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First Impressions - Tabular Editor 3


OK, so @DebbieE asked a question in the forums here. Essentially the question is about whether the new paid version of Tabular Editor is "worth it". For those of you that do not know, until recently Tabular Editor was a free, open source tool that allowed direct editing of tabular data models created by Power BI. With Tabular Editor you can do things that you can't do in Power BI Desktop, like create Calculation Groups for example. The free edition is still available but the new version, Tabular Editor 3 (TE3) is now a paid subscription. TE3 comes with a laundry list of new features but, the question remains, is it worth paying for?


Now, I gave a bit of a cheeky response to @DebbieE, which, I'm quite certain, surprises zero percent of the population. But...but...I ended up feeling that @DebbieE deserved an actual proper response to her inquiry and hence I figured I'd download the evaluation copy of TE3 and take a shot at some kind of review or something. Which, let's all be honest, is in all likelihood almost certain to come out quite cheeky but I can't help myself, it's in my nature. So, hoping I don't drown in a river, here we go!



Alright, first you have to download and install the tool before you can use it. You can download TE3 here. Nice, simple download page, there is even a 64-bit version. Nice! I downloaded that one. Nice, fast 40 MB download of an MSI package and double-click. A short next, next, finish later and we're all set apparently. I fired up Power BI Desktop and was pleasantly surprised to find that TE3 had registered itself in the External Tools section of the Power BI ribbon and, even better, had not replaced my original installation of TE2. Very nice. I was actually worried that it was going to blow away my access to TE2 so kudos to the TE3 team for that!


Figure 1: External Tools in Power BI Desktop


And, just in case you are wondering and want to install the free version of Tabular Editor, you can still do that here.


So, as far as installation is concerned, 10 out of 10! Thanks for not making my Tabular Editor 2 version unusable.


First Impression

OK, so I opened up my latest "working" file, the one I use to help me answer questions on the forums. And yes, as you can see in the image above, I am on my eighty first file for that. And, go to External Tools and click on both Tabular Editor and Tabular Editor 3. Now, let's start comparing. First Tabular Editor 2 launched in under 5 seconds with my data model all loaded up. TE3 on the other hand, by comparison, took forever. A good 20 seconds ticked by before it launched and, booo, it is requesting personal information in order to activate the 30-day free trial. So, enter my email address and, huh, blank TOM Explorer. Alright, close TE3, relaunch it from Power BI Desktop and 20-30 seconds later I have it open and my data model loads this time. Great.


Now, asking for personal information, not loading the data model the first time and the loooong loading time aside, the interface is definitely more polished and less stark as you can see in the following images:


Figure 2: Tabular Editor 2.x



Figure 3: Tabular Editor 3


So, great, doesn't look like an open source project any longer, which is good, because it's not. Fantastic. Oh, but let's take a quick peak at Task Manager. 


Figure 4: TE3 is a memory hog

OK, OUCH! Almost 10 times the memory utilization running against the same model as the original Tabular Editor. I guess all that fancy chrome costs memory! Maybe that's why it took so long to load, it was busy sucking up all of my memory. And yes, ha ha, I run way too many browser tabs.


Alright, so let's score this thing. We have it asking for personal information to use something that is touted as free, which, I'll be honest, I personally despise that sort of thing and then, to add insult to injury, it didn't even load my model the first time because it was busy extorting me for personal information. Oh, and it's dog slow to load and eats memory worse than Teams (or even Outlook). And here we all thought Outlook was the biggest memory hog of all time. But, on the plus side, it looks pretty.


C, I give it a C for first impression. Certainly worthy of a passing grade but, meh, nothing to write home about.



Alright, usability is always hard because it's easy to fall into the "moved my cheese" trap. So let's try not to do that. Let's start by trying to create a Calculation Group because that's one of the hallmark things you might use TE for. In TE2, you can click on Model in the menu and then Calculation Group and no matter where you are in the TOM Explorer, you can create a Calculation Group. Now, I searched for a good 5-10 minutes trying to figure out how to create a Calculation Group in TE3 without success. I got so desparate I even humbled myself to click on Help and searched the online documentation. No dice. I finally, finally, discovered that if I right-click on Tables in the TOM Explorer I get a Create and then Calcluation Group. Or, if I click on Tables, a contextual menu item appears called Tables and I can click that, then Create and then Calculation Group. Damnit. They moved my cheese!! Alright, cheese aside, not nearly as nice of an experience overall and a minimum of 4 clicks versus 2. 


