Tableau vs Excel: The Ultimate Data Visualization Showdown

Tableau and Excel are the industry’s most popular data analysis and visualization tools. Analysts find them useful for their distinctive features and options. However, the differences in these two programs’ capabilities and application scenarios have always confused many users. This article will explore these tools in-depth and compare Tableau vs Excel to clarify the confusion.

Tableau is a powerful data visualization tool with numerous features. It is a Business Intelligence (BI) tool that allows users to perform advanced data analysis and create interactive data visualizations. On the other hand, Excel is primarily a spreadsheet program with basic data analysis and visualization capabilities. It is a versatile program that can perform complex calculations and manipulations.

We aim to investigate both Tableau and Excel in this article thoroughly. And after the detailed discussion, we will present a head-to-head comparison of Tableau vs Excel. After going through the article, you will be able to differentiate between these two tools and understand the use cases of each program without any problem.

Let’s get started!

Tableau and Excel: A Quick Look

Salesforce’s Tableau changes the game for data analysis and visualization. This Business Intelligence (BI) program is the favorite of many business entities, organizations, and individuals. Even in healthcare, Tableau significantly produces data insights in minutes, which would otherwise take days or months!

Excel is also a popular data analysis and visualization tool for many organizations, businesses, and small entrepreneurs. It offers versatility and customization, two of the most needed data analysis and manipulation features. The smooth data entry and management experience was also fundamental to Excel’s success.

Both Tableau and Excel have their own merits in certain use cases. But if we are to be specific about visualization, Tableau takes the top place instantly. Moreover, there is hardly a program better than Tableau for gaining insights from data.

In the following two sections, we will examine Tableau and Excel thoroughly. We will explore both these programs from the perspective of data visualization capability. Then we will present a direct head-to-head comparison table for further understanding.

What is Tableau?

Tableau is a Business Intelligence (BI) program for data presentation. It has a reputation for being a capable data analysis tool. Tableau is super smooth, has an easy user interface, and produces fast results with total accuracy. Its capacity goes beyond simple data visualization, which we will explore shortly.

The image below shows the opening interface of the Tableau Desktop edition. The menus are easy to follow for people who are familiar with data.

What is Tableau

The options to import data from different types of files are visible on the left sidebar. The opportunity to connect Tableau to a server and collect data from there is also possible with this program!

Notable Features of Tableau

Tableau comes with quite a good number of features. Even though there are multiple variations of the program, some features are fundamental to the operation of this data visualization tool. These are available in all the editions of Tableau. We will discuss these features in brief.

1. Interactive Shareable Dashboards: Tableau has highly customizable dashboards. It offers a broader scope for making your own data presentation dashboard with interactive features, filters, and various options. Moreover, a user can share their data with the custom dashboard without changing a thing!

2. Interactive Visual Analytics: Tableau’s one of the biggest selling points is its massive support for interactive visual analytics features. It comes with some default visual elements that help with presenting data. Additionally, there are excellent scatter plots, heat maps, bar charts, etc., available with this program. These analytics elements are also interactive, which makes it even better!

3. Data Interpretation with Insights Generation: The most attractive feature of Tableau is its impeccable ability to interpret data and generate insights. The whole process is automatic. Adding specific data in columns and rows initiates the process. Under the hood, Tableau’s data analysis engine compares and interprets available data when the user adds visual analytics elements to the dashboard.

4. Importing Data from External Sources: Tableau supports importing data from various sources. It can extract data from Excel files, JSON files, Text documents, PDF files, etc. In addition, Tableau can directly connect to MySQL, Microsoft SQL Server, Oracle servers, etc. The connection stays live with the server, and data updates automatically.

5. Mapping Capabilities Including Geomapping: Tableau makes the job easier by using its internal mapping capabilities when dealing with global data. For instance, if any global statistical data needs to be analyzed and visualized, Tableau can present them in interactive maps. This feature is unique to Tableau and always proves helpful on a global scale.

5. Data Modeling with Forecasting: Most users have migrated to Tableau from other data analysis and visualization software because of its advanced data modeling capability. It has made working with data more effective with less than half the effort. Along with this feature, Tableau’s automatic forecasting capability generated from data is also a lucrative proposition for data enthusiasts.

6. Responsive Data Visualization Dashboard: The Tableau dashboard is one of the most impressive parts of the program. We already talked about its interactive nature. The dashboard also has responsive quality. It has many presets for screen sizes that help with viewing data. For this reason, users can pick their current screen size from the menu and see the complete visualized data without any problem.

