09 Aug Notion vs. Airtable: Which database app should you use?
Airtable and Notion are two game-changing tools for entrepreneurs, project managers and creators looking to implement databases cheaply and effectively. Prior to Airtable’s release in 2015, databases were the exclusive domain of programmers and “sysadmins” who could afford solutions like Oracle or SQL servers. But today, anyone can spin up a CRM, invoicing system and product management roadmap using these DIY (and no-code) tools. In this post, we look compare two of the most popular database tools: Notion and Airtable.
Our verdict: both are extremely powerful additions to your workflow. Notion offers more breadth (beyond databases), yet can’t scale due to the lack of API and integrations. Notion seems better for knowledge management, while Airtable feels like an enterprise solution that could serve as the backbone of an organization.
Introduction to Databases
Before we can compare Notion and Airtable, we need a common understanding of their killer feature: databases. Even the most skilled Excel junkies (aka F9 Jockeys) typically have never worked with databases. Spreadsheets are 2-dimensional (with an X and Y axis) and databases add a third (and theoretically, an infinite number) of additional dimensions.
In the our Advanced Notion Database Tutorial we described databases as:
A series (i.e. 2 or more) interconnected spreadsheets. Each spreadsheet has columns and rows and they are connected using a primary key. By linking spreadsheets, you avoid having to enter the same information twice.
And whether you’re looking to build an e-commerce site, media publisher or music library the multiple dimensions of a database prevents you from having to type in any data twice – simultaneously increasing scalability and robustness.
A brief history of Airtable
Airtable was founded in 2012 2012 by Howie Liu, Andrew Ofstad, and Emmett Nicholas and in November 2018 raised a $100 mm Series C (valuing the company at $1.1 bn) led by Thrive Capital, Benchmark, and Coatue. Liu’s described his vision as democratizing powerful tech tools:
“If you’re a programmer in Silicon Valley, you can tap into this very powerful technology as a medium for creative expression or economic value creation. Yet for everyone else, you get this kind of prefabricated result.”
Docs, sheets or databases?
Comparing Notion and Airtable is an example of apples vs. oranges (and many have suggested that Coda is indeed the better comparison). Why? Well they distinctly have different uses cases: documents (i.e. a gSuite or Evernote replacement), spreadsheets, and databases).
Notion has word processing capabilities (which we cover in our comprehensive Notion tutorial) and Airtable does not. That immediately favors Notion for certain use-cases (wikis, personal portfolios and investment memos). However, we’ll explore that with spreadsheets both platforms are on equal footing and Airtable’s native focus on databases give it the upper hand for complex set ups.
So as we compare Notion and Airtable we’ll look specifically at spreadsheets and databases.
Notion vs. Airtable: The Basics
When you open your first Airtable document (a “Base”) you’re presented with what looks like a giant spreadsheet (which we’ll compare to Notion tables). However unlike a spreadsheet, each column (Airtable calls them Fields, Notion Properties) can contain a specific information type.
At the surface, both Notion and Airtable offer similar text-based column types. Here are some of the differences between the (non-database related) column types. Airtable has a field called Long Text which Notion does not have. This is because Notion has a unique twist on databases. In addition to linking fields across tables to create databases, every primary key (i.e. each row) is its own page, that can hold any block type. So Notion doesn’t need a Long Text column as all the text can be contained within the page.
(Editor’s Note: It’s a bit misleading to include call-outs, embeds and quotes as Notion column types since they actually would be included within a page inside a table.)
Airtable has more Number properties (Duration, percent, currency, rating) than Notion’s singular Number property. While Airtable’s extra granularity is nice, all these Number types can be recreated in Notion through formatting. Both can manipulate the numbers using a wide array of formulas and conditional operators.
The remaining column types
Both Notion and Airtable have similar select properties and date properties. Collaboration properties are similar (with Airtable having an extra field for Last Modified By). Attachments are similar, but while Notion integrates natively with Google Drive, Airtable natively integrates with Dropbox and Box.
