mar 05, 2012

The internet is good for accessing your spreadsheets.

By anon113232 — On Sep 23, 2010

how can you use spreadsheets for electronic presentations? answer with lots of info and thanks.

By anon64568 — On Feb 08, 2010

Great info! I love this site and all of its information. Thanks WiseGEEK!

By anon14307 — On Jun 14, 2008

what are the types of spreadsheets?

By dobrinj — On May 14, 2008

there are also new types of spreadsheets that operate in the browser. a few different companies are offering this service and there seem to be at least two big benefits of these browser-based spreadsheets vs. their offline counterparts:

1) you can access your spreadsheet files from anywhere you can connect to the internet. since all you need is a browser, you can view/edit the file from anywhere that has an internet connection

2) you can share the file with others who are also connected to the internet. this allows multiple people (who might be in different locations around the world), to view/edit the document. this collaborative editing can be performed at the same time.

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