7. Support for Mobile: Tableau has dedicated Android and iOS applications available for users. It makes accessing data on Tableau Server or Tableau Cloud possible. Therefore, a user must not have a computer or laptop to access shared data. They can effortlessly do their work on Tableau, wherever they are.

8. Collaboration Work: For teamwork, it is hard to match what Tableau offers to businesses and organizations. Sharing Tableau files with finished and ongoing work is easy due to the existing collaboration feature. Team members can open the file with the Tableau program and quickly make necessary changes.

Pros of Tableau

Like anything else, Tableau has both positive and negative sides. In this section, we will discuss the positive sides of Tableau.

  • User-Friendly Interface: Tableau has an easy-to-follow interface. Anyone can follow the prompts and complete their assigned task for basic work.
  • Fast Data Analysis: Tableau handles data rapidly and accurately as a visualization tool. Its behind-the-scenes data analysis operation is exceptionally smooth and trouble-free.
  • Wide Data Visualization Option: Tableau comes with various data visualization tools with many options. We will do a quick demonstration in this article. Stick around to find out!
  • Support for External Live Sources: Tableau’s integrated server-connecting feature makes data sharing easy for data professionals.
  • Support for Handheld Devices: The in-store applications for Android and iOS make it easy for users to access data from anywhere.
  • Collaboration Support: This extensive feature for working with team members simultaneously is one of the essential parts of Tableau.

Cons of Tableau

Tableau comes with some negative sides as well.

  • Cost: Tableau has a free, open-source edition called Tableau Public. However, it does not have all the features available that a business or organization might need. For a complete experience, it comes with expensive monthly subscription pricing.

Tableau Creator : $70/month

Tableau Explorer : $42/month

Tableau Viewer : $15/month

  • Learning Difficulty: Tableau’s basic operation is easy to follow for a newbie. But the more advanced functions need proper understanding from a helpful source. And the learning process is not so linear. Therefore, if someone needs to use Tableau regularly, they must learn it from a trainer.

Data Visualization with Tableau

Tableau’s data visualization process has a top-of-the-line look. Charts and graphs update automatically upon a click. It is always an advantageous feature during a presentation.

The dashboard has distinctive labelings in groups. On the left, sheets, and objects are visible. And on the bottom, multiple dashboard tabs are available.

Data Visualization with Tableau 1

For changing a chart or graph, simply clicking on the preferred option does the job. The recommended visual styles are available on the right of the dashboard interface.

Data Visualization with Tableau 2

Depending on what a user wants to present, a simple click on the graph style in the preview window to the right changes the data presentation type.

Data Visualization with Tableau 3

A Tableau dashboard’s most interesting and helpful part is its ability to show the utilized data in proper categories. The section on the top shows the data sources used in columns as rows. To the left, filters and additional datasets can be seen.

Data Visualization with Tableau 4

With some fundamental introduction, a new user can explore the magnificent world of Tableau. But being a master of this data visualization program requires specific learning from a Tableau expert.

Tableau Dashboard

The user-friendly dashboard of Tableau is packed with many useful options. The opening screen has a blank slate where visual elements are added. Sidebar on the right has draggable charts and graphs. The dashboard-exclusive sidebar on the left occupies data sheets and previews.

The picture below shows an empty dashboard of Tableau.

Tableau Dashboard 1

Visual elements are resizable based on various presents and custom dimensions. The marked area in the image below indicates the Size panel in the Tableau dashboard.

Tableau Dashboard 2

Charts and graphs can be changed from the right sidebar after selecting the current visual in the dashboard.

Tableau Dashboard 3

Overall, the dashboard panel of Tableau is easy to operate. With proper guidance and enough practice, a data analyst can be a master of Tableau in a manageable timeframe.

What is Excel?

Excel is the most popular spreadsheet program in the world. It has a vast user base ranging from individual users to big organizations and corporate entities. Excel is not specifically a data visualization tool. Nevertheless, users utilize this program’s available features to the fullest for occasional visualization work.

Excel is primarily used for data entry, storage, and analysis. For accounting and finance, it is one of the most reliable spreadsheet programs available.

The picture here shows the Excel interface in its default state. Users see this window similarly when they open the Excel program.

What is Excel

The top area with options in groups is called the Ribbon. The area below it contains rows and columns. Intersections of these rows and columns create little rectangular boxes known as Cells. And at the very bottom, the status bar of Excel is visible with a zoom slider on the right.

Notable Features of Excel

Excel is a feature-heavy spreadsheet program. Users can utilize it in various ways. Excel can do everything from simple data storage to extreme data analysis. In this section of the article, we will discuss some excellent features of this program.

