Phillip Burton

In this article, I’m going to compare Tableau and Power BI, specifically for someone who has not used either and wants to know which one to use. So, as a beginner to these programs, what is the difference between them? 

What are Tableau and Power BI?

At their heart, both Tableau and Power BI are data visualization tools. However, you can extend their functionality beyond that into full-blown business intelligence tools.

Both software can manipulate data before the creation of any visualizations, and both can upload the results of your data analysis to the cloud. It is the combination of data analysis and BI tools that make both programs strong tools. 

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What is the cost of these packages? 

Both programs offer free options. Power BI has a free trial of its paid-for Power BI Pro service, but also offers a free Power BI Desktop program. 

If you want the full package, which allows for collaboration with other users, Power BI’s subscription-based model is around $10 per user per month. This gives you access to Power BI’s software as a service (the SaaS model), as Microsoft hosts its own Power BI Service. (If you want to host the Power BI Service on your own servers, you would have to sign up to Power BI Premium, which costs around $5,000 per month.) 

In addition to a free trial of the full Tableau Creator package, Tableau offers Tableau Public for free.

Power BI’s subscription price is much lower than Tableau’s subscription price of around $70.00 per user per month for the full Creator package. However, you can access Tableau’s viewer subscription for around $15 a month. This could put Tableau out of reach for your organization if money is tight. 

Free versionsPaid-for versions
Power BIPower BI DesktopPower BI FreePower BI Pro ($10/user/month)Power BI Premium (from $4,995)
TableauTableau Public (desktop program, and cloud service)Tableau Creator, including Tableau Desktop  ($70/user/month)

What are the limitations of the free versions? 

Tableau Public allows a limited number of data sources. For example, you cannot directly load data sets from databases such as SQL Server into Tableau Public, but you can in the full Tableau desktop. 

Once you load the data, the visualization tool has the full set of features, with the restriction that you can only save your “vizzes” to the public internet. The paid-for version allows you to save workbooks onto your local hard drive, as well as saving the files onto either Tableau Server (located on your own servers) or Tableau Online (using Tableau’s servers). 

Power BI’s free data visualization tools offer an unlimited number of data sources and allow you to save your workbooks locally or upload the files onto the Internet. 

Which visualization tool is more user-friendly?

For complete beginners, Tableau is probably more user-friendly, although there is an initial learning curve, as its user interface may be less intuitive, as you have to get used to using row and column shelves, filters, pages, and marks. 

Tableau offers a helpful “Show Me!” button. This button shows which visualizations are available with the fields you have selected. With just one click, this feature will arrange your fields into the right places to create the visualization you choose. Alternatively, you can drag and drop the fields into position, and see what Tableau generates for you. 

You can only create one visualization per sheet in Tableau, although you can arrange multiple “vizzes” (as Tableau calls them) into dashboards. 

Power BI is a bit more complicated to use in the beginning. Once you load your data, you must select which visualization you wish to use, and then arrange your rows and fields into the right places. It can be more difficult to create visualizations and is better suited for intermediate users. 

How can you format and filter?

In Tableau, you can access formatting by right-clicking any element and selecting the option to display the formatting pane. The options are generally fewer than in Power BI. 

In Tableau, you filter by dragging a field into the filtering card and selecting your initial filter. However, to enable the end-user to interact with the filter, you then must remember to select “show filter” (which is not done by default), as only this allows the end-user to change what is being filtered. 

In Power BI, you need to click on the visualization tab and then the formatting tab. Next, you’ll see a range of headings, usually six to 12 headings. You must expand them to find the individual format setting that you are looking for. In previous versions of Power BI, the interface hid some of the more advanced formattings away and only made them visible when you hovered over certain elements. Recent versions of Power BI have made these options more visible. 

How can you manipulate data? 

The full Tableau data manipulation tools are available in a separate set of programs called Tableau Prep. This is only available in the full, paid-for package. However, in both Tableau Desktop and Tableau Public, you can do some minor manipulations such as splitting fields and pivoting. You can also create calculated fields using a language like Excel, which offers more advanced calculations. 

Until recently, combining different datasets was a bit more clunky. Before, you had to combined datasets with “Joins” and “Blending.” However, since Tableau 2020.2, Tableau introduced its new powerful “Relationships” layer, which is a lot easier to use in your data analysis. 

The Power BI offers are much more immediate, as the interface integrated the “Get and Transform” or Power Query window directly into Power BI. Major manipulations, including removing rows, pivoting, unpivoting, and formulas, are available using a macro language called the M language, which modeled its language on F#. 

The language is not intuitive to learn, but only advanced users need to learn it, as the GUI can meet most people’s needs. Additionally, you can extend the model further by using another language called DAX language, which again modeled its language on Excel. 

How do the visualizations look? 

As a Microsoft product, Power BI’s visualizations out of the box remind me of an extended version of Excel: office-like and clean. If this is not the right style for you, then you can extend the visualizations through numerous third-party extensions. 

Tableau, on the other hand, seems more designed for an interactive presentation, with multiple features such as data animations and storyboards more prominent.

However, regardless of the style, both will allow you to present your analysis and story to the end-user, which is the most important thing.

How can I display my visualizations and show others my skills? 

In both programs, you can upload your visualizations to the Internet. Tableau Public is a public library with a lot of different visualizations, and many of them might give you an idea for your next creation. You can also share uploaded visualizations on your website. 

Power BI’s cloud, on the other hand, is more private by default. You need to actively create links to share visualizations on your web page. 

If you want to demonstrate your skills, both Tableau and Microsoft have certifications available. Tableau has many different types of certification, including at the introductory level. The training only takes around 10 hours, plus some practice. 

Power BI’s certification, DA-100, is a lot more extensive and requires in-depth knowledge of the M and DAX languages.  My video training for this certification is around 24 hours, and in addition, you will also need an extensive review of these two languages.

Which one should I try? 

I don’t think that the answer to this question needs to be an “either/or.” Both products offer free versions. Download each and see which one better suits your needs. It only takes a few minutes to get a feel for both products, and then you will better understand which one is right for you and your company. 

If you’re on a strict budget, and especially if data sensitivity is very important for your data analysis, then I suggest Power BI, as the free offerings in Tableau require you to share your analysis on the web, and the paid-for options are relatively expensive.

I hope that this article was useful to you. I also hope that you will try at least one of these packages, and see if it works for you. 

If you need help learning how to use either of these data visualization tools, then consider taking one of my Udemy courses, either:

I would be delighted to take you through both programs.

Page Last Updated: November 2020

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