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By Avi Singh [Twitter]

In our last webinar the #1 question and confusion seemed to be around Excel versus Power BI Desktop (formerly called Power BI Designer). The thing is, both tools are really part of an ecosystem. And the biggest confusion was around understanding how these tools fit into the overall landscape.

Here is the picture we would build to, but do read through so you understand how we arrived here and also find out how you control the future direction of Power BI (seriously, you do!).


Excel versus Power BI Desktop
Note: Things change fast in the Power BI world, so this picture may change as well

Standalone Tool for End-to-End BI

Rob did an excellent head to head comparison of Power BI Designer versus Excel. Just read that, but I’ll add some commentary.

If you were to use a single tool for BI – getting data, building a data model and building charts/reports – we have firmly established that Excel is the world’s best data tool, period Smileand that is primarily due to it’s internal network effect and that it is easy to adopt.

Excel is the World’s Best Data Tool, Period

Power BI Desktop is a very slick tool, with all different facets meshed together beautifully without any seams showing. Unlike Excel, where due to the “Add-In” nature Power* tools always feel a little clunky, not to mention cases where they go totally awry. But in spite of all that, it is hard, no impossible, to build a tool that can supersede Excel, or replace Excel.

However that is not quite a fair comparison. Because Power BI Desktop is primarily built for PowerBI.com.

Power BI Desktop for PowerBI.com

Power BI Desktop is primarily an accompaniment to PowerBI.com. It is essentially an “authoring tool” for PowerBI.com. Its true purpose is to build something that gets published to PowerBI.com.


The last step in Power BI Desktop is to publish it to PowerBI.com

You would almost never use Power BI Desktop standalone. Well you may, but understand that it is not really built for that purpose.

With these two combined – Power BI Desktop and PowerBI.com – they outshine Excel in the BI department. With the fluid development environment of Power BI desktop for authors…and the rich, easy to share, mobile ready visualization platform of PowerBI.com.

However that is not a fair comparison either, since Excel models can be published as well.

YouTube for Excel Workbooks (Server Option)

You can use Excel as an authoring environment. Albeit slightly inferior than Power BI Desktop, it still provides you the same general functionality

  1. Get Data (Power Query)
  2. Build Data Model (Power Pivot – relationships, DAX measures…)
  3. Create Reports (Pivot Tables, Charts and Power View)

However the big difference is when it comes to publish. Not only can you upload it to PowerBI.com you could upload it other server options (or as we like to call them YouTube for Workbooks).


Excel Data Model can be published to PowerBI.com, SharePoint or SSAS Tabular

The ideal server option would be agnostic to the visualization tool/layer. It would let you Bring Your Own Visualization tool (BYOV, just like BYOB minus the risk of drunk driving). To learn more about the “Server Option”, watch this YouTube video on our channel.

SharePoint comes close, once you upload your Excel PowerPivot data model (the .xlsx file) to a SharePoint server, multiple users can connect to it using a tool of their choice – online Power View reports (which is Cinderella compared to the ugly sister “Power View within Excel”), SSRS and connect using Excel! See SharePoint and Excel PowerPivot in action in this YouTube video on our channel.


Once hosted on Server, you could connect via a choice of visualization tools

Does that sound bizarre? We built something in Excel, and uploaded it on a server, only to connect to it again using Excel?! Well, that and more. With the server option

  • Hundreds of users can simultaneously connect to the model and create their own reports/analysis
  • Excel is a great reporting/visualization tool and familiar to many. Thus is a great option to use as a visualization layer.

    PowerBI.com Visualization Options

    However that is a problem with PowerBI.com at this point. The only visualization option you have is PowerBI.com. As amazing as that is (it offers all sorts of visualizations and mobile functionality) it is still not enough.

    As awesome as they are, PowerBI.com visualizations are still not Excel

    Remember the joke about “Export to Excel” being the third most common button in any BI application (after okay and cancel). To avoid that fate PowerBI.com needs to allow an Excel file to connect to a hosted data model. So that users can host their models on PowerBI.com and:-

  • Build Reports and Dashbords online to their hearts content
  • But also be able to build Excel Pivot Tables and Pivot Charts connected to those data modelFunnel charts and Tree maps are great , but Gridheads like you and me, can’t even think unless we can slice and dice data in an Excel pivot table.

    So here we are friends…


    Excel versus Power BI Desktop

    As I said, things change fast in Power BI world these days. However as of now:-

  • If you are “all-in” for PowerBI.com then there is no reason not to choose Power BI Desktop
  • Otherwise you have a choice to make. Excel would let you keep your options open. You can still use PowerBI.com but may miss out on the latest features in Power BI Desktop

    You Got the Whole World in Your Hands

    So where do we go from here? Where ever you decide.

