Power BI Desktop, the authoring tool, is completely free to use. Users can also create free accounts on the Power BI service, with a number of restrictions. In short, Power BI is free to get started, but if you want to do any serious professional work you are going to have to pay for a license.
Some pieces of Power BI are free and some aren’t. Parts that are available for free:
- Power BI Desktop
- Power BI Service (with limitations)
- Power BI Mobile
Parts that are not available for free:
- Enterprise sharing and collaboration
- Power BI Report Server
- Power BI Premium
Which parts are actually free?
Power BI Desktop
First there is the report authoring tool, known as Power BI Desktop. This tooling is completely free to use.
(PBIX file credit of Microsoft. Available here.)
You will have to either create an account or deal with some mild nagging about signing up for a mailing list. You can disable that nagging with a registry change.
While Power BI Desktop is a great authoring tool, it is a terrible collaboration tool. If you were to live entirely in PBI Desktop, you’d have to pass around PBIX files which is incredibly clunky.
In my opinion, if you are going to look at using an on-premises, self-service tool you are better off using Excel. You still get a lot of the same capabilities with Power Query and Power Pivot, but inside of a tool people understand, and a tool Office 365 can render online.
Power BI Service
The Power BI Service, think powerbi.com, allows for free users. These free users can create reports and upload them, but with a significant number of limitations. The biggest is you only have one way of sharing content to others. Specifically with Publish to Web, which essentially makes your entire report free to the public.
You also only have one way of privately consuming other people’s reports, and that’s if someone places content in Power BI Premium. Otherwise, other users can’t share their reports directly with you. Power BI Free users are truly and island to themselves.
One other thing worth nothing is that you can’t sign up with a personal email. David Eldersveld has a good blog post on the issue. As of this writing, the uservoice request to change this has 2,800 votes.
See here for some more limitations of the free version of Power BI.
Power BI Mobile
Power BI Mobile is a way to consume Power BI Reports on Apple, Android and Windows mobile devices. Here is a picture of Power BI Mobile on my phone.
Which parts aren’t free?
Enterprise sharing and collaboration
Power BI is, by design, a collaboration tool. It is designed for people to publish and share their reports. If you want to take advantage of content curation using app workspaces, you’ll need to pony up and pay for a Power BI pro license.
If you are doing any real work with Power BI, you are going need to pay for a license for yourself as well as any report consumers.
Power BI Report Server
In addition to Power BI Pro, there is Power BI Report Server, which is the on-premises solution for hosting Power BI Reports. If you decide to go with Power BI Report server instead of making use of the Power BI Service, then you are going to need to pay for SQL Server Enterprise as well as Software Assurance. Alternatively you could pay for Power BI Premium.
Power BI Premium
Power BI premium is an alternate licensing model where you are licensing the content instead of the users. Once you have 500 or more users, it starts to make sense. Until then, the $5,000 per month is pretty pricey. It has other benefits as well, such as paginated reports and incremental refresh.
Some parts of Power BI is Free, but once you want to share with others, use more advanced features, or alternate deployment options, you are going to have to start paying.