1. Data Entry with Organization: The user-friendly interface makes entering data into an Excel sheet effortless. Besides, storing data systematically is one of the most important features of Excel. The data organization system helps save all kinds of data in rows and columns. Even if a data set is cluttered, it is easy to clean up and make it presentable.

2. Data Analysis: Excel’s data analysis capability is adequate for intense work. This program has useful features like Conditional Formatting, Filtering, Sorting, etc. Employing these features with needed functions and formulas ensures a rapid and accurate data analysis.

3. Data Visualization: Excel may not be a dedicated data visualization program. However, users can find a stacked charts and graphs option in it. The visualization process may not be easy for a new Excel user. But in the hand of an expert, the available visual elements are enough for a top-notch data visualization performance.

4. PivotTables: This feature is one of the most exclusive ones in Excel. PivotTables can analyze big data in seconds. It then offers options to summarize the data and present only the parts a user wants. This option plays an integral role in a data visualization process. We will briefly demonstrate it in the upcoming Data Visualization with Excel section.

5. Functions & Formulas: Performing calculations in Excel have been made easy by functions and formulas. There are half a thousand formulas in Excel that help calculate in various ways, from simple to complicated calculations. Formulas can also be nested in Excel. As a result, it is easy to do even multiple calculations in one go.

6. Automating Tasks with Macros and VBA: Advanced Excel users love Macros and VBA for their incredible task automation capability. Instead of doing a specific task repeatedly, a user can use Macros to record the steps and then play them. Subsequently, the same task repeats automatically in seconds! On the other hand, VBA uses some codes for task automation. Macros and VBA make Excel users’ lives easy with their automation feature.

7. Support for Add-Ins: Excel comes with some integrated add-ins. However, to improve functionalities, users can also integrate additional third-party add-ins. And after a specific job, the add-ins can also be removed easily.

8. Sharing Files and Collaboration: Excel for Microsoft 365 supports file sharing and collaborative work through OneDrive and SharePoint. Although simultaneous collaborations are still unavailable in Excel, it is easy to save files in the cloud and share their links with others. And during teamwork, users can access a file one person at a time and make changes where necessary.

Pros of Excel

In this section, we will talk about some positive sides of Excel. We are keeping the focus on the data visualization capability of this program.

  • User-Friendly Interface: Excel’s interface seems easy for all types of users. From Excel 2007 onwards, the ribbon system has made finding and using various options during work simpler.
  • Customization: All the visual elements in Excel are highly customizable. Users can change the elements during data analysis and presentation according to their needs. However, compared to Tableau, the process is slightly lengthier.
  • Versatility: Excel has immense power for data-related work. Everything can be done in Excel, from simple data entry to complex data analysis, manipulation, and calculation.
  • Accessibility: The desktop version of the Microsoft Office package is still the most popular way to use Excel. But the option to access it using Microsoft 365 is also available. The program is also available in mobile applications for both iOS and Android. As a result, users can access Excel from anywhere.
  • Simple Data Analysis: Excel reigns supreme for quick and basic data analysis work by a new user. It has built-in tools for generating simple presentations on a complete data analysis job. However, an advanced level of Excel knowledge is necessary for extensive analysis.
  • Easy Learning Process: Excel has a shallow learning curve. Anyone unfamiliar with this spreadsheet program can learn how to use it quickly. The options are uncomplicated. New users usually do not take more than an hour to learn about basic Excel operations.
  • Quick Report Delivery: One of the strongest sides of Excel is its ability to generate reports superfast. It proves helpful when there is a need to deliver a concise report with data presentation.

Cons of Excel

We will discuss some certain disadvantages of Excel in this section.

  • Cost: Excel comes with a high price point. It is impossible to purchase this spreadsheet program standalone. Excel is a part of the Microsoft Office package or Office for Microsoft 365.

Microsoft Office 2021 (Home & Business) : $249.99 (one-time purchase)

Office for Microsoft 365 : Starts from $6.99/month

  • Limited Data Preparation: The sorting, transforming, and cleaning up of data in Excel is easy. However, with a large amount of data, Excel comes short of extensive work support. Consequently, for big datasets, data preparation opportunities prove limited in Excel.
  • Lack of Simultaneous Collaboration: Any edition of Excel apart from Excel for Microsoft 365 does not support collaboration features. Even then, it comes with limited options. Users cannot collaborate simultaneously in Excel despite the sharing support. Microsoft’s cloud storage OneDrive is used in this case. Therefore, if you do not have a Microsoft 365 subscription, you are out of luck!
  • Limited Scalability: The data visualization support in Excel is extremely limited. There is no option to scale down a dataset to handle the visualization effortlessly in Excel. As a result, a visualization attempt with large datasets may cause unwanted problems.

