CSV vs Excel: Comparison, FAQs, and More

CSV or Excel? It is a well-known conflict on the best shareable file format for spreadsheets. The file size and data type are the two defining factors here. However, many users prefer one over the other for specific qualities. In this article, we will discuss CSV and Excel formats’ features and important aspects along with a direct CSV vs Excel comparison.

While the MS Excel program comes with nearly 20+ file format support, regular users do not use all formats alike. The Excel format is the most popular one in this case. It refers to the .xls or .xlsx file format. On the other hand, Comma-Separated Values or CSV is a text file format. Many spreadsheet programs support this format, including Excel.

In this article, we are looking to compare CSV and Excel file formats comprehensively. From both formats’ features to their effectiveness, we will talk about everything you may want to know about CSV and Excel formats. And if you must pick one between the two formats, the comparison table for this article will help you decide.

Let’s get started!

Comma-Separated Values (CSV) and Excel Format: A Quick Glance

As a functional file format for worksheets with various data types, the Excel format (.xls or .xlsx) is still the most popular one you can find. Contrarily, the CSV format is restrictive in storing multiple data categories. However, it is still one of the most used formats by many professionals.

In this section of the article, we will explore both CSV and Excel file formats before diving deeper into the CSV vs Excel argument in the next section.

What is the CSV File Format?

CSV, as a file format, refers to Comma-Separated Values. It is a plain text file format. Here, data is stored as text, and commas separate all the values in a dataset. CSV is also the file extension for this format.

In the Excel program, you will find more than one CSV file format in the menu for saving a file. They are almost the same, with some minor encoding differences. Even so, we are only talking about the CSV (Comma delimited) (*.csv) option.

You can see all the CSV options in the picture below. The one pointed with an arrow is the one we will discuss here.

What is the CSV File Format 1

CSV files do not store formatting or graphical elements like charts, images, and shapes. It only stores texts. Let’s see some examples. The picture below shows a small dataset with minimal table formatting. This file is saved in the usual Excel format (.xlsx) now.

What is the CSV File Format 2

But after saving it in CSV, all the formatting got removed automatically. Only the texts remained in their cells.

What is the CSV File Format 3

Although the commas as delimiters are not visible here, they separate each cell’s data from the other. You can see those commas when you open the CSV file in a text editor application.

Moreover, CSV files can be opened in any spreadsheet program like Google Sheets, Excel, LibreCalc, OpenOffice Calc, etc. They can also be opened in any text editor in the world without any problem. As a demonstration here, we will open a CSV file with Windows’ default text editor, the Notepad application. For that, we left-clicked on the file to go to the Open with option. From there, we clicked on Notepad.

What is the CSV File Format 4

Then the file opened in Notepad. The image below shows that all the data are in text format. Commas separate them as Comma-Separated Values or CSV. The first line in this text file contains the header of each column. They are separated by commas as well.

What is the CSV File Format 5

As you can see from the two demonstrations here (one in the Excel program and the other in Notepad), the data in CSV files do not seem appealing. However, many data analysts love working with CSV files. These files are extremely lightweight as they do not contain any formatting, shapes, images, or other visual elements.

Yet, CSV is the best option when formatting is unnecessary and you need to share data easily. These files can be opened in any text editor on any computer or mobile phone. It takes the whole data file-sharing experience to a new level.

Last but not least, CSV is the best file format when you import data into other software and use that data without making any changes. The default comma delimiters work pretty well in almost all the available software.

What is the Excel File Format?

Among more than 20 available file formats in the Excel program, the Excel Workbook formats are the most used formats you will see. We refer to both .xls and .xlsx file formats in Excel file format. The XLSX format has been the default workbook format since Excel 2007. Before that, .xls was the thing.

These file formats save data in a particular way. The XLS format stores everything in a binary data format. The updated version of it, the XLSX format, saves data in a container where many XML files are stored within. Those XML files inside keep all kinds of data intact and ready to display when files get opened. It is also the reason why XLSX file sizes are usually bigger.

We have a detailed article comparing the updated binary file format for Excel, the XLSB format, and the current default Excel file format, the XLSX. You can check it out to get more information about these two formats.

