Power BI vs. Tableau (Part 1)

As I mentioned in my blog “Why Business Like Yours Choose Power BI Over SiSense”, expect attack from other vendors to intensify as they find themselves fighting an increasingly uphill battle against Power BI. As we’ve seen, Power BI has indeed disrupted their sales cycles. In this blog, I’m reviewing the “10 Ways Power BI Falls Short” presentation that Tableau has published on their site. Tableau, of course, is a fine tool for what it’s designed to do – mainly self-service BI. But as we’ve all seen tools come and go as seasons. A few years ago it was all about Qlik, then Tableau, and now 2016 seems to be the year of Power BI. My advice has always been that the focus should be on sound strategy, data integration, and data quality, and not tools. The last thing you want is a “cool” tool that over promises but under delivers and you’re left with nothing when you decide to move on (and some of the vendors really cross the line during their sales pitch). So, we have to keep them honest!

Anyway, let’s take a look at some the claims that Tableau has made by going through their slides. This is, of course, a one-sided perspective that extolls the Tableau virtues. I plan a future post “10 Ways Tableau Falls Short” to fill in the gap. Also, Tableau should get in the habit to update this document frequently given the fact that Power BI changes weekly and some of the claims are no longer valid.

  1. Missing outliers are lost insights – Tableau has a point here. For some obscure reason, Power BI developers has decided to apply a data reduction algorithm to favor performance over details. True, this might result in lost outliers with thousands of data points. I recommend Microsoft allow end users to adjust the data reduction settings. I know this limitation is high on the wish list and I expect it to be addressed/lifted really soon. UPDATE 9/13/2017 – As of this date, all Power BI visuals except map supports rendering of all data points. UPDATE 1/8/2017 – As of the December 2017 update of Power BI, maps are high-density too.
  2. Difficult to answer easy questions – This refers to the fact that currently Power BI doesn’t support auto-generating common calculations. Fair enough, Power BI doesn’t support this yet but the statement “you’ll need to learn DAX first” is somewhat overloaded. There are plenty of DAX examples online of how to implement common calculations so there isn’t that much to learn. And DAX is much more powerful than Tableau expressions. UPDATE 10/1/2016 – Power BI introduced Quick Calc with the Percentage of Total being the only one currently available. UPDATE 4/3/2017 – Better yet, Power BI introduced Quick Measures, which supports various prepackaged calculations and show the DAX formula.
  3. No trends or forecasting available – Power BI just added trendlines. For now, forecasting needs to be done either in Excel or R. I don’t know why Power BI still hasn’t picked the linear forecasting capabilities that Power BI for Office 365 had. Another feature that is very high on the wish list so I don’t expect you have to wait long for forecasting. UPDATE 10/1/2016 – Power BI added time series forecasting. It also added Explain Increase/Decrease machine learning algorithms in Power BI Desktop.
  4. You can’t compare several categories – If I understand this correctly, it refers to ability to drill down across multiple categories. Power BI matrix reports should get the job done. Also, Power BI has recently added the ability to drill through chart data points.
  5. Filtering is tough – Tableau is correct that Power BI doesn’t support context filtering but the statement “You’d have to take the time to filter everything around it, one-by-one, instead” is overloaded. It shouldn’t be that difficult to filter out values using visual-level, page, or report filters. It might take a few more clicks, but I won’t consider this to be a major limitation.
  6. Half the details = Half the insight. True, Power BI tooltips are not yet customizable. Should important information be in tooltips though and require hovering from one point to next? UPDATE 10/1/2016 – Tooltips are now customizable.
  7. Organizing your data is difficult – True, Power BI doesn’t support dynamic groups, e.g. by lassoing some scatter points. I personally haven’t heard users complaining or asking about it so I don’t consider it to be a major limitation. Power BI does support hierarchies. UPDATE 11/1/2016 Power BI Desktop October Release introduced dynamic groups and binning in charts.
  8. No offline iterations allowed – “In Power BI, you can do some basic web editing, but you can’t download it to your desktop or work offline” This is incorrect. First, web report editing it’s on a par with desktop editing. Second, a best practice is to create your reports in Power BI Desktop and upload to powerbi.com. If you do this, you can download the pbix file and work offline. Moreover, Tableau web editing has more limitations than Power BI.
  9. You can’t tell a story – Outdated. Power BI added a Narratives for Power BI. Coupled with Quick Insights, these features surpass the Tableau capabilities. UPDATE 10/9/2017 Power BI also added bookmarks, selection pane, and spotlight.
  10. You can’t ask what-if questions – True, Power BI doesn’t support What-If natively yet. If this is important, you can export the visual data to Excel and use the Excel what-if, goal seek, and scenario capabilities. UPDATE 9/13/2017 – August release introduced What-If parameters and analysis

