Power BI is Microsoft’s business intelligence tool for creating, publishing and sharing interactive reports and dashboards. The pricing model can be somewhat confusing because of the different components that make up the platform. We’ll explain how Power BI is free to get started but can quickly get more expensive depending on the size of your business.
Let’s get real, Microsoft didn’t become a $2.5 trillion dollar company by giving software away for free. That doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to pay for Power BI to use it though. Power BI includes free features along with paid features and multiple licensing options that are designed for different use cases and different size organizations.
Understanding The Power BI Platform
The first step to understanding if Power BI is free is to understand the components of the Power BI platform and what each component does.
- Power BI Desktop – Software used to design, create, and publish Power BI reports and dashboards.
- Power BI Paginated Reports – Software used to create static reports like invoices and formatted documents.
- Power BI Service (PowerBI.com) – Cloud service to share and automatically refresh Power BI reports.
- Microsoft Fabric – Rebrand of Power BI and comingling of Data Engineering and Data Science Functions.
The use case that most people will run into is creating reports using Power BI Desktop, then publishing them to PowerBI.com where they schedule automatic refreshes of data. Reports are available for other users to log into PowerBI.com to view the reports, click on them, drill into them, filter them, and explore the data at their leisure.
Paginated reports are rarely used, and Microsoft Fabric is mostly targeted at enterprise customers who want to perform data integrations, machine learning, data pipelines, and are concerned with complex data governance requirements.
Which Parts of Power BI are Free?
When people say that Power BI is free, what they’re really referring to is Power BI Desktop. You can download Power BI Desktop install it on your Windows computer and use it to create reports and dashboards. This portion of the Power BI platform has a wide range of features available and they’re the same feature set if you are a paying Power BI subscriber or if you are not.
The ultra low price point of free makes Power BI very easy to get started with and to learn the platform.
You can create, and publish reports to the Power BI service with a Microsoft Account / Work E-mail address. There are even some ways to sign up to try out PowerBI.com without having a work e-mail adress.
Which Parts of Power BI are Not Free?
If Power BI Desktop is free that means that there has to be a catch, and there is a fairly big one. While you can create dashboards and publish them to PowerBI.com at no cost, you won’t be able to share them with anybody.
Anybody that you want to share a report with in Power BI has to have a subscription to view reports built by others. Licenses start with a Pro License that costs $10 USD per person per month.
Other collaboration features are also restricted to needing a paid subscription. Power BI lets users collaborate and consume reports using the concept of workspaces. A workspace is essentially a collection of reports that users are given access to. They can access any report on a workspace that they have access to.
By default when a report is published, it’s published to a private “My Workspace” and you’ll need at least a Pro license to move a published report to a different workspace for others to consume.
An additional Premium Per User and paid capacity tier of Power BI subscription is also available but is targeted at mostly large enterprise customers who have hundreds of users or regularly work with extra large datasets.
Who Should Use Power BI Desktop for Free?
The limitation of not being able to share reports with others without paying for a subscription isn’t necessarily a deal breaker, but it does limit the usefulness of a dashboarding tool designed to share interactive dashboards with others.
If you’re set on avoiding paying for licensing, we would still recommend downloading Power BI to learn the platform. It’s widely used across the globe with a vast community of user support.
Power BI Desktop can also be extremely useful if your organization is outgrowing the capabilities of Microsoft Excel. The free version will give you the ability to ingest larger datasets and more efficiently perform complex calculations. Most of the visuals and the data can be summarized and output back into Excel or you can publish them to your own private dashboard area for analysis.
Short of publishing dashboards to the Power BI service, another option is to send people the .pbix file that Power BI stores a dashboard in but this can come with additional complexities when working with large datasets and live connections to data sources.
Power BI Subscriptions Can Add Up
We’re big supporters of Power BI and believe that it’s a great investment for a number of businesses from small to large. The one drawback with it is that licensing can get out of hand quickly. $10 per person per month for a pro license does not seem like much but $10 x 250 employees x 12 months a year = $30,000.
If you do decide to deploy Power BI, license management will be key to controlling costs. A lot of people within an organization will want access to reports at first but then fail to actually look at them on a regular basis meaning that you will be paying for a recurring monthly license that goes unused. Power BI has several features to see which reports are being looked at to help you control some of this.
There is also a Premium Capacity tier that forgoes licensing per person and lets you pay based on reserved compute capacity. It costs about $5,000 USD per month implying a break-even of 500 active monthly report viewers. It includes some added features for business and eliminates the need for IT to acquire licenses for individual users so it’s worth checking into.
Microsoft provides a Power BI pricing guide for more information: Pricing & Product Comparison | Power BI
Free Alternatives to Power BI
A lot business intelligence tools offer free tiers and trials for students or public versions (Tableau Public) when you can publish reports to the public. However, there only a handful of tools that are completely free. Or, if they are free the tools lack features or have a small community of support when you have questions about how to do something.
One of the tools that we like to recommend is Google Looker Data Studio which should not be confused with Looker Pro, a professional grade business intelligence tool for business and large enterprise.
Looker Studio isn’t as full featured as Power BI, but you should be able to get really far with it. There’s some nice features such as integration with Google Workspace Apps and if you’re into SEO, it has connectors to Google Analytics and Search Console that take next to zero effort to setup.
The following video does a comprehensive overview of the different features available in Power BI in comparison to Google Data Studio that’s worth a watch to understand the differences between the two platforms.
There are a number of other free alternatives available if you search Google or Bing for them. We typically lean towards Power BI, Tableau, and Looker as they’re all backed by large software companies and have been around for a long time with decent sized user communities to help you when you get stuck.
Power BI Desktop offers a suite of free features catering to individual users, including the ability to create reports and dashboards, along with publishing these reports to a personal workspace known as “My workspace.” It’s great for person use or learning purposes.
To unlock sharing, collaborative features, the ability to schedule automatic data refreshes, or schedule automatic e-mails, Power BI users will need to pay for either a Pro or Premium license.
We recommend Google Looker Studio as a completely free business intelligence tool, but it won’t have the same level of features that people get with paid versions of Power BI.