Tableau vs Excel

By | January 26, 2020

Both Tableau and Excel are used for data analysis, and that’s why most of us feel the need to compare both the tools. Each tool has its set of advantages and uniqueness and cannot be replaced with the other.

Excel has been around for a long time and we all have worked on it at least once in our life – for preparing reports, invoices, budgets, storing data and manipulating data. Tableau is a relatively new tool and if you haven’t read about it yet, you can read our article What is Tableau to know about the tool and its benefits (although we will brief you about the same in this article).

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What is Excel?

Excel needs no introduction. Developed by Microsoft, it comes as a part of Microsoft office. Excel is mainly a spreadsheet tool that also has data handling capabilities. It can be used to clean, organize, filter and manipulate datasets that are not too large – may be data sets that contain a few lakhs of rows. Even for such relatively smaller datasets, excel gives a moderate performance.

What is Tableau?

A well-built data visualization software, Tableau is a great tool to visually capture the essence of large data sets. It represents the insights that we need in a colorful, pictorial form and is easy to understand. Tableau offers high performance and is best suited for dashboard creation and geo maps.

The idea behind creating a data visualization tool was to help professionals analyze and get insights from data in an interactive and comprehensive manner. Tableau was first released in 2003 and its usability and user-friendliness are the main reasons for its popularity. Data can be loaded from any data source, even multiple data sources, combined and worked upon. For example, one dataset can be an excel sheet, another from the cloud server, CSV file and so on.

Excel vs Tableau

By now, you must have figured out that while Excel is a spreadsheet tool, Tableau is a visualization tool – and that is the first major difference between both!

With this information in mind, let us take a simple example to compare both the tools and then we will go ahead with a head to head features comparison –

Consider the following set of sample data –

set of sample data

This is the data of a few students – their marks, location of study, subject and date of joining. Suppose I want the total marks obtained by all the students based on the major subject and represent that using a pivot table. We can easily create pivot table using both Excel and Tableau.

Upon opening the file in excel, we can create a Pivot Table by clicking on the insert -> pivot table option.

pivot table option

Since we want to find the total average marks of all subjects categorized by subject, we have selected the major subjects as the category and the value as the sum of average marks. We can also add filters, like choosing only a few rows based on the date of joining and so on. With this basic data and without much effort, we are able to generate a column chart with the right values. Seems simple heh?

Then you should definitely install Tableau and see how the same scenario works on Tableau.

When you open the Tableau tool, you will get the option to load your sample data file. Once it is loaded, similar to excel, you can just add the same fields – major subject and average marks, and you will get the same graph – within seconds!

Sample Data-2

We worked on a simple dataset with about 25 values. But, in reality, there will be lakhs of data values. Imagine having to analyze complex scenarios and multiple filters to the data and trying different combinations to get useful insights.

Few things to notice here –

  • In excel, we already knew exactly what problem we were trying to solve and added the necessary rows and columns accordingly. However, in Tableau, we could just drag and drop different options. This essentially could lead to new problem definitions that could prove helpful for business.
  • Data blending is easier in Tableau. We just have to import from different data sources and add relationships between different columns to join them from different tables. In Excel, the user has to write formulas for the same. Some of the most common formulae are VLOOKUP, INDEX, MATCH, etc…
  • Because of the above, Tableau is much suited for business analysts and other business persons (up in the organizational hierarchy) as they do not need to have any technical knowledge. However, for the same functionality with excel, some technical knowledge and writing custom lookup functions are necessary.
  • Another point that we noticed from this is that in excel, we have to first filter the data at the cell level and then create the visualizations, whereas, in Tableau, we get the visual reports from the beginning.

On that last point, let us apply a filter to our above example to display only the average for the year 1984. With Excel, we will have to split the date, since the date is available in dd-mm-yyyy format. For this, we will have to use the formula, and get DAY, MONTH, YEAR as three new columns,

Sample Data -3

Apply this filter on the excel sheet and then create the visual report. However, Tableau has all these options handy – you just have to click!

Sample Data - 4

which means whatever we have to do as calculations or formulae in Excel, is already there as an option in Tableau.