    Power BI team has been extremely attentive to user feedback. James Philips announcement of the Power BI General Availability says it all, where he says – “Over 500,000 unique users…helped shape the new Power BI”.

    The BI Pros, have been heavily involved in this process and have greatly influenced the product. Kudos to their involvement they have certainly made Power BI a better product end to end.

    However it is time for the Excel Pros to also step up and join their voices.

    Vote or Submit ideas on http://Support.PowerBI.com

    Please vote on https://support.powerbi.com for these Excel friendly ideas…

    Ability to connect Excel to Power BI Data Model and create Pivot/Charts
    Import an Excel PowerPivot Model into Power BI Desktop (Designer)
    Add an “Export to Excel” button to PowerBI.com (heh, heh)

    …Or submit your own ideas – add them in comments below or on this forum thread – to get the support (and votes) from fellow PowerPivotPro readers.

    Power On!
    -Avi Singh

Avi Singh

Avi Singh has personally experienced the transformation and empowerment that Power BI can bring - going from an Excel user to building large scale Power BI solutions. His mission now is to share the knowledge about Power Pivot and Power BI.

This Post Has 18 Comments
  1. Thanks for the additional information. For me the main thing that needs to happen is the ability to publish fully functional Excel reports (with pivot tables, charts, formulas etc.) to PowerBI.com. It’s still confusing if this is planned or not, I sure hope it is.

    1. m-b, it is 100% supported but indirectly using OneDrive for Business, you can upload your Excel PowerPivot workbook, and they will render within the browser and be fully interactive e.g. users can click on slicers etc. I am not clear if you get OneDrive for Business simply by signing up for Power BI Pro or need to buy that separately. Regardless, I am ecstatic that this functionality is now supported. I just tested it out by uploading an Excel PowerPivot Model onto OneDrive for Business. You can then connect to the same file from PowerBI.com and create Dashboards and Reports – getting the best of both worlds.

      Click to Enlarge

      1. Avi,

        Before I got lost in all of our videos online (seriously great job) I wanted to mention that the aforementioned solution with OneDrive for Business does not support PowerQuery connection refresh. Unless something has changed in the last week, I was able to upload to OneDrive, but any recipient including my own viewing wouldn’t allow to drill down into tables/pivots or refresh connections.

        As for the ‘best of both worlds’ – do you mean that eventually it’ll be possible to combine PP data models / reports with power bi visualizations in the same location? As of right now it has to be two different reports, right? I’m able to upload data models and all of my measures to create visualizations atm, but am not aware of any way to combine the two pieces into the same visualization space.

          1. Rob,

            Good point. Last time I uploaded a PQ -> PP workbook it wouldn’t even let me expand my tables due to ‘unsupported’ BI features. Looks like this message is now gone, which means that pushing updates to OneDrive via PU should be feasible without a necessitated data refresh.

      2. Thanks for the reply Avi, I’m going to give that a try. Hopefully a ‘direct’ option will be available in the future as well.

  2. Oh what a web Redmond is weaving with these tools!

    For so long the BI community (and by this I mean business users as well as IT pros) was starved of truly inspirational, easy-to-use, tools that delivered results when needed and not when IT could deliver them. Then, along came Power Pivot and its cousins Power Query and Power View and it seemed that everyone’s prayers had been answered.

    Finally, business users had access to tools that not only delivered immense power to their desktops, but they were part of their favourite BI tool – Excel (which is, without a doubt, the most widely used and loved/loathed BI tool in the world).

    Before continuing, I most state here that I am not a “business” user and am, in fact, an IT professional who, until recently, ran the BI division of a large Australian corporation within the IT department, espousing the usual IT mantra of centrally controlled BI and offering business users no control or flexibility over their data.

    However, about 3 years ago I discovered Power Pivot and it was like somebody switched the lights on. I saw immediately the potential that these tools offered – not only for business users but for IT departments as well. If we, as BI professionals, could not offer timely solutions then who were we to stop users doing it for themselves?

    Excel, with the “Power” addins offers users unprecedented functionality, from what I consider the best self-service ETL tool available (Power Query) thru excellent data modelling (Power Pivot) and OK visualisations (Power View) – but with the flexibility to use standard Excel visualisations without using Power View. This gives business users (or gridheads as they are referred to in the article) almost unlimited flexibility to not only report but also interrogate and drill-down in just about any way they desire.

