All planning, and consequently many collaboration apps, boil down to lists. It doesn’t matter if you’re tracking inventory, thinking up which books you’d like to read, or training a new employee—you’re going to be making lists. You can use paper, or even a spreadsheet, but neither of those tools are designed to make it easy to look at the same list in different contexts. For that, you need a database.
Microsoft Lists was built from the ground up to be the simplest database management tool you can think of. If the idea sounds familiar, that’s because it’s essentially the pitch for Airtable, an Editors’ Choice winner that does the same thing. The similarities don’t end there, either—you could very well mistake a screenshot of one application for the other. You might also compare Lists to Asana, a collaborative productivity tool built around workspaces, though Asana is designed more specifically for managing workflows and projects. But while Airtable and Asana are mature products, Microsoft Lists feels like a work in progress.
Microsoft Lists is, as of this writing, available for free as a preview with a Microsoft account. That preview is limited to the first 200,000 people who sign up on a first-come, first-served basis. This free plan is limited to 50 lists with up to 200MB of attachments and 1,500 items per list.
Airtable offers a free version with unlimited databases, which are functionally similar to lists in Microsoft Lists. Databases are limited to 2GB of storage and 1,200 records per database, meaning that Airtable’s free version is more generous overall than the limited free version offered by Microsoft Lists. Asana offers unlimited tasks and projects to free users with unlimited file storage. Individual file attachments are capped at 100MB, however.
Microsoft Lists is also included with all paid Microsoft 365 business, commercial, education, and government plans that include SharePoint. These plans allow each user to create 2,000 lists per SharePoint site collection. Each list can contain up to 30,000,000 items/rows and 1TB of attachments/storage per user, along with enterprise-level security and compliance features, according to a Microsoft representative. The most affordable Microsoft 365 plan that includes lists, Business Basic, costs $6 per user per month and includes access to apps including Microsoft Word, Excel, and Teams along with 1TB of OneDrive Storage.
Airtable’s paid plans start at $12 per person per month when billed monthly or $120 per person per year billed annually. Other similar applications include Smartsheet, which starts at $19 per person per month, and Monday.com, which costs roughly $10 to $20 per person per month. Asana’s paid plans start at $13.49 per person per month when billed monthly or $131.88 per person per year when billed annually. In addition to offering database functionality, Smartsheet also fits our definition of a traditional project management app, making it quite capable for other uses.
Microsoft 365, which includes Microsoft Lists along with the rest of Microsoft’s Office apps, is cheaper than most of the applications that compete with Microsoft Lists, which means the pricing is a huge advantage for Lists.
Unlike most Microsoft 365 applications, there’s no desktop version of Microsoft Lists. It’s only available in a browser or as a mobile app for Android, iPhone, and iPad. According to Microsoft, the most compatible browsers for the app are Microsoft Edge, Mozilla Firefox, Safari, and Google Chrome. In testing, Lists was buggy in Safari—the occasional button did nothing when I clicked it, for example. But it worked well in Chrome.
I tested the iPad version and it had every feature I could find on the web version, along with the ability to swipe between objects in that view. It’s easy to imagine using the mobile app to quickly update projects while on the road. Just note that you need internet access to use the application because it has no offline functionality.
Anyone with an eligible Microsoft account can head to lists.live.com to sign in. As of this writing, users without a supported account, such as those with a Personal or Home account, are only eligible for the preview, which is limited to 200,000 total users and is the version I tested for this review.
Once you have access to Lists, you can create a List, which is what Microsoft Lists calls each of its simplified databases. A variety of templates are included, such as lists for organizing an event, scheduling articles for a blog or publication, and thinking up gift ideas.
You can choose a template or create a new list from scratch. The default view shows All Items in your new list, and it looks similar to a spreadsheet, though it’s different.
The top row holds the name of each column, as is typical in a spreadsheet. Each row below that top row represents a single Item, meaning a specific object in the database. As an example, I tested Lists by building a simple editorial calendar. Every row represents an article, and I can add attributes to other columns, such as a description of the article, author name, current status, deadline, and so on.
