The choice between whether to use the free version of Power BI or sign up for Power BI Pro depends on your organization’s use case and the size of your team. It’s also possible for organizations to start with the free version of Power BI and add Pro licenses as the organization matures and wants to unlock more powerful features.
We’ll explain what you get with the version of Power BI that’s free to download and explain what you get for a $10 (USD) per month subscription when signing up for the Pro plan.
Let’s get started!
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The Different Components of the Power BI Platform
To fully appreciate the different price points of Power BI, it’s important to understand the different components of the Power BI Platform. The two primary components are Power BI Desktop, and PowerBI.com.
Power BI Desktop
Dashboards and Reports are built using a Windows application called Power BI Desktop. It’s used to import data, transform it, and convert the data into tables, charts, and graphs. A developer can drag and drop report elements, format them, and apply formatting.
The screenshot below is an example of a dashboard under development. Components can be selected from the right side of the application, and dragged to the left side onto a canvas where a report is made.
The second component of the Power BI Platform is PowerBI.com or sometimes referred to as the Power BI Service. PowerBI.com is the website that you publish reports to that moves them from your desktop to the cloud. Once they’re in the cloud, there are advanced options to share the reports with others, establish automatic refresh schedules, and curate collections of reports so that only specific team members can view or modify them.
This screenshot shows a dashboard that’s been published, and is now accessible in a web browser or a mobile app. You can click on a “Share” button to send invites for other people to view and interact with the report.
The two components of the Power BI platform serve different purposes, one is for development, and the other is for publishing and sharing. The two pieces work together and in recent years there is increasing overlap as Microsoft adds features to PowerBI.com to build and develop dashboards directly from a web browser.
What’s included in Power BI for Free?
You can download Power BI Desktop for free from powerbi.microsoft.com and install it on any Windows computer. There is no cost to download Power BI Desktop, and you can use it as much as you want without any limitations to the software.
Individuals and small businesses may find that Power BI Desktop is a great tool for individual analysis and working with data that’s too big to efficiently work with in Excel. Some of the free features you get with Power BI Desktop include:
- Establish connections to 150+ data sources
- Model, transform, prep and blend data sources
- Create reports from imported data or live connections
- Publish reports to PowerBI.com
- Save and share reports with Power BI .pbix files
Anything you can do in Power BI, you can do in the full featured desktop app there are no usage limits. You can save reports as a .pibx file on a shared network drive, OneDrive, or send them by e-mail to different people.
What is included in Power BI Pro?
Power BI Pro is the lowest tier of Microsoft’s paid subscription plans for Power BI at $10 (USD) per user per month. Power BI Pro extends the usefulness of Power BI Desktop by giving users access to the PowerBI.com cloud service which unlocks many advanced features that are especially useful for business and large enterprise.
Some of the features that come with Power BI Pro include:
- Ability to easily share published reports and dashboards
- Automatic scheduled data refreshes
- Automated E-mails of reports
- Shared workspaces to facilitate collaboration and curate reports for specific teams
- Advanced data security features, row level security
- Centralized data connections, and data lineage tracking
As you can see, the biggest benefits of Pro licenses are related to sharing. While you can create and publish reports in Power BI Desktop, it’s the cloud service that lets you easily share and automate them.
You can still complete most analysis and data transformations in Power BI Desktop, but without paying for Pro subscriptions they become much more difficult to share with others.
Is Power BI Free or Pro Right for you?
Power BI free and pro offer two different value propositions and are targeted at two different use cases. Power BI Desktop is free and is required to create reports whether you plan on publishing them to PowerBI.com or using them locally by sharing .pbix files.
The decision between whether to pay for Pro licenses are stick with the free tier really comes down to the use case at your organization.
Power BI Desktop (Free)
Ideal for individual users or small teams focused on data analysis. It gives you all of the functionality of the Power BI Desktop application, which is free and provides robust capabilities for importing, transforming, and visualizing data.
Users can create detailed dashboards, reports, and share them locally as .pbix files. However, you will need to pay for a Pro subscription to utilize the Power BI Service to easily share, collaborate and enable true report automation.
Power BI Pro ($10 USD per user per month)
Tailored for businesses needing more extensive data analysis and sharing capabilities. It enables access to PowerBI.com and provides features like shared workspaces, automatic data refreshes, and email automation. Pro users also benefit from enhanced data security options like row-level security and centralized data management. It’s an ideal add-on for larger teams and organizations requiring collaborative tools and more sophisticated data handling.
The following screenshot is from the Microsoft Power BI website in regard to Power BI Pro Pricing.
A key highlight of this is that you may already have Power BI Pro licenses if you subscribe to Microsoft 365, the renamed Microsoft Office subscription if your organization is already paying for an E5 enterprise license.
Mixing and Match Free Power BI Desktop and Pro Licenses.
When considering Power BI free vs Pro the better question to ask is who needs which one in your organization. Developers creating reports need to have Power BI Desktop installed on their computer to create reports and a Pro license to publish and share them. People who want to view and consume reports through PowerBI.com need to have Pro licenses.
There are typically many more people consuming and viewing reports than those publishing them, making Power BI Pro licenses the biggest cost of Power BI at any decent sized organization and how Microsoft makes money off of Power BI.
However, you can start with a free install of Power BI desktop and only add Pro licenses as needed which helps you manage your costs. You can also prep data and export it from Power BI desktop into a .csv file to use in Excel. By implementing a hybrid approach you can manage costs and ease into or in some cases avoid having to pay for Pro licenses entirely.
Power BI Desktop is a free Windows application that is required to build dashboards and reports. Power BI users can use Power BI Desktop for free to import, transform, and convert data into insightful dashboards.
The Pro subscription costs $10 (USD) per user per month and grants access to capabilities in PowerBI.com for report sharing, collaboration, automatic data refreshes, and advanced data security features.
Companies that use Power BI in limited amounts, or for individual analysis may find little value in a paid subscription to share reports will probably be okay without paying for a Pro license. Larger organizations that wish to share reports and publish interactive dashboards will find Power BI Pro licenses a necessity.