Best of The August 2018 Power BI Release
The following is part of an ongoing series on Power BI from Shawn Alpay. Shawn is a Business Intelligence Architect at Senturus who has spent the last 15 years designing and implementing Microsoft-centric BI solutions for clients.
Power BI is Microsoft's sandbox data model and visualization platform, and it's on a very ambitious monthly release cycle. Roughly every 30 days, new features are added to the product! In this post, I’ll share my favorite features from the August 2018 release, highlighting practical additions, fixes to previous shortcomings and limitations.
My rundown is not intended as an exhaustive review of every single Power BI change – for example, this month’s release includes a bunch of new custom visualizations. Microsoft’s blog post tells the story on each of those sufficiently, so no need for me to. If interested, you can read the official word from Microsoft about the latest release.
EXPORT TO PDF
Okay, this one's huge: you now have the ability to export your report to PDF in Power BI Desktop. You'll find this functionality in the File menu (see screenshot below); clicking this will generate a multi-page PDF containing every visible report in your PBIX file. You can then easily print this report or attach the file to an email. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, the lack of convenient printing has been a huge pain point for the Microsoft BI community, and it's been a deal breaker for some of my clients' users, preventing widespread Power BI adoption across their organizations.
So now all is right with the world, yes? Well, no. As I plan to discuss in further detail in a future blog post, Microsoft often elects to roll out new Power BI features before they are complete and/or interoperate with other existing functionality. In this case, we face both such limitations: export to PDF only exists in Power BI Desktop (not the Power BI Service, where we expect users to consume reports) and it does not support wallpaper color or images.
Microsoft has tended to label such beta features with the term "Preview" until they are more fully formed – but curiously, they did not do so here. I almost would have preferred to have been denied this feature until it was fully formed. As it is, I can only disappoint my clients by mentioning this functionality as it exists today, given that their users can't use it. I suspect that there was some sort of internal decision to get new print functionality out the door as quickly as possible to show progress. In any case, I would expect more print functionality to come in one of the next few monthly releases.
This is nice: if you have a ton of bookmarks, you can now put them into groups. Just select one or more bookmarks, right-click, and select Group.
This functionality comes with a few limitations:
- It appears that Shift-click operates the same as Ctrl-click: you can only select multiple bookmarks by clicking on each before then right-clicking and grouping.
- If you multi-select in this way, it doesn't default to sorting the new group in the original order; rather, it appears to sort in the order in which you clicked them.
- If you go to remove a member from the group, it deletes the entire group! (Click and drag functionality appears to work completely as expected.)
REPORT THEMES GENERALLY AVAILABLE
The ability to skin all visualizations in a report (or all reports across your reporting suite) is a crucial component of a coherent enterprise reporting strategy – and although Power BI Report Themes were implemented last year via JSON files, both the functionality and the documentation left a lot to be desired. You couldn't format visualization titles with Report Themes at all – so any use of this functionality up until recently – had to be augmented with manual formatting of each visualization.
In the July 2018 Power BI update, Microsoft announced that it had significantly extended and improved Report Theme functionality. And this month, it finally decided to remove it from Preview mode, which means that the Report Themes button will show up by default in Power BI Desktop.
Getting your head around Report Themes is no small endeavor; I invite you to peruse the documentation, which is preposterously long and confusing. I recommend you reference an excellent set of videos and templates created by Ruth Pozuelo Martinez; these were helpful for me in understanding the exact structure of a Report Theme JSON file. Even though her artifacts are now technically out of date, I suspect you will still find them helpful too.
CONDITIONAL FORMATTING BY VALUES
So far, if you wanted to conditionally format a font or background color, you had two options: Color scale (based on the range of a particular field) or Rules (based on the value of a particular field, defining which color(s) to use). This month, we now have access to a third option: Field value.
Consider this example, where I have defined the rules for how to color the Sales Actual v Goal measure: red if it's below 0, and green otherwise:
That's all well and good – but if you ever want to change those colors (or the rules), you have to do it in the visualization layer. I'm a huge proponent of pushing logic like this as far upstream as possible – and I would have preferred to carry this logic in the data warehouse layer, exposing the necessary color hex values as a measure in the semantic model. With this change to Power BI, you can now do exactly that:
DATA CATEGORIES FOR MEASURES
This one's cool. We can now label DAX measures with categories, which allows some interesting options for dynamic image display and report navigation.
We can dynamically generate a URL to a separate Power BI report as a DAX measure and we can have that URL carry various filters as parameters. If we label the measure as a web URL, we can now let the user click that link in one report to navigate to a second report, and that second report will be filtered by the attributes as dictated by the user and carried in the URL.
We can also dynamically create an image like a sparkline via a DAX measure – and if we label the measure as an image URL, we can display dynamic sparklines for various rows in a table or matrix. It kind of makes my head spin, but I love that!
We can expect matrix visuals to be collapsed and expanded in an upcoming release! This addition will provide PivotTable-esque functionality in Power BI reports and it will be huge. Currently, everything in the rows section of a matrix visual defaults to being expanded and the only way to collapse it is to remove the offending field entirely, which is obviously less than ideal. So giving users +'s and -'s to dynamically change the visual's height will be a major upgrade. The only question is: when? Microsoft has now tantalized us, but we're unsure when to expect it. It's exciting, but it's also a bit frustrating.
That's it for now!
If you’d like to hear more from Shawn and learn more about Microsoft Power BI, check out his webinar Power BI: Beyond the Buzz. Shawn explains how the product fits into Microsoft’s overall Business Intelligence framework, reviews what it does well (and does poorly) and demos some of its more prominent features.