When you add a column you need to decide what kind of information will live there. The options are text, multiple choice, the date and time, multiple lines of text, a person, a number, yes/no, a hyperlink, and an image.
If you’ve ever used Airtable, Microsoft Lists will look very familiar. The user interface is strikingly similar and so is the functionality. The similarity is even more obvious if you double-click any item to see a summary, which includes the information from every column along with an area for comments between collaborators.
Creating and populating Lists seems simple enough, but what you’re actually doing is building a database. Microsoft is careful to avoid using words like “database” and “table” in product marketing—even the name is Lists. Make no mistake, though, Lists is hiding an object-oriented database here, and that means you can look at the same information in all sorts of different ways.
In the top-right corner of any list is a plus sign. Press it to make a new View of your data. You get three main views: List, which is the default; Calendar, which shows all objects on a monthly calendar; and Gallery, which shows each item in a separate box.
These different views allow you to look at the same items in different contexts, and you can make as many views as you like. You can also use the information in any column to filter and sort information. For example, if a project has a start and end date you could have a calendar view that displays when you’ll be working on which projects. Alternatively, you could make a calendar view that only shows due dates. You can also do basic conditional formatting, for example, to add color coding to different statuses in a status column, like green for “in progress” and red for “overdue.”
The approach is similar to Airtable’s with one crucial exception: there’s no Kanban view (also sometimes called a board view in other apps). The Kanban view in Airtable lets you use it in a manner similar to Trello, dragging an item from one column to another as it progresses through a workflow. Airtable also offers a Forms view, which makes it easy to collect information from people outside your organization and automatically add it to your database. Microsoft Lists doesn’t. Lists could use more of these features, especially because it has serious limitations importing information.
Microsoft Lists can only import data from and export data to CSV files. Oddly enough, Microsoft doesn’t support its own Excel file format here. Excel users have to export to CSV before importing. That’s doable, but it adds an annoying extra step.
To be fair, Asana also only supports importing from CSV files, but I expect better from the company that actually makes Excel. Google Tables, an experimental product similar to Microsoft Lists which Google will launch sometime in 2023, supports importing from Google Sheets. Airtable supports importing from Google Sheets and Microsoft Excel, not to mention Microsoft Access.
Microsoft Lists exists, in part, to offer an alternative to people who are using Excel spreadsheets as an improvised database. It’s odd, in that context, that Excel files aren’t supported. People are already storing compatible information in a Microsoft-owned file format. Why isn’t there a quick way to get it?
One more import quibble: It’s only possible to import data to a new list. You can’t import data to a list that already exists, meaning data entry has to be manual. At the risk of repeating myself, Airtable offers this ability.
Multiple times, while testing Lists, I’d attempt to do something only to be told the feature isn’t ready yet. For example, I tried to click a tab after setting up a List using a default template, only to find out that grouped views aren’t yet available. Messages like these don’t inspire a lot of confidence. I’d rather the feature just not be there.
The free version of Lists does not have any automation features. I read about some automation options in the documentation, but they sound simple compared with what alternatives like Airtable can do, much less Smartsheet which is known for its automation capabilities. Airtable also works with Zapier and IFTTT, allowing you to integrate with other apps regardless of whether Airtable offers native integration with them. Microsoft Lists doesn’t offer such integrations.
There’s an entire class of applications that are worth using primarily because you already pay for them. A lot of people prefer Slack to Microsoft Teams, for example, but an organization’s accounting department may decide that it doesn’t make sense to pay for Slack when they already have access to Teams included in their Microsoft 365 for Business subscription.
Microsoft Lists falls into this same category. Airtable, an Editors’ Choice winner among collaboration apps, is superior to Lists in most every way, including integration with Microsoft’s own software. But employees in organizations that already pay for Microsoft 365 have access to Lists right now, without the need for another software subscription. And that’s who I’d recommend Lists to: people who already pay for Microsoft 365 and need an easy-to-use database tool. Lists can work well for planning, inventory, and even some lightweight team collaboration.
If you’re not already paying for Microsoft 365, though, you should first look into Airtable, which offers more features and has a generous free version.
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