Airtable

Airtable is a relational database tool that’s also an online collaboration tool. Before you brush it off as boring because of the word database, know that Airtable is easy to use and extremely versatile. You can use it to manage work, track and organize inventories, plan an event, and much more. It’s different from other, older database management systems because it looks like an app that anyone could learn to use, with simple language, friendly color schemes, and helpful icons. It’s also extraordinarily customizable. For its versatility and ease of use, it’s an Editors’ Choice among collaboration apps.

What Is Airtable? What Can You Do With It?

Airtable is an online system where a group of collaborators can store, share, and collaboratively edit information. The information might be ideas, inventory, tasks, or something else. This all may sound vague, but it’s hard to describe the app without giving examples or making comparisons, so let’s do that.

You probably already know that you can put information into an online spreadsheet, such as Google Sheets, and invite people to view or edit it with you. That sheet could contain very simple information, such as a list of names and addresses. Or it could be rather elaborate, like a financial accounting system that links to other sheets and so forth.

Airtable has plenty in common with collaborative online spreadsheets, except for two major differences: First, Airtable lets you manage databases rather than sheets, and without going into a lot of detail on how spreadsheets differ from databases, let’s just say databases are more complex. Second, Airtable is much more user friendly, so you don’t have to be an Excel expert to use it. 

At its core, Airtable is an online system for creating and editing databases among a group of people. A database is nothing more than a set of things grouped together. As an example, you could use Airtable to manage work, such as updating articles on a website. You might start by creating a database listing all the articles on your site that need to be updated. You design the records for the database to contain fields for the name of the article, its URL, the original author, publication date, deadline for updating it, and so forth. Then, you could invite editors and writers into the database to assign themselves work and maybe tick a checkbox in each record in the database to indicate when they’re done updating an article.

Airtable comes with a helpful selection of templates, which may give you more ideas about how you can use it. For example, there are templates called Social Media Calendar, Wedding Planning, Nonprofit Grant Tracker, Employee Onboarding, Bug Tracker, Product Launch, and many others.

Airtable organize spacesSmartsheet (starting at $19 per person per month), for example, has a spreadsheet-like approach similar to Airtable, but you can also use it as a full-fledged project management app, as well. Airtable isn’t designed for that.

Another app that shares some similarities but is not, strictly speaking, a database management tool is Monday.com. It costs roughly $10 to $20 per person per month, but with Monday.com, you have to pay for licenses in preset batches, so for example, if you have a team of 17 people, you have to round up and pay for 20.

Quick Base, another online database system, no longer makes its prices public, but formerly it charged fees similar to Airtable’s. Quick Base requires a minimum number of licenses per account.

Airtable content scheduleKanban. Kanban isn’t just a way to view information differently. It’s also a methodology for organizing information and getting work done. With Airtable, you and your teammates can create kanban boards and manage your work with them. You can easily switch from Kanban view to a Grid view when it helps to see tasks laid out in a different fashion.

Simple terminology and use of iconography make it easy to navigate Airtable and start customizing the views of databases. Even if you don’t have extensive knowledge of how to use spreadsheet software, Airtable still feels very approachable. Rather than writing formulas using Excel’s lingo, in Airtable it feels more like you’re telling the app, “Show me this, but not that.”

Airtable does not offer Gantt chart views by default, though you can get them by installing a Gantt app from the Airtable Apps Marketplace—more on that in a bit. Gantt charts are timeline views usually showing the duration of tasks and any dependencies among tasks. If you need Gantt chart views, you might be better off with a project management app. Our top picks in that category are Zoho Projects for small businesses on a budget, Teamwork for small to medium sized businesses, and LiquidPlanner for large organizations.

Airtable record commentsAirtable Sync). Note that syncing is one-way only and that automated syncs happen only once every five minutes.

Collaboration Tools

Collaboration is a key part of Airtable, but so is limiting who can make changes to your database. When you invite others, you, in the Owner/Creator role, can give them one of four levels of permission. 

First is the same level of permission that you have, Owner/Creator. Anyone in the Owner/Creator role has full access to the database, including the ability to change other people’s permission levels and delete the whole thing. 

Second is Editor. People with Editor level access can add, delete, and modify records, comment on records, and add, delete, and modify views. Additionally, they can access the entire database.

Third is Commenter, or someone who can access and view the entire database but can only comment on records. They cannot make any other changes.

Last is Read-only access. Anyone with this level of permission can only view the database and records but cannot make any changes or add comments.

Here’s an example of how you might collaborate in Airtable: Let’s say you have a database for assigning and tracking work. You could create a column with the field type Collaborator, and then assign any of your collaborators to the task. You could link to a table with all the names of people who can be assigned this type of work. That way, when you need to assign a job, the list of possibilities is right there.

As you become a more expert Airtable user, which isn’t hard to do given its plentiful tutorials, you can do more and more with it.

Airtable apps marketplaceApps Marketplace. Apps are plug-in features and functionality that you can add to your Airtable account, such as the Gantt charts mentioned previously. Other examples include a pivot table, a time-tracking widget, and a URL preview app. Some apps are quite ambitious, such as one called Page Designer that helps you take fields from a record and lay them onto a page where you can create a beautifully designed finished product.

Airtable for Personal Collections

When it comes to managing personal collections, like keeping track of all the vinyl records you own, how you categorize them, what year they were recorded, and so forth, you can certainly use Airtable. For this type of usage, a free account is often sufficient. Whether it’s convenient to use Airtable in this way is another story.

In talking with collectors about their inventory management, a vinyl record collector said he uses Discogs because it’s specific to music. Another person who collects wine said she uses an app called The Wine Cellar. Yet another person who has a storage room full of rare beer said he doesn’t currently have an app for beer, but limps along with The Wine Cellar because it’s good enough for his purposes.

Collectors often use a database management app that’s specific to whatever they collect. The reason for this is that those apps typically have relevant database info already. For example, you could pull up all the information available about a bottle of wine by using a barcode scanner. You can add personal details, such as where you store the item or when you acquired it, but the basic facts are already there. 

The point is, you can manage any kind of personal collection in Airtable, but you might not want to. The disadvantage is how much time it takes to set up and manually add new items. The advantage is that you can design the database exactly as you want it. So if you prefer convenience, you’re better off finding an app that supports your collection. If you like to have a lot of control, Airtable is a great tool.

Integrations

Airtable can connect with a large number of online services, such as Asana, Box, Google Drive, Basecamp, SMS Salesforce, Zendesk, Github, Trello, and even Instagram (for uploading images). 

If there’s a service you need that isn’t supported, you can try to connect it via Zapier or IFTTT, third-party services that connect other apps for you. That failing, you can get in touch with the company for access to its API.

Databases Made Simple

Airtable may be the least intimidating database management tool you’ll ever use. Airtable feels easy and the array of templates and tutorials guide you to exploring new ways you can use the system. Collaboration is well supported, and the price is fair. While it may not be the right tool for every data set, when it fits the bill, it’s a wonderful app. For that, it’s a PCMag Editors’ Choice winner.

January 22, 2021
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