Power BI vs. Tableau: Business intelligence tools comparison

Sara G. Norris

Power BI and Tableau are business intelligence tools. Which top BI tool best fits your needs? We compare features and more.

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We are living in the age of data-informed decision-making. CIOs are using data to steer enterprises like never before, and because not all of us are data scientists, visualizing that data to tell its story is a valuable commodity. The data visualization tools market is predicted to reach $10.8 billion over the next five years. There is no shortage of visualization tools to choose from, and choosing the one that is right for you often comes down to an analysis of your use cases and environment. However, all else being equal, it’s hard to deny two of those tools make the top of the list time and time again.

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What are Power BI and Tableau?

Microsoft’s Power BI and Salesforce’s Tableau are two of the best BI tools on the market. Purpose built to help people see and understand data, Power BI and Tableau are powerful analytics tools with the potential to change how problems get solved and in some cases transform an entire organization’s culture. And while both tools strive to empower your organization to make better decisions, understanding some of the key differences between how these products go about delivering on that vision will help you make the best choice for you and your team.

Visualizations on Power BI and Tableau

As both tools are aimed at visualizing data, one way to compare the products is how they deliver on their primary purpose in life: helping people to see and understand data. It’s important to note that when it comes to all things visual, some of what people do and don’t like comes down to personal preference. That said, Tableau is well known for having some of the most slick visualizations on the web. Tableau even has a public gallery where it shows off a new visualization every day and some of them are quite impressive. You, of course, can make some nice looking visualizations with Power BI as well, but they tend to be more cookie-cutter in appearance.

Learning curve on Power BI and Tableau

Creating visualizations with Power BI and Tableau is largely done via a drag-and-drop interface–but not all drag and drop is created equal. The learning curve for Power BI tends to be less steep than Tableau, probably because of the many similarities it has with another Microsoft product, Excel. The good news is that both tools can be used by individuals with little to no coding knowledge, and once you get familiar with the tool, you’ll be impressed how quickly you can turn data into an easily digestible visualization. There are plenty of tutorials available on the web to get you started, though Tableau has an edge in terms of sheer content out there just because it has a 12-year head start.

Scale on Power BI and Tableau

Depending on your organization and use case, scalability can be a big deal. Tableau uses MDX for measures and dimensions, while Power BI uses DAX for calculating and measuring columns. They are both expression languages created to query data, but DAX was built with tabular data in mind (think Excel spreadsheets with rows and columns), whereas MDX was purposed for multi-dimensional models. The general consensus on the web is that with larger, more complex datasets, Tableau outperforms Power BI. Keep in mind though that these top BI tools scale vertically, so it can reach a point where adding memory and CPU to keep up with all your data is cost prohibitive. Also, there are a lot of ETL (extract, transform and load) tools on the market that can often simplify your dataset before you bring it into the visualization tool, making the data complexity and in some cases the volume of that data a non-issue.

Flexibility on Power BI and Tableau

Flexibility can mean a lot of things. In this instance, we are largely referring to integrations and the ability to play nice with other tools in the market. Both Power BI and Tableau BI software can be embedded in other applications and websites (though in both cases viewers need a license and login). Similarly, both tools have developer SDKs and support mobile optimized views. Where the tools start to diverge is around operating systems and connectors. There is no Mac-friendly version of Power BI, and holistically, Tableau supports more data sources and connections. Not surprisingly, when it comes to integrations with Microsoft tools, Power BI has an edge, and with Microsoft’s dominance at the enterprise, this can be an important data point.

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Cost and deployment of these top BI tools

Relatively speaking, Tableau is more expensive, or at least more expensive to get started with. Consider that individual pricing for Power BI starts at just $9.99/month compared with Tableau’s entry price point of $70/month. However, Tableau offers a larger number of license and deployment options and while both Power BI and Tableau can be hosted on premise or in the cloud, Power BI options tend to be more Azure centric and less cloud agnostic.

Which business intelligence software should you choose?

To aid you in your decision-making, we’ve compiled the data into a table.

Microsoft Power BI vs. Tableau

Feature Microsoft Power BI Tableau
Advanced visualizations
Ease of use
Community support
Performance
Number of integrations
Mac support
Large existing Microsoft ecosystem
Affordability
Deployment options

Power BI vs. Tableau: Business intelligence tools comparison

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