OK, not the end of the world. But, there is an interface bug here. So, you still can't create Relationships and it is kind of nice that when you right-click Relationships in the TOM Explorer you don't get the grayed-out option that makes you think you are doing something wrong, you just get no options other than Properties, which is already present in the default layout soooo... In any case, the bug is in those contextual menu items. So, in the TOM Explorer if you click on Data Sources, Relationships or Shared Expressions a corresponding contextual item appears in the menu. Except that when you click that contextual menu item there are no options. Worse, the contextual elements in the menu cease to appear clicking on the other top-level items in the TOM Explorer. So, close TE3, reopen after 20-30 seconds and back in business. Note to self, don't use those contextual menu items as they mess things up. Also note, that's not the only way to make the contextual menu items stop appearing. There are apparently other ways but that one works every time.


At the end of the day, creating Calculations Groups really hasn't changed any, you still do it in that Properties pane essentially after you create the Calculation Group, expand it and so on. 


So, in any case, more clicks to do things, interface bugs, I have to rate usability a 2 out of 5 stars. Yes, sure the ability to customize the interface is nice and the type ahead is nice and while you could do the equivalent of the Vertipaq Analyzer before, the new menu options for it are very nice. But bugs are bugs and clicks are clicks. Can't have a neutral or positive score if you can find an interface bug in 10 minutes.



OK, let's be clear, I don't consider interface changes as features. Also, being able to do the same thing as before with slightly fewer steps, also not a feature (Veripaq Analyzer for example). Also, slightly improved things like the new Find and Replace dialogs, again, that more falls into the usability camp. OK, so the new type ahead functionality for entering code is nice. The new diagram view with the ability to create relationships is nice, but not anywhere close as nice as Power BI Desktop. It's just plain rudimentary by comparison. The ability to view data in a table is cool I guess although, again, doesn't hold a candle to viewing the data in a table in Power BI Desktop. Pivot grid is also kind of interesting. But again, why am I doing that here and not in Power BI Desktop?


Honestly, I struggled to find that "killer", have to have feature for TE3. There are some cool and interesting new features to be sure but I couldn't find that one thing that I had to have. Admittedly, I could be missing it. Bottom line though I use Tabular Editor when I have to do something that I can't do in Power BI Desktop like Calculation Groups and localization. So adding features that equate to things that I can already do better in Power BI Desktop are lost on me. 


OK, so a rating. Well, there are new features. I don't find any of them a "must have" personally but you may feel differently.



Well, my mother always told me that if I didn't have anything nice to say then don't say anything at all. Sooo...



OK, so the question remains, is TE3 worth paying for? Well, download it and see for yourself.


Alright, fine. I won't cop-out. Honestly, here I am quite torn. On the one hand, I am thrilled to see open source fail once again and people realize that open source harms, versus helps, innovation. So, yet another open source project dies on the vine? Oooooo weee, what a surprise. Open source is perhaps the worst idea in history and the entire concept should die the most excruciating, painful death imaginable. So, good riddance! On the other hand, I don't see anything I would be willing to pay for as long as I have access to the free, open source version. Which, by the way, exactly proves my point about how awful open source is. I would rather use the open source version than pay for the continued development of Tabular Editor, which ends up harming innovation and progress and... You get the idea. Hold on while I descend from my soap box.


I think beyond that, I have a real problem with the licensing. Basically it starts at $10/user/month and you don't even get the full feature set for that price. To think about this another way, if you had $10 to spend per month, would you buy Power BI Pro or Tabular Editor? Without question, I'm going with Power BI Pro. Is adding features that I can do for free in Power BI Desktop or Visual Studio going to compel me to buy it? No, not likely. And then the pricing gets really steep, $35/user/month and then $95/user/month. I mean, you probably spend less on a Tableau license, and that's saying something! 🙂


Anyway, this review likely came out a bit harsher than intended. It is obvious there has been a tremendous amount of time and effort put into the product and it remains one of those gems that allows you to do really awesome things that are more difficult or impossible to do otherwise. So, I really, really appreciate all of the hard work, time, sweat and effort that has been put into it and I deeply value the contributions the Tabular Editor team have made to the community. But I'm still not shelling out $120, $420 or over $1000 a year for it. Sorry.


I mean, sure, if you can get the company to pay for it, knock yourself out. Companies pay for software they never use all the time...

What is your favorite Power BI Feature release this month?