Power BI: Desktop vs. Online — Pros and Cons

Written by co-founder Kasper Langmann, Microsoft Office Specialist.

Power BI is one of the most popular business intelligence and analytics solution in the world.

But a lot of people get confused with Power BI products especially with the desktop and online versions.

What’s the difference between Power BI Desktop and Power BI Service? What are their pros and cons?

In this article, we’ll look at the two main Power BI products and compare them against each other.

Kasper Langmann, Co-founder of Spreadsheeto

Let’s go! 🕵️‍♀️

*This tutorial is for Power BI Online (also called "Power BI Service").

Power BI Desktop

The user interface in Power BI Desktop

Power BI Desktop, also known as the Power BI Designer, is the on-premise (Windows) version of Power BI.

It’s the free version which has data analysis and reports creation capabilities.

With Query Editor, you can use it to connect to lots of data sources and transform the data into a model.

Also, you primarily don’t need the internet for the desktop version to work. You would only need to hop online for publishing the reports to the online version.

Some of the features unique to Power BI Desktop include:

  • Data transformation, modeling, and shaping
  • Calculated columns
  • Python and DAX
  • RLS creation

What we like

If your intention is to try out Power BI’s capabilities, the Power BI Desktop is the version you could easily get.

Unlike with the Power BI Service, you don’t need to register or even enter your email address. All you have to do is download it and you can start using it right away.

Kasper Langmann, Co-founder of Spreadsheeto

Aside from that, if you’re familiar with Microsoft Office 365 products, understanding the desktop version’s interface is easy.

The ribbon in Power BI Desktop

As you can see, the ribbon has the same feel to it as with Microsoft Excel, Word, and PowerPoint.

One problem with BI solutions is that, modifying your data is difficult. Often, you would have to go back to your spreadsheet, make the changes, and reconnect the data.

In Power BI Desktop, that’s not that case. There’s a Power Query Editor you can open to make some changes to your data.

The Power Query Editor in Power BI Desktop

Data modeling is also easy. With Power BI Desktop, you can specify the relationship of the different values.

You could also see the existing relationships of your data at a glance with Power BI Desktop’s model view.

For example, here’s the data model for Microsoft’s free retail analysis sample:

In terms of raw power, Power BI Desktop is more powerful than its online counterpart. However, there are also some functionalities that are present in Power BI Service that’s not in the desktop version.

Kasper Langmann, Co-founder of Spreadsheeto

What we don’t like

By design, Power BI Desktop wasn’t made for sharing and collaboration.

The only function in Power BI Desktop that’s related to sharing is it’s ‘Publish’ function which makes your report available in Power BI Service.


Also, Power BI Desktop doesn’t have a dashboard feature.

A Power BI dashboard is a 1-page canvas where you can pin visualizations from the reports.

Dashboards are made for telling a story effectively. This feature is more useful to consumers. So, it makes sense that this feature is absent in Power BI Desktop as you can only share content through the online version.

Kasper Langmann, Co-founder of Spreadsheeto

Power BI Service

Power BI Service, which is also called Power BI Online and Power BI Portal, is the cloud-based service.

It’s designed for light report editing and collaboration.

Unlike in Power BI Desktop, data modeling in Power BI Service is very limited.

However, this isn’t one to take lightly. In its own way, Power BI Service is also powerful and useful.

Obviously, there’s no way you can share your findings with others without it.

Some of the features unique to Power BI Service include:

  • Dashboards
  • Sharing
  • RSL management
  • Gateway connections

What we like

Though made for light editing, there’s nothing light with Power BI Service’s report editing.

It’s true, there are some features and functions you can also use and do in the desktop version. However, unless your dataset demands it, you can barely feel the difference.

As you can see from the image earlier, there’s almost no difference between how the report editor looks in the desktop and online version except for the ribbon.

Kasper Langmann, Co-founder of Spreadsheeto

Plus, you can pin these visualizations into dashboards. To create a Power BI dashboard, all you have to do is select a visual on a report page and pin it on a dashboard.

A dashboard in Power BI

The area where the Power BI Service shines the most is on sharing and collaboration.

For example, sharing a report is a no-brainer. All you have to do is press a button and Power BI will assist you all the way.

Also, you can create a Power BI workspace in the online version. A workplace is a space where you and your colleagues can work together creating dashboards and reports.

Again, just press a button and Power BI Service will assist you all the way.

But you should know that these unique features of Power BI Service that we like are what Microsoft intended. In a way, Power BI Service is their flagship Power BI solution.

Kasper Langmann, Co-founder of Spreadsheeto

What we don’t like

The first thing you notice is that you need to use your work email to try out the online service.

If you need to share and collaborate with others, you would need a Power BI Pro license. This is the next tier after the free plan in Power BI pricing.

Power BI: Create data dashboards and visualizations in minutes

Also, data transformation and modeling in Power BI Service is super limited that you can barely feel it.

You can’t do a single basic action like adding a row or column.

To change anything on your data, you have to either make the changes on your spreadsheet or create the reports on the Power BI dashboard.

Kasper Langmann, Co-founder of Spreadsheeto

Power BI Desktop vs Service

The basic differences between Power BI Desktop and Service can be summarized with these few questions:

  • Are you a report author or a data model author?
  • Do you need to show your findings to others?
  • Do you need a free solution?
  • Are dashboards important to you?
  • Are you collaborating with others?

Power BI Desktop is the way to go if you want a free solution and there’s no one you should show your reports with.

Use the desktop version for modeling and creating Power BI reports.

Power BI Service is what you use if you need to share and collaborate with others. There’s just no other way around this.

If you need the online version, you should also prepare to shell out some cash. After all, the online version is pretty useless for sharing and collaboration if you don’t have a Power BI Pro license.

Kasper Langmann, Co-founder of Spreadsheeto

Wrapping things up…

It’s more appropriate to think of Power BI as an umbrella of products. You can’t do everything with just one product. You can’t transform and model data with only the online version. Likewise, you can’t share and collaborate with only the desktop version.

Ultimately, you would have to use both. If you would have to pay to get the best of the online version, better download the desktop version in case you need its features. It’s a win-win scenario! 👍

Kasper Langmann, Co-founder of Spreadsheeto