Overall, I believe that some of the points Tableau makes are insignificant while Power BI has already addressed others. Agree? Stay tuned for a “10 Ways Tableau Falls Short” blog.

  • David Eldersveld

    From a feature standpoint, you could probably come up with a few dozen more areas where Tableau may surpass Power BI. There are, of course, areas where Power BI had advantages over Tableau out of the gate such as data preparation, etc. Here’s a major problem: I understand Tableau’s need to draft a list like this from a sales and marketing perspective, but it compares a product that’s had over a decade to evolve with one that only became standalone a year and a half ago.

    I would agree with your assertion that some of the points that Tableau makes are insignificant. For others though, Power BI lags behind primarily due to the immaturity of the product rather than a lack of vision. I doubt anyone at Microsoft sat in a planning meeting and said that they don’t ever want what-if capability or more convenient, auto-generated calculations. Feature gaps can be filled quickly if needed and will not offer as much differentiation as Power BI matures.

    Of course, most of the items on the list of why Power BI currently falls short could have been applied to Tableau itself in its early years. What-if scenarios? Tableau did not introduce parameters until v6 after six or seven years of development. Analytics? Most of the great statistics and forecasting came in v8 or 8.1 (as an aside, I think you have understated Tableau’s capability here as it offer much more than trendlines and forecasting. It would be better to compare it to the Analysis Toolpak in Excel rather than anything native or coming soon to PBI). On the other hand, Tableau did not add the ability to *pivot* data until v9, didn’t have *filled maps* until v7, and spent much of 2015 celebrating LOD expressions, etc. It will be interesting to see how a list like this might change over the next year or two.

    • Prologika

      Thanks for the feedback, David! About Power BI maturity, I tend to disagree that Power BI is lagging. True, Power BI Service was introduced less than an year ago but its building blocks (Power Pivot, Power Query, Power View, Tabular, Azure) have been around for years.

      I’d love to get your input about other areas where Tableau surpasses Power BI. It appears that Tableau considers these 10 points to be the most significant to prove that Power BI falls short and that’s what I reviewed.

  • George Qiao

    My background is Microsoft BI specialist. I follow SSAS MD, SSAS Tabular, Power BI for long time and spend a lot of time everyday to read blogs from famous people like yourself, Teo. I love Microsoft data platform and I truly believe it is the best data platform end to end.

    As for Tableau, I fall in love with it with the first 3 day’s trial two years ago. I enjoy playing with Tableau and you never feel boring with it. Personally, I think Tableau’s modelling capability is far behind SSAS/Power Pivot. You can only have a single fact table based star schema. The LOD expression is powerful but only as half powerful as MDX/DAX can achieve. I don’t really think Tableau is multi-dimensional like true OLAP engine. It is a 2D tabular data with fake OLAP appearance. However, the UI is very flexible, it renders quick and beautifully. You can place UI controls anywhere on the canvas, you can change it in different layout, e.g. drop down, sliders, check box etc. The data point selection is awesome, I can use the lasso control to group items and create groups / sets on the fly. I can then use the groups / sets immediately and create hierarchies on the fly. The sets can perform union, inner join, exclude with user interface easily. The chart supports nested in rows and columns and therefore the trellis chart type of Vis made easier. The parameter can be used everywhere, such as data source filtering, calculated fields, reference lines, table calculations etc etc. I also like the custom shapes. Tableau does not have native gauge chart. I use SSRS data driven subscription to generate 100 images and use the images in a dashboard.

