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Free Vs. Paid Power BI: Which One Should You Choose?

In a related blog post, we outline and describe a comprehensive guide to understand the Power Platform licensing and make it more approachable.

Author Daniel Cohen-Dumani spent a lot of time dissecting licensing details and provides common use cases and decisions points.

Comprehensive Guide to Power Platform Licensing

Original Post: February 17, 2016

Innovative business leaders know that data analysis is critical to staying ahead of the competition. After all, understanding current internal and external trends and then basing your decisions on actual evidence is the most effective method of influencing your organizations’ future.

Microsoft Power BI is taking analytics to the next level, democratizing access to information so that users don’t have to possess specialized technical skill sets to make the most available data. However, transitioning to the Power BI tool does require an understanding of the differences between the numerous editions of Power BI.

Key Differences Between the Editions of Power BI

When Power BI was launched in the summer of 2015, it was available in 2 editions. Free and professional. The free edition was used to become familiar with Power BI and allow single users to create and publish dashboards and reports for their own use. The professional edition allowed sharing reports with others, connecting to numerous on-premises datasets and setting automatic refresh for these datasets.

Fast forward six years, Power BI has evolved in many ways. Both cloud and on-premises editions are now available with varying levels of capacity to meet several use cases from personal dashboarding to enterprise-wide data warehousing scenarios.

The Power BI Ecosystem Components

  • Power BI Desktop
    • The Windows-desktop-based application for PCs and desktops is primarily for designing and publishing reports to the Power BI service.
  • Power BI Service
    • Power BI service is a SaaS-based (software as a service) online service. It was formerly known as Power BI for Office 365 and is now referred to as PowerBI.com, or simply Power BI service. Access to the Power BI services requires a minimum of a Power BI Professional license per user.
  • Power BI Mobile Apps
    • The Power BI Mobile apps are for Android, iOS devices and Windows phones and tablets.
  • Power BI Gateway
    • Gateways are used to sync external data in and out of Power BI and are required for automated refreshes. In Enterprise mode, it can also be used by Flows and PowerApps in Office 365.
  • Power BI Embedded
    • Power BI REST API can be used to build dashboards and reports into the custom applications that serve Power BI users and non-Power BI users.
  • Power BI Report Server
    • An On-Premises Power BI Reporting solution is for companies that won’t or can’t store data in the cloud-based Power BI Service.
  • Power BI Premium
    • Recently in 2021, Microsoft created a Power BI premium per user license that lowers the initial cost.  Power BI Premium is a capacity-based offering that includes the flexibility to publish reports broadly across an enterprise without requiring recipients to be licensed per user.
  • Power BI Visuals Marketplace
    • A marketplace of custom and R-powered visuals.

Still Undecided?

There are specific features for the various editions of Power BI, summarized in the table below. While a few years back, Microsoft was advertising a free version, it isn’t advertised as such in the present day. Resources on the free version can still be found on the Power BI licensing page.

Capability Power BI Free Power BI Pro Power BI Premium
Per user
Power BI Premium
Per capacity
Collaboration and Analytics
Capability Power BI Free Power BI Pro Power BI Premium
Per user
Power BI Premium
Per capacity
Mobile app access
Publish reports to share and collaborate
Paginated (RDL) reports
Consume content without a per-user license
On-premises reporting with Power BI Report Server
Power BI Goals and Scorecard
Data Preparation, shaping, modeling and visualization
Model size limit 1GB 1 GB 100 GB 400 GB
Refresh rate N/A 8/day 48/day 48/day
Connect to more than 100 data sources
Create reports and visualizations with Power BI Desktop
Embed APIs and controls
AI visuals
Capability Power BI Free Power BI Pro Power BI Premium
Per user
Power BI Premium
Per capacity
Advanced AI (text analytics, image detection, automated machine learning)
XMLA endpoint read/write connectivity
Dataflows (direct query, linked and computed entities, enhanced compute engine)
Analyze data stored in Azure Data Lake Storage
Governance and administration
Data security and encryption
Metrics for content creation, consumption, and publishing
Application lifecycle management
Multi-geo deployment management
Bring your own key (BYOK)
Autoscale add-on availability (preview)
Maximum storage 10 GB/user 100 TB 100 TB

Final Thoughts

Licensing Microsoft products are often complex, with many options and bundles. The good news is, if your organization is licensed for Office 365 E5 or Microsoft 365 E5, Power BI Pro is included. Otherwise, it depends on what you are trying to do.

So let’s analyze some scenarios.

Just starting with Power BI, you can use the Power BI “free” service to develop reports and dashboards and publish them for yourself. But if you are looking to connect to on-premises data or require a gateway, you are out of luck and will need to upgrade to the Pro edition.

Suppose your organization has a medium user base, i.e., less than 500. In that case, you have two options. First, you can start with Power BI Pro to publish and share dashboards and reports, and in the event, you need to increase capacity, or your reports are too slow, you can upgrade to the Power BI Premium per user (this is a new option that was launched in 2021). In addition, with Power BI Premium (Per user or capacity), you get access to the new exciting Power BI Goals and Scorecard (more to come in a future blog).

If your organization has more than 500 users, your best option is to license on a capacity basis. Capacity means you have a dedicated back-end capacity at a determined level, and it starts at $4,995/month. This is adequate for an organization with model and extensive dashboards, users exceeding 500 or an organization looking at premium features such as real-time dashboards, extensive dataset support, on-premises deployment or advanced AI capabilities.

Ready to join disparate data, visualize it, and glean transformational insights? Click here, and we’ll visualize your data. We will discuss your data project and how to navigate which edition is right for you.

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