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Which Power BI course should you take - Excel Power BI or Power BI Desktop?
Microsoft are pursuing two separate BI lines at the moment: one for the Power BI tools which run within Excel, and another for the standalone application called Desktop Power BI. This blog attempts to explain the differences between two applications with such confusingly similar names!

Posted by Andy Brown on 22 July 2016

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Excel Power BI Tools or Power BI Desktop?

Wise Owl run two separate courses containing the words Power BI!

Course Notes
Excel Power BI Tools Primarily using PowerPivot to create data models.
Power BI Desktop A program for creating standalone dashboards.

So ... what is the difference between them?  This blog attempts to answer that question!

One thing is absolutely certain: you won't want to attend both courses (there's way too much overlap between the two products).

A little history to start

What would you do in Microsoft's position?  They realised that they were losing out in the important Business Intelligence dashboard market to products like Tableau, Spotfire and Qlikview:

A dashboard

You can't easily create dashboards like this in Excel, so launching the new Power BI Desktop product was the answer.

Microsoft had two obvious solutions to try - add more features to Excel, or create a stand-alone application.  Hedging their bets, they did both!

Solution Pros and cons
Add to Excel (Power View add-in) Everyone uses Excel, so this was the obvious thing to try.  However, it's hard extending Excel because of the constraints imposed by having to work within the existing software, and it shows: Power View is limited and buggy, and has now been virtually discontinued.
Separate product (Power BI Desktop) In creating a separate application Microsoft could start with a blank slate, and consequently Power BI Desktop is far better at visualising data than Excel.  Microsoft can also update the software much more easily (currently on a monthly basis).

What I'll now do is show what each of the two courses listed above covers, which will give a pretty good idea of the differences and similarities between the two products.  Let's start with Excel.

Excel Power BI Tools

Our two-day Excel Power BI course starts by showing how to import data:

Importing data

The course also shows how to choose which columns/rows to import.

The course then shows how to create a data model:

Data model in PowerPivot

A data model in PowerPivot (some tables/columns have been hidden, and some deleted).

The course then shows how to create pivot tables based on this data, including additional features like slicers (as shown here):

Pivot table

A pivot table based on the above data model.

We then take a digression to look at using Query Editor (formerly known as Power Query) to transform data before loading it:

Power Query

Query Editor is pretty much exactly the same for both courses.

Nearly all of the rest of the Excel course - about half of it in total - is then spent on creating DAX calculated columns and calculated fields (sometimes called measures), creating expressions like this:

DAX measure

A (fairly) typical DAX measure.


The Excel course also shows how to create and use calendar tables to create year-on-year comparisons like this:

Calendar formulae

These columns use DAX formulae to show date-based statistics.


The course then shows to create hierarchies and KPIs in a data model (two small final topics), before giving a brief run-through Power BI Desktop, to show delegates what they've been missing.

Power BI Desktop

Our two-day Power BI course has more emphasis on visual reporting and less on using DAX in formulae.  The course shows near the start how to import data:

Getting data

Although both courses show how to import data from different sources, the Desktop Power BI one uses a wider range of examples.

The course then spends time showing how you can massage data when loading it:

Queries in Desktop BI

Queries in Desktop Power BI are more or less identical to using Query Editor withiin Excel.

Much of the course is then devoted to creating visualisations, using these tools:

Visualisation tools

The visualisations available include charts, gauges, tables, maps, cards and matrices. The diagram also shows the settings for a pie chart.


The course also shows how you can filter data for a visualisation:

FIlter Slicer
You can filter data ... ... or use a slicer

The course then shows how to publish dashboards to the Power BI server:


A successful publication ...

The course also shows how to use the Power BI Service to pin items to dashboards:

A pinned dashboard

A dashboard created in the Power BI Service.

The Power BI Desktop course covers many more topics than those chosen above (including some basic DAX formulae), but I'm trying to give a flavour to help you make the right choice!

Conclusion and recommendation

I hope the above has given an idea of what's covered on the two courses.  Choose the Excel course if:

  • You are familiar with pivot tables in basic Excel;
  • You are a numerate person, who enjoys analysing data;
  • You want to do a lot of time-based calculations (year-on-year, year-to-date, etc.);
  • You want to get a good working knowledge of the DAX language.

Choose the Desktop course if:

  • You want to create beautiful dashboards, with drill-down available;
  • You want to be able to publish what you do so it's available on a website;
  • You want to make your reports viewable on mobile phones and tablets;
  • You want to create maps, or complex chart types.

The Desktop course is easier than the Excel one, and possibly more fun!  However, it doesn't go into as much depth on DAX expressions.

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