    Three things I think Tableau is good but Power BI is lacking are:

    1. The “Web Page” component in the dashboard. This allows Tableau dashboard can embed other BI assets such as SQL Server Reporting Services reports, SAP Business Objects, R / Shiny / Plotly, Google Charts, D3, virtually any web reachable content, with dynamic URL controlled by the Tableau expression language

    2. Table calculation. MDX / DAX is powerful, actually much more powerful than Tableau’s expression language. However, it is single layered. The calculation is performed in the storage engine and formula engine and returned to the client. That’s it. In Tableau, the table calculation is some kind of “post calculation”. The regular calculation is executed and return an intermediate tabular structure and then table calculation perform another calculation against this intermediately layer. I understand in Power BI, the R integration is similar to the table calculation which is a post calculation. But in power BI, we don’t’ have this “post calculation DAX” yet. Maybe the newly introduced “calculated table” can achieve this but I have not tried. And, it is a lot of DAX code to mimic this post calculation as you have to deal with the row/evaluation context and relationships.

    3. Tableau has rich JavaScript API to allow embedding and controlled by the wrapper application. I can easily embed Tableau in custom ASP.NET, SharePoint Online, PowerPoint link: https://george-qiao.com/2016/04/29/embed-tableau-into-microsoft-power-point-2016/) and hopefully Office Sway soon.

    People keep blaming Tableau has very poor data preparation capabilities. I agree. But I have strong SQL Server data development skills and I can leverage T-SQL and SSIS to achieve anything I need. I just use Tableau for the “last mile”. I wish one day, Power Query can be published onto PowerBI.com and exposed as an ODATA endpoint. Then I can use Tableau to connect to an end user self-prepared data pipeline.

    That is just my personal experience. I love Tableau’s flexibility and simplicity. By no means Tableau is more powerful than Power BI stack. Tableau to me is a great UI tool to help me to explore the data and get the results quickly.

    • Prologika

      Thanks for the feedback, George! About 2, can you describe a scenario that requires “post calculation”? About 3, could you point me out to the “wrapper application”. I found the Tableau REST APIs to be similar to the Power BI REST APIs.

  • Mr T

    Unfortunately, pivot table functionality is still lacking in Power BI. It has been under review since January 2015… And yet it is a must have for many financial analysts and other number crunchers.


    Tableau is a decent product when it comes to creating dynamic crosstab reports, while Microsoft unfortunately has nothing better to offer than matrix reports.

    • Prologika

      Power BI introduced Analyze in Excel that lets business users create pivot reports connected to published datasets. Have you tried this feature?

      • Mr T

        It looks promising! I noticed that it’s possible to create calculated members (as well as calculated measures) using MDX. Some people will surely appreciate this. :-)

  • Mr T

    It seems to be working fine. Separating data from reports is great. Slicing and dicing data will not be as fast, but still acceptable (about 3-4 seconds), and you might experience some timeouts. For those who are comfortable with putting their organizations data in the cloud this is great stuff. Tableau, however, has a stronger position at present when it comes to pure on-prem self-service BI. I hope Microsoft eventually will let us connect Excel pivot tables to locally hosted pbix files. That would be good enough (from a self-service on-prem point-of-view), although pivot table functionality within Power BI Desktop would be greater.

    • Prologika

      That’s where the forthcoming upgrade to SSRS comes in as it will allow us to publish PBIX files to SSRS in native mode.

      • Mr T

        Microsoft is definitely on the right track. Thanks for sharing your insights Teo!

        It would have been even greater if Microsoft provided a 64 bit client with pivot table functionality for pure self-service, like Tableau does. 64 bit Office is not something that most organizations will install, and server-based solutions require more from IT. The Large Address Aware capability change for Excel 2016, which gives us access to 4GB virtual memory for Excel 2016 32 bit Click-to-Run versions on 64 bit Windows, will be a great improvement though.