Excel vs Power BI – What’s the difference?

Bottom Line: Learn what Power BI is and the major differences and similarities between Power BI and Excel.

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Power BI or Excel?

Are there advantages to using Power BI over Excel—or vice versa? Let's take a high-level look at what these tools are when to use them, and the advantages of using them together.

Excel vs power BI

What is Power BI?

The “BI” in Power BI stands for Business Intelligence; it's software that makes reporting easier and more visually appealing. This platform is awesome for creating interactive dashboards that users can easily share.

Power BI allows you 
to create interactive reports and dashboards.

As you know, Excel is a spreadsheet application that can do just about ANYTHING (including interactive dashboards). But that doesn't mean there aren't advantages to using Power BI, especially in conjunction with Excel. Let's take a look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of each application.

Power BI Desktop App

Power BI has two major components, the Desktop App and Online Service.

Power BI Two Major Components Desktop App Online Service

The Desktop App

The first component is the desktop app that you install separately on your computer. Within the desktop app, you use Power Query to retrieve data from any source.

Power BI reporting app

Then you use Power Pivot to create joins and write DAX measures or formulas. (DAX stands for Data Analysis Expressions, a type of programming language.)

Manage relationships in Power BI

From there you can use visualization tools to create reports and dashboards.

Power BI Visualizations

Power BI has the ability to get pretty fancy in its reports and dashboards, making Excel look limited in terms of style and design options.

Excel vs. Power BI Report Designs

Power BI Online App

The second component of Power BI is the online app/service. Using this service, you can upload your reports to the web or local server to easily share them with your team so that they can interact with them.

One of the best features of Power BI is its interaction capabilities. One such capability is called cross-filtering. This allows you to click on any element of any chart, and that will filter down corresponding information in the other visualizations on your report/dashboard.

Cross filtering in Power BI
Click to enlarge

Another great feature is that you can invite users to consume the visualizations on mobile platforms, iOS, and Android devices, or even a smartwatch.

There is also a feature that allows you to create more simplified visualizations for easier navigation and reviewing.

And another benefit of Power BI is that you can apply row-level security. That way, users only have access to the specific data they need. You can also schedule refreshes of your data to happen automatically on a daily or weekly basis.

One great advantage that the online Power BI service has over Excel is that it prevents out-of-date data from being shared via email, etc. That's because everyone is always looking at the most up-to-date version of the reports/dashboards.

Power BI Helps Prevent Excel File Sharing Chaos

What About Excel?

Excel also gives you the ability to create dashboards that are interactive, using slicers and tables. Admittedly, it might not look as sleek as Power BI and it does lack some of the cross-filter capabilities. But the major advantage of Excel is that it can do so much more than create reports.

As just one example, you can create a loan schedule with a flexible grid that allows you to insert inputs and have complicated calculations as outputs. That means Excel is much more useful for financial modeling and forecasting.

Loan Amortization Schedule

If you are emailing Excel files to your teammates, there is a risk of sharing outdated information. But that can be avoided with shared platforms such as OneDrive, SharePoint, or Microsoft Teams.

Similarities Between Power BI and Excel

Both Excel and Power BI use Power Query and Power Pivot. So if you've learned either of those skills in Excel, they will help you understand and use Power BI better.

These two systems both integrate really well because they are both created by Microsoft. So if you've created a data model in Excel, and want to publish it in Power BI, the transition will be seamless.

In addition, both Excel and Power BI integrate really well with other Office applications, such as Teams and Power apps, which will help you to save time and automate processes.

Because of these integrations and the fact that you probably already have some experience with Microsoft Office tools, I think Power BI is superior to other Business Intelligence options out there.

Power BI Excel Similarities

So, Which Is Better?

The great thing about this comparison is that you really don't have to choose one over the other. Excel and Power BI work really well in tandem, especially if you are using Excel for the data crunching and Power BI for the presentation and sharing.

As an Excel guy, of course, I'm a big advocate for all that Excel can do, but I wouldn't hesitate to use Power BI to soup up some of my reports and dashboards as needed.

If you'd like to learn more about how to use Power BI, I invite you to take my online course, Power BI: Dashboards & Data.

Power BI online course

I hope this post has been helpful for you. Please leave a comment if you have any questions or suggestions.

  • Jon, Yes, this has been awesome information. I like your spin on the BI and the ability to bring both worlds together. I have often been asked this question (What is the difference between the two?) and I could not answer. Now I can. thank you!!

  • I have loved BI since it burst onto the scene a few years ago, BUT…
    The data I work with in the cloud is not allowed to be accessed by Database Connections and ODBC. Therefore, I cannot use desktop tools what connect to the database at all. I believe this is a common situation for applications and data hosted in the cloud. (Mine is Kronos Timekeeper time and attendance software.)

    • Great point, Kim! I know Microsoft is continuing to add new data connections and also work on ways to connect to those cloud sources, but it can be frustrating when a connection is not possible.

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    Hello and welcome! My name is Jon Acampora and I'm here to help you learn Excel.

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