Another important difference between Tableau and Excel is the ease of creation of custom processes and formulae. As we have seen, Tableau can connect to many data sources, both live and static. Same way, excel can use data from multiple live and static sources. However, to refresh excel data automatically involves some programming or creation of macros that can update data once the spreadsheets are opened. Creating macros is time-consuming and requires knowledge of VB (Visual Basic). With Tableau, creating formulas and other calculations is easy and more powerful. You can even create custom formulas that are not available in Excel.

If you explore excel a little more, you will find that there are a lot of powerful tools available to create visualizations and reports. You can clean the data, apply filters and analyze the data. But, what after that?

Excel cannot make predictions or show trend lines based on the analysis. It is only useful to the point of descriptive analysis (know about types of analysis). Tableau can create useful predictions and show trends for the future – the main reason being it can work with huge volumes of data over a period of time when compared to the amount of data that Excel can handle.

Excel vs Tableau – which is better?

Well, definitely, if your company’s data requirements aren’t humongous and you are dealing with structured data, Excel will shine as it is cheaper and easy to learn and use. You also most likely already have Excel in your system, whereas with Tableau, you get only limited features in the free version. You cannot share workbooks, or publish them. You will also have to go through the training for sometime before you can use the feature-loaded Tableau.

Also, with excel dataset can be constructed and data can be edited at any point. Tableau needs a ready dataset to work upon. Excel also supports language extension and extended function set that Tableau doesn’t have.

As we see, both Excel and Tableau have their share of advantages and unique features.

The bottom line – Use excel when there are lots of computations and manipulations to be done on data. Use Tableau when you have to get all the data in one place and display it with powerful visualizations on the dashboard. A combination of both can be used where all the major calculations can be done on excel and then the final data set can be imported to Tableau for further processing, analysis and getting more insights.

Well, before summing up the article, let me put all that we have discussed so far and some more interesting differences between excel and Tableau in a tabular format –

Head to head comparison

Tableau (a tool developed by the company Tableau) Microsoft Excel
Data visualization and representation tool Spreadsheet tool used for data preparation and computations
Gives insights, predictions and future trends based on huge datasets over a period of time Can only perform descriptive data analysis
Gives great performance with huge data sets that are unstructured (big data) Good for medium-sized structured data sets
Costly and needs training for understanding the features Cheaper and all the functions and other features are easy to explore and learn
It is a complete BI tool that can be used by business analysts and data analysts both Use of excel requires some coding and technical knowledge and hence is not so much of a business-user-friendly tool
Dashboards can be easily created and shared amongst peers and managers Creating and sharing dashboards is a cumbersome process
There is no need to know the problem or questions beforehand. Once the visualizations come up, you can play with data to explore more data related business questions and answers. Excel solves a problem that is already known. This makes excel less flexible for drilling down data.
Easier to find correlation and trends using data blending features. Data blending is easy in excel but needs some manual work and calculations.
Data can just be visualized. If any updates have to be done, data has to be loaded again from the source. Data is seen in terms of dimensions and measures. Data can be edited, manipulated and stored (using cells). It can be filtered. We can see data in tabular format as well as a graphical representation. Data can be directly changed.
The main purpose of Tableau is to get insights from raw data The main purpose of Excel is to generate quick visualizations and reports, manipulate them using calculations and functions
Tableau is a drag and drop tool so there are no additional coding or technical skills required To fully utilize the potential of Excel, you need the knowledge of writing custom functions and scripting (VB).
Can easily connect to different data sources including cloud server in real-time To integrate excel with other data sources, some plugins and system requirements are essential
With Tableau, data can be viewed in maps and symbol maps. This is much more useful when we want to get insights by geographic location, latitude, longitude, etc… This feature is not available in Excel.
Can be integrated with languages like R and Python using TabPy and Reserve respectively There are python packages available for performing various processes and tasks. Same way, BERT is used for connecting excel with R.

Conclusion

With this article, we have seen that both Excel and Tableau are used for a similar purpose – data analysis, manipulation, visualization and generation of reports, but the difference lies in the way both tools are used – by business users or technical persons, for quick reports or analysis and so on. Hope this comparison has helped you understand the scenarios in which each is more effective and productive. Let us know in comments about your first experiments with Tableau and Excel.

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