Now, in the case of Excel file formats XLS and XLSX, you can access these variations in the file format menu while saving a file. There are three Excel Workbook formats in the list. But we are talking about only the XLS and XLSX formats.

What is the Excel File Format 1

And these Excel files keep the formatting of data and all the elements stored in the file, unlike the CSV file format. The picture below shows a standard data table where some formatting is applied.

What is the Excel File Format 2

The Excel files save everything as you see in your workbook. However, it also makes file sizes quite big depending on the elements stored in those files. And as these files retain all kinds of data, undertaking any data analysis work is easily possible.

In terms of opening Excel files, it is slightly complicated. You will always need an Excel program to open the file on your computer. Alternatively, you can use Google Sheets to open your Excel file online. But there are some limitations while working with Excel files in Google Sheets. Check our article on Google Sheets vs Excel for more information.

CSV vs Excel: A Head-to-Head Comparison

A simple comparison table gives you the best possible type of information but with few words. For this reason, we decided to put the CSV vs Excel debate in a face-to-face comparison here. We will compare them against defining features that help users decide which file format to use at any point.

CSV Files Category Excel Files
·         .csv File Extension ·         .xls

·         .xlsx

·         Plain text Data Type ·         Binary form for .xls format

·         Individual XML files for .xlsx

·         Not used much for spreadsheet data unless special cases Availability ·         For spreadsheet data, the most used file formats
·         It can be opened in any spreadsheet program or text editors Compatibility ·         It can be opened in Excel and only in some specific spreadsheet programs
·         Good for processing data in other software Usability ·         Somewhat strict and requires Excel to work
·         Anyone can see CSV data in text format and can comprehend it Readability ·         Needs spreadsheet skills to make sense of data
·         Much smaller. Usually, 1/10 of an Excel file File Size ·         Bigger files

·         Need more memory to compute

·         Any spreadsheet program or text editor on any platform Operating Platform ·         Microsoft Excel in Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, etc.
·         Not possible Data Manipulation ·         Easily possible
·         Not available Images & Charts ·         Available. Stored inside files without any problem.
·         Cannot be used Formula & Functions ·         Can be used
·         Not available Macros & VBA ·         Available
·         Not available Password Protection ·         Available
·         Not possible Linking External Data ·         Possible
·         Not possible Using Add-Ins ·         Possible

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

In this section, we will answer the most asked questions on the CSV vs Excel debate. These answers will give you further information on CSV and Excel file formats.

Q: Is CSV better than Excel?

A: It depends on your data type and how you want to save or share them. CSV will be better if your data is simple and includes no images or charts. Otherwise, always go for the Excel format.

Q: Can I open a CSV file in Excel?

A: Yes, you can. Open the file in your Excel program from either the File > Open option or right-click on the CSV file, go to Open with, and then select Excel from the list.

Q: Can I convert a CSV file to Excel?

A: Yes, you can easily do it. After opening your CSV file in the Excel program, go to File > Save As option. Then from Save as type, select Excel Workbook, and then hit the Save button.

Q: When to use CSV?

A: When you do not have any complicated data tables, you can use the CSV format without a problem. For instance, if your worksheet does not contain charts and images and does not require any scripting to be run like the VBA, you can use CSV without any doubt.

Q: Are CSV files bigger than Excel?

A: No. CSV files are always much smaller than Excel files. It is because CSV files contain data only in plain text format.

Q: Are CSV files faster than Excel files?

A: Yes. Since CSV files have only plain text and are smaller in size, they are not resource-hungry and do not need too much power and memory from your computer to open. Therefore, they are blazing fast in operation.

Concluding Words

CSV and Excel file formats have many users in the data processing and sharing industry. Based on the type of data being dealt with, anyone should be able to pick their preferred file format easily. However, some noteworthy differences are the deciding factors here.

CSV files are light and smaller in size. It is easy to share those files with others. The format is also highly compatible with many software that uses tabular data. On the other hand, the Excel file format is feature-heavy and a top choice for data visualization. Data management is also flexible with Excel file formats. As an Excel user, it is up to you which one you would like to use for your work.

The CSV vs Excel battle shows you the various sides of these two file types. Understanding the differences between these two formats is the key here. You will easily know afterward when it is the right time to use the CSV format and when to use an Excel file to save or share your data.

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