business intelligence

Power BI vs Tableau: A complete comparison

The only way you determine the success of your data and analytics program—and subsequently, your business intelligence platform—is to understand the value it provides to your organization. So, that’s what we’ll do in this article. 

We’ll start by defining what exactly each tool does. Then we’ll jump into a value comparison. And by the end of this article, you’ll be armed with the information you need to select the best business intelligence tool for your organization.

What is Power BI? 

Power BI is Microsoft’s BI offering built for “power” users—which is more-often the analyst archetype. Power BI describes itself as a unified, scalable, enterprise business intelligence platform that allows organizations to connect to and visualize their data. They consistently add features to keep up with the speed of innovation. That’s why Azure customers who consider themselves a “Microsoft shop” often tell us that using PowerBI for analytics is a no-brainer.

What is Tableau?

Tableau is a visual analytics platform. They are known for being a world-class data visualization and BI reporting solution, allowing analysts to build pixel perfect dashboards that tell data stories. It’s an incredibly powerful tool in the hands of a data analyst which makes it one of the best Power BI alternatives.

Value comparison: Power BI vs Tableau

When it comes to market share, Tableau vs Power BI both hover anywhere from 15%- 20%. At face value, these two rivals might seem pretty well matched. But depending on your specific organization’s needs, one tool might be a clear leader. Let’s do a quick comparison of some of the top features data professionals are looking for today. 

User interface

While comparing Power Bi vs Tableau in terms of user interface, Tableau has a naturally intuitive drag-and-drop interface. This makes it easy for data experts to create visualizations. The interface is built on the concept of a worksheet, which is the baseline canvas that users manipulate by dragging and dropping fields to create charts and visuals. Tableau offers a wide range of capabilities to customize the look and feel of visualizations along with formatting options.

Power BI has a similar interface to other Microsoft products. So, if you are used to working with Excel, Word, and other productivity tools, it will be more familiar to you. Tableau hides a lot of features behind menus which make it more difficult for users to discover. The user-experience for creating in PowerBI is considered more complex by a majority of users. So, it often takes more time for users to adopt than Tableau.

Data sources

Both Tableau and Power BI offer a range of data connectors from databases, to spreadsheets and cloud data platforms like Snowflake, Azure Synapse, Databricks, and more. Tableau users connect to multiple data sources at once, using Tableau Prep to blend data from different sources.

Many public reviewers noted that Tableau's connectors are more performant, and built for live-query of a cloud data warehouse. Power BI's query manager and planner struggles at scale, which can result in slower dashboards depending on the size and complexity of the data being analyzed. 

Power BI has slightly fewer connector options for users, but is designed to work well with Microsoft data sources like Excel and SQL Server. Here's a full list breakdown of data source comparison (source):

Table comparing data sources for PowerBI vs Tableau

Visualization

This is the area Tableau is more known for. It offers a wide range of charts and visualization options including: bar charts, line charts, scatter plots, and geographic maps. Tableau also offers advanced visualization options, such as treemaps and bubble charts, that can help users visualize complex data sets.

While Power BI offers a wide range of chart types, it's more limited to Tableau in terms of the number of customizations available. That’s because Power BI is designed for Microsoft Office. Their visualizations are often regarded for their simplicity, whereas Tableau is known to be pixel perfect. That as it is, Tableau is the leader for data professionals who want to painstakingly control every pixel and color in their dashboard.  

Analytics

In the analytics arena, let us first examine how each vendor compares on advanced analytics. Tableau is strong for technical users who need advanced analytics, including the ability to create calculated fields, perform statistical analysis, and forecasting. Tableau also allows hardcore users to leverage more data-science-centric use cases like clustering, trend analysis, and more.

Power BI’s calculation language, DAX, results in rigid formulas. VisQL, Tableau’s counterpart, is reported to be more efficient—driving better query efficiency and faster visualization load times.

All in all, any highly-skilled technical user should be able to get value from either of these solutions. But what about non-technical users on the self-service analytics side? That’s a much taller order. Both tools put a lot of feature complexity up-front, making it difficult for the average business user to navigate.  

Performance

Now, let's compare Power BI vs Tableau in terms of performance. Tableau was designed to handle enterprise-size data sets. They added in-memory caching capabilities with Hyper to speed up queries, and their performance is compatible with multi-core processors, which help users work with data more speedily. 

Furthermore, Tableau does not limit the number of data points in a visualization for the user. They also do not enforce row or size limitations, giving you a broad view of the data. Power BI has in-memory capabilities as well, but public benchmarks show that it tends to slow down while handling bulk data. 

The caveat here is that when we’re talking about speed and performance, we’re really only talking about single question insights. Drill-down capabilities are limited in both tools. A real world example: Say your sales leader has a question about last quarter’s pipeline, and the dashboard of that data leads them to wonder how the data pipeline has changed year-over-year. There’s no easy way for either the sales leader or the analyst to drill down and toggle the data differently. Every new question kicks off the cycle of dashboard creation, forcing your analyst to do another pull and create another visualization from scratch. Scale this scenario out to a company with hundreds or thousands of data-curious business people and your analyst team is in some real trouble. It’s backlog city. Which begs the question, how performant can an analytics tool really be if it’s only good for one answer at a time?

Price

Pricing models often fluctuate, so we encourage you to research pricing directly with both Tableau vs Power BI. That said, here's what we know from general industry knowledge, customers, and reports like the Gartner Magic Quadrant

Yes, Power BI is free if you’re a Microsoft customer—to a point. If you’re looking for a higher level of sharing, storage, or performance, you will need to license a premium version of the product. Your pricing package determines if you purchase by user or capacity, your model size limit, how often your data refreshes, and a host of other features that may or may not be important to your business. 

While not free, Tableau’s pricing is structured based on the number of named users licensing the system. The price-per-user differs based on the level of access and functionality each user receives.

Neither Power BI or Tableau include options for consumption based pricing. So even if you don’t use all of your seats, you’re still paying.

Alternatives to Power BI and Tableau

Listen, there’s a reason Tableau and Power BI are as well known and widely used as they are in the data and analytics industry. No CDO has ever been fired for signing up with one of these tools. On the other hand, no CDO has ever been called innovative for using them either. And that’s because Power BI and Tableau both very much represent the old of guard of analyst-accessible, advanced analytics.

The latest wave of analytics technology takes a much different approach to the above categories of comparison. A self-service, AI-Powered Analytics Power BI and Tableau competitors like ThoughtSpot for example, offers just as broad a range of data connection sources and analytics features as either Tableau or Power BI, but it indexes hard on user experience.

This makes ThoughtSpot both powerful and intuitive enough for users of every skill level to derive value. On top of that, it’s fast—serving personalized, actionable insights in seconds from your very first question to your last with ThoughtSpot Sage and its drill-anywhere capabilities. And you can forget the sticker shock. ThoughtSpot’s most robust Enterprise plan comes with all the bells and whistles at consumption-based cost. Plus, there's a Team Edition for small organizations that starts at $95/month.

The best BI tool isn’t Power BI or Tableau—it’s ThoughtSpot

The best BI tool has to align your data strategy and your business strategy to deliver true value. If you’re looking for a modern data experience, ThoughtSpot is the clear answer. 

That’s why customers like Comcast, Disney Streaming, Mattel, and CVS trust ThoughtSpot to provide self-service, AI-Powered Analytics. But don’t just take our word for it—start a 30-day free trial today, and see the value that a modern data experience delivers for your business.

We’re so confident in this position that we’re offering Tableau customers 15% off of a new ThoughtSpot contract. Find the full offer details, and sign up to switch to ThoughtSpot today!