There are numerous articles out there that compare Microsoft PowerBI to Crystal Reports however I feel they go too deep into the technical mumbo-jumbo and don’t quite state the obvious.
Lets get this out of the way; comparing these two products is unfair to either of them and as a result I have seen some users struggle as they try to bend PowerBI into a Crystal Reports replacement.
PowerBI is Microsoft’s Business Intelligence (BI) tool for creating reports and dashboards to deliver insights fast. PowerBI reports and dashboards can be accessed on the powerbi.com website using any web browser however the bulk of the report design is done using a desktop application called PowerBI Desktop for Windows.
Compared to Crystal Reports, the charts and user interface of PowerBI is more interactive with support for chart drill-down and drill-through, and also looks and feels a lot more modern. PowerBI reports are able to connect to a lot more data sources as oppsed to mostly relational databases as is the case with Crystal Reports.
With all the above, it almost sounds as though replacing Crystal Reports with PowerBI is a no-brainer. There are however good reasons to hold on to Crystal Reports still.
Where PowerBI offers you a canvas to drop charts on to, Crystal Reports offers a more structured document structure where objects can be placed in the page header, report header, groups, details and so on. Crystal Reports automatically paginate the contents of the reports when exported out or printed where as PowerBI does not i.e. a table in PowerBI will not automatically flow to the next page even if its contents exceed the size of the page.
Another huge advantage for Crystal Reports is that it supports many more export formats such as Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Word, PDF and more whereas PowerBI has only recently added support for PDF export and the export to Excel or CSV is limited to only 30,000 records.
When it comes to supporting developers, Crystal Reports is also far ahead of PowerBI. Crystal Reports has had its SDK and API (the Crystal Reports Runtime Library) for a very long and therefore it can be embedded and used by other applications. PowerBI on the other hand also an API (REST API) however this cannot be used to export the reports or dashboards therefore limiting its utility.
While using cloud and web services is currently all the rage, there are just some scenarios where keeping your data inside your firewall makes the most sense when taking security into consideration. In order to fully utilize PowerBI, you have to upload your reports and data to Microsoft’s servers. Of course this is not the case with Crystal Reports which can be operated fully within the confines of your organization’s network and firewall.
On the pricing side, PowerBI may appear to be the cheaper option with just $9.99/user pricing, however, this number can grow very fast should you need to share your reports with hundreds or thousands of users.
When it comes to comparing PowerBI to Crystal Reports, you must first ask yourself if what is most suitable for the task is a paginated report (a structured report like Crystal Reports or SSRS Reports than can flow to multiple pages) or a non-paginated report (a single report whose data is constrained to a single page). The answer to this question will largely depend on not just how and who the consumer of the report is, but also how the report will be distributed.
Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t write this article to bash PowerBI and praise Crystal Reports. In fact, you can replace the words “Crystal Reports” in this article with Microsoft SSRS (SQL Server Reporting Services) and the arguments would remain true. PowerBI is a great data visualization tool that makes building and sharing dashboards very easy. Crystal Reports is (still) a great tool for creating paginated reports that can be exported to a plethora of formats. Both tools can, and should both be in your Business Intelligence arsenal.