    Power BI Desktop, on the other hand, I think is aimed at a slightly different market. Having played and used it a fair bit both as a preview version and also the GA version, I have to say it is a beautiful tool. There is still a lot to be done, but MS is clearly committed to it so it will inevitably evolve into a market leading product. However, it doesn’t offer the kind of adhoc detailed analysis and drill-down capability that Excel with the Power addins does. It is far more at home with being used for more formal type dashboard reporting.

    As a consequence, I can see IT departments liking this tool possibly more than end users, whilst end users may be more at home using the Excel version.

    The good thing is that they are not mutually exclusive. OK, there are issues at the moment with sharing models across the two tools, but if MS have any sense at all, they will resolve this in the not too distant future.

    Whether you prefer Excel or PBI Desktop, MS is onto a winner with these tools. For my money, there is nothing else on the market that even comes close to offering such a complete end-to-end solution. Whilst Power Pivot is the jewel in the crown, I think Power Query is what makes these tools stand out from the rest. Even Tableau, with its very sophisticated visualisations, doesn’t offer anything like Power Query – ironically, you need to use a separate tool (such as Excel) to really prepare your data before feeding it into Tableau!

    Therefore, I see the two sets of tools happily co-existing and servicing slightly different needs. Unless MS update PBI Desktop to include Excel functionality, there will always be a need for Excel and likewise, PBI Desktop offers all the functionality needed to build flexible and attractive dashboards and reports without the overhead of Excel getting in the way. It’s up to us as PBI evangelists, to really sell the benefits if Power BI, whether that is Excel, Desktop or Power BI Cloud.

    1. Hey Martin, very well written post (yeah it’s a mini post in the comment thread). You should guest blog for us 🙂 Seriously, if interested drop us a note.

      Good to hear about your experience in IT. Interestingly I have also lived on the “Dark Side” and been part of an IT team. After my PowerPivot models found success, we became a “Central BI Team” and I know exactly the challenges that an IT team faces. There are usually too many demands made on them with too few resources. And the challenge seem to be that Instead of building roads, they are giving rides to passengers. That begins to change with these new tools – I hope. I talked about the dynamic between IT and Business in my last webinar and what I emphasized was that really these two groups need to start working together in harmony and with more synergy. Again, the new direction shown by Power BI gives me hope.

  3. There is much to like about Power BI. It has been built on a foundation of DAX and Power Query that were proven first in Excel. On this foundation Power BI does add a dimension of information sharing, mobility and “slickness” that does not exist in a workbook.

    But that said, I am “powerfully” convinced that Power BI does not reach Excel as an analytical tool. Power BI is more about information-at-a-glance (a good thing, but within a self-defined boundary). Even the “Ask” feature relies on the data naming and formulas given by the model designer. The analysis depth of Power BI is limited to what the model designer understood when preparing the presentation and the skill of the user interacting with the visualization tools.

    Notably missing in Power BI is the pivot table and other features for digging deeper into the source data for discoveries that information-at-a-glance and the “Ask” feature of Power BI do not reach.

    For information sharing and mobility, I am excited about the options provided by Power BI. I also appreciate that my DAX and Power Query skills can be leveraged with this new platform. But for digging deeper for more insights and original analysis, Excel and Power Pivot exceed Power BI..

  4. Hi There,

    It is possible to author a PowerPivot model in Excel and upload it to PowerBI.com, list it as one of your datasets and build reports in PowerBI designer (online), just like you can with core/thin workbooks or core/power view combos on SharePoint.

    Can’t import the existing PowerPivot model directly into PowerBI Desktop, but you can use it, and all of hte existing measures and connections, to build the new dashboards in PowerBI Designer online.

  5. I’m liking the direction PowerBI is going as a whole. As one of the guys out there selling the Power BI toolset/service, the options created by powerbi.com and the Desktop app are a plus.

    It seems there’s general consensus that Excel has analysis and drill-down functionality that will continue to be critical to some business and financial analysts for the foreseeable future. In fact, I recently had a client who was interested in Power BI, despite the fact that their company has already completed a comprehensive deployment of Qlik. Her reasoning? Her financial analysts “speak” Excel, and no matter how good Qlik (or PowerBI Desktop, for that matter) becomes, the subtleties and nuances of the work those analysts do in Excel will probably remain essential to their ability to perform at their best for a long time. Also, she liked the pricing of PowerBI much more than that of Qlik.