Airtable vs. Notion API: a clear winner
The Notion API has been become its own frustrating meme for its impassioned user base.
While Notion does have some native integrations and an unofficial API, Airtable hands down owns this category putting them (and Coda) in a league of their own. In fact, I manage Supercharge your Productivity (a Notion course) using Airtable using the following integrations:
- Teachable imports all student and purchase data
- Typeform enables me to compile additional student information
- Automatically adding students into our private Slack workspace
In addition to Airtable’s comprehensive Zapier integration, they’ve been teasing out Native Automations (for Pro and Enterprise plans only) that when triggered by an action (i.e. a record creation or entering a specific view) can automate:
- Sending an email, Slack, teams message
- Creating/updating a record
- Running a script
Airtable’s advantages over Notion
As a native database, Airtable has certain advantages over Notion. Permission-based views in Airtable let you lock down specific data and columns. This isn’t possible in Notion where sharing a table gives you access to every single row and column. Similarly, Airtable lets you embed a view or base into any other document (whereas Notion doesn’t allow its pages to be enabled anywhere else).
To database aficionados, Notion doesn’t feel like an enterprise-ready database. For starters, it’s slow – as is exemplified by the lag in relating two tables (which doesn’t happen in Airtable). And Notion’s use of the Page Name (i.e. the Text Property) as primary key can be frustrating – in the Notion Made Simple Facebook Group, Hannah Wiginton pointed out that Airtable lets you set the primary keys as Date, Auto-number or many other fields which makes referencing them both more unique and intuitive.
The next big Airtable advantage is forms. After all, if you’re going to use a database, wouldn’t you want an easy way to input data? With Notion, your only option is sharing your table and having users input data directly into cells. Airtable, on the other hand, lets you create a form (as another grid view) where you can present users with fields, multiple choices, file uploads and long-form texts – without needing a single integration. (In fact, I’ve attended 2,000+ person conferences where the attendee lists were managed using Airtable forms). And if these forms aren’t customizable enough, you can natively link to Typeform or Jotform (or any other Zapier forms integration).
Airtable also makes the sub-aggregation of data extremely easy by grouping records. In Notion, you could see the summary data at the bottom of a view or it could be recreated with two steps: creating a relation and then a roll-up. When it comes to Views, Notion and Airtable have Kanban, galleries and calendars – but Airtable has one advantage: Gantt blocks (for Pro and Enterprise plans).
Finally, Airtable has robust keyboard shortcuts including:
- Cmd/Ctrl + A, then arrows to navigate a grid
- Cmd/Ctrl + arrows to jump to the end of grid
- Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + K to switch views
(Not to be outdone, Notion also operates using the “slash” keyboard command for shortcuts.)
Notion’s advantages over Airtable
Revisiting out Venn diagram from above, Notion’s primary advantage lies in its ability to be databases plus all types of text. This allows you to embed tables, boards and calendars into reports, status updates, corporate intranets and any document shared with those in and out of your organization.
Furthermore, creating on-the-fly views using the Linked Database feature is absolute game changer for presenting and organizing dashboards for both individuals and teams. And who can resist the the page-based emojis!
Notion vs. Airtable: The final verdict
Comparing the Airtable and Notion template galleries shows that both have their biases towards specific use cases. By definition, Airtable leans more heavily towards structured data and applications like campaign tracking, production schedules, invoices and payments and inventory management. Notion can cover these applications (albeit without any integrations and forms) but has more expansive reach into journaling, corporate wikis, personal web pages, and knowledge management.
The APIs and integration give Airtable an edge in building “enterprise” solutions (like websites that update with live data) and, for now, Notion feels more consumer-focused, eliminating the need for many apps used in day-to-day productivity. But regardless the use case, both apps are wickedly powerful and give you the ability to level-up your personal and professional objectives. You can’t go wrong!