Data Visualization with Excel

Despite all the limitations, using Excel to visualize data is still possible. We will demonstrate a small visualization attempt here with the help of the PivotTables option.

The data in the picture below will be used for data visualization with Excel.

Data Visualization with Excel 1

By using PivotTables’ PivotChart option, we started the visualization process. The PivotChart Fields let us select the data we wanted to visualize.

Data Visualization with Excel 2

We could change how we wanted to present the data from the chart type. The left column shows the kind of charts to choose from, and the area to the right shows different variations of a specific chart type with its preview.

Data Visualization with Excel 3

After selecting a particular chart type, the changes get visible immediately. And upon clicking the chart, new data can be added from the PivotChart Fields section.

Data Visualization with Excel 4

If you want to learn more about PivotTables, check out our dedicated article on this powerful feature of Excel.

Tableau vs Excel: The Data Analysis & Visualization Battle

So far, we have discussed both Tableau and Excel in detail from a data visualization perspective. However, we believe that a comparison table will eliminate any confusion you may still have. It will also work as a quick recap in this data tools battle.

Tableau Specification Excel
Starts from $15/month Cost Starts from $6.99/month
Limited Data Cleaning Basic
Advanced, can blend data from multiple different sources Data Blending Limited
Supports advanced data analysis Data Analysis Supports basic data analysis
Has extensive support for interactive visual elements, e.g., heat maps, scatterplots, bar charts, etc. Visual Elements & Analytics Simple visual elements are available
Supports performing advanced calculations and building data models Data Modeling Available through PivotTables and PivotCharts
Not available Functions & Formulas Supports almost half a thousand functions and formulas
Not available Automation with Macros Available
Can scale down large data for easy visualization Scalability Limited scope
Highly customizable Customization Limited scope
Strong Security Basic
Difficult Ease of Learning Easy
Advanced support Collaboration Limited support
Available Mapping Feature Available
Available (with dedicated applications) Mobile Support Available
Can be used via web-access through the internet Accessibility Primarily a desktop application installed on a computer

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

In this part of the article, we will answer some of the most asked questions regarding Tableau and Excel. The answers will give you further information on these two tools.

Q: Can I share my visualizations in Tableau with others?

Ans. Yes. Tableau allows sharing of data visualization through its cloud server or Tableau Public. It also supports web-embedded visualizations.

Q: Can I use Tableau and Excel together?

Ans. Yes, you can use Tableau and Excel together without any problem. Data from Excel sheets can be imported to Tableau to create visualizations. Similarly, visualization from Tableau can also be exported to Excel for convenience.

Q: Can I do real-time data analysis with Excel?

Ans. It is possible to do real-time data analysis in Excel. However, the live data support is extremely limited in this spreadsheet program. You may need to refresh the data source frequently by yourself to update the changed data.

Q: What kind of visualizations can I create in Tableau?

Ans. In Tableau, you can create a customizable dashboard for data visualization of different types. The variations include heat maps, tree maps, scatterplots, pie charts, bar charts, area charts, line charts, box plots, bullet graphs, funnel charts, waterfall charts, bubble charts, etc. You can also create word clouds and histograms for compelling data visualizations.

Q: Does Tableau support real-time data analysis?

Ans. Yes. Tableau’s support for real-time data pulling and analysis has made it arguably the best data visualization program in the world. The software can connect to real-time data sources, including live data feeds and databases. It automatically updates data in the visualization since it frequently refreshes the data by itself to get updated information from the feed.

Q: Which type of data sources does Tableau support?

Ans. Tableau has a wide range of support for data sources. The list includes web data, Excel files, JSON, CSV files, etc. Tableau also supports relational databases like MySQL, Microsoft SQL Server, Oracle, etc., and cloud sources like Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Google Clouds.

Last Words

Tableau is a wonderful data visualization program. It is the ultimate tool for data analysts. Tableau’s support for substantial data-related operations has made it the go-to program for individuals, organizations, and corporations.

We intended to compare Tableau and Excel in this article rigorously. We talked about both these programs in detail. Our explanation of the two software through discussing their distinctive features along with pros and cons should give you a clear-cut picture of what Tableau and Excel are about.

We also included a head-to-head table for Tableau vs Excel in the last part of the article. Plus, the FAQ section should eliminate any remaining confusion regarding the topic. It is important to note that you might need assistance using this program if you are new to Tableau. There are thousands of tutorials online that will help you with the process.

To try out Tableau, we suggest you use the Tableau Public edition of the software. It is open-source and comes cost-free. The imposed limitations due to the free-of-cost nature should not stop you from having a go at it. Then if you feel satisfied, go ahead and purchase the edition that suits you.

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