    At the same time, there are issues with total dependence on Excel for BI (i.e., slower development cadence for the Power tools than on Desktop, dependence on SharePoint for publishing, less tasty “eye-candy” visualizations), which is where powerbi.com and Desktop come in. I can sell powerbi.com because it has the look and feel of a current (i.e., HTML5), built-for-purpose, self-contained, BI experience that is mobile-ready and is less intimidating to the average business user than the Excel/SharePoint combo. But being easy on the eyes, though good for a first impression, is not enough for midsize and enterprise clients who are doing a 360-degree market analysis of their BI options. In order to sway their interest toward MS beyond the initial wow-factor of powerbi.com, I rely on two differentiators: integration with the MS stack, and price.

    Price is the simpler argument. For $10/user/month you get the full enchilada, plus you get Desktop for free. Compare that to Tableau at $2K for the desktop software (plus a 25% maintenance fee), and $500/seat/yer for each user/consumer. Or compare it to Qlik at $1,500/user/year [note: these prices were given to me by prospects and may not convey the full picture]. Given the disparity in pricing, my guess is that Tableau, Qlik, DOMO, and others will eventually be forced to reduce their pricing to stay competitive.

    Integration-with-the-MS-stack is currently a more cloudy argument, but still a good one. On the one hand, there’s the argument that the Desktop app uses the same/similar Power tools we’re used to in Excel. However, this doesn’t mean a lot to a prospect who isn’t already using PowerBI in Excel (though you can argue that DAX, which is a close cousin to Excel’s standard functions, is more easily learned than a 3rd-party tool). The stronger argument is that the prospect will continue to need Excel throughout the organization, especially in finance and accounting, creating problems if they go with a non-PowerBI service. If, for example, they go with Tableau or Qlik, they’ll be stuck with the “export to Excel” conundrum, and they’ll end up bifurcating their BI users into two groups, with 2 separate sets of expertise and 2 different systems to straddle. With Power BI, they have the ability to publish/share their Excel reports on the same platform as their Desktop reports, and their analysts can transfer their DAX, PowerView, and PowerQuery skills between the Desktop app and Excel.

    Of course, this “single platform” argument will get a lot stronger when we’re able to pin pivot charts to powerbi.com dashboards, import data models from PPvt to Desktop, and connect Excel to the Desktop data model. But with the pace of development we’re seeing, I’m confident we have the right horse in the race, and that we will soon rule the world. 🙂

  6. How about being able to host Power BI in SharePoint? Many of my customers who committed to this model are struggling to figure out how to move forward. They like the Power BI dashboards but need to incorporate it into their SharePoint sites.

    1. Our thinking is that they now have the best of both worlds (apologies for being a Pollyanna). If they live in SharePoint, then they can continue to use pivot charts and powerview, displayed as web parts on SP. Or, they can do a hybrid. They can display high-level KPI’s on SharePoint and link those to their powerbi.com environment for a more complete and mobile dive into their data. We have a deployment going right now where we’re peppering the client’s SharePoint with “BI Lite”. That is, we engaging their employees in data intelligence with small charts and KPI’s on context-relevant SP sub-sites. They’re ecstatic about the results so far. The next step, we hope, will be to use those BI elements to draw users into the powerbi.com environment.

      No question, it’s a bit of a straddle, and the delineations between powerbi.com and Excel/SharePoint are not concrete, but overall we see more options for a custom solution to fit the specific client’s needs.

  7. After reading this post i have installed Power BI desktop app and tried building up some dynamic dashboard i already have in excel 2013. But i was really disappointed. I am not sure what future version will hold but with current version this app no were matches any of the flexibility you get in Excel itself. So there is no point in comparing with Tableau i used.

    I am really fan of Power Pivot and Power Query. And looking at this app I feel i can use all these tools Power Pivot, Power Query, Power View in one app and not worry about slower processing of Excel. But, this app just stops at combing PP & PQ and very basic functions of charting. Yes there are little inbuilt charts for which you would need to perform some tricks in excel to build up but it has long way to go to match up with power of Tableau.

    Just to give a very simple example, when you are building horizontal bar charts and category axis labels are little longer you do not have any options to change font size, alingment, etc. It is much more robust in Excel itself.

    So my take I will wait atleast microsoft really catches up with visualizations tool complimenting our loved Excel.

    In one of the other Post where Rob compares visualization tool as last leg in BI and compares it with generation of electricity. Honestly for end user it all matters whether i am getting light or i have to sit in dark. It does not matter for him how i generate it i.e. using coal, nuclear, wind, water, etc. Same way it does not matter whether i use Excel, tableau, Power View, Power BI, etc. it all matters I need flexibility in building dashboards.

    I would highly recommend Microsoft engineers to first read some really good charting books like from stephen few, edward tufte, gabrielle, etc. and accordingly build up those charting flexibility in tools rather than making some ad hoc tools just to catch up with competitors.

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