Tool Evaluation Series: Metabase

Chris Nguyen
5 min readJan 7, 2024

Metabase is a self-service data analytics tool that is designed for fast and seamless analysis combined with great UX. I will evaluate Metabase in terms of expanding data analytics capabilities to a more general audience — defined as the audience outside of data teams that may not be highly trained in data but want to use it to answer their own business questions without having to wait for the data team to answer them. Or in other words “Is Metabase a good self-service tool?”.

The way I will do this is by defining a few criteria that I care about and using Metabase to see how well it fulfills that criteria. The criteria will be:

  1. Setup & Maintenance: is the tool easy to set up, maintain, and learn?
  2. Useful Features: what are 2–3 things that make this tool stand out?
  3. Cost: how expensive do I think this tool is? I define expensive as “Does this cost me as much as Tableau?”
  4. Audience Fit: do I think the tool fits my intended general audience?

1. Setup & Maintenance

Metabase claims that you can get up and running with their tool within 5 minutes. I tested the claim and guess what? They are absolutely correct! It was so easy to just pull their latest Docker image and self-host an instance of on-premise Metabase within minutes. I could easily flip around the UI, make charts, and set permissions as an admin. That’s a lot of abilities straight after installation. It also feels like a pretty lightweight tool that doesn’t get in the way. Overall, I’m pretty happy with how easy this all felt.

5 minutes is all I need to set up Metabase. And it’s accurate this time.

In terms of learning and development, there’s a lot of official documentation online but there is also a discussion forum and lots of events that pop up in my email for training. Metabase seems well-supported by its team.

Metabase data source connections seem standard but does not come with Trino by default. Looks like Starburst can be installed but Metabase is the only tool where Trino did not come standard and is the one that I need.

4 out of 5 points

2. Useful Features

  • Drill-downs and X-rays: Metabase allows you to drill down into the data just by clicking around the UX. You can click into bars to see the underlying data or you can do what’s called an “X-ray” and just auto-generate multiple charts to summarize a column in your database. Very helpful to get users started in asking “what do I want to ask?”
Just clicking on a field generates a lot of default charts
  • Query Builder and SQL Editor: Metabase comes with a query builder “to ask a question” for users. You can either use a wizard interface to describe what kind of data you want or just write a direct SQL query if you know how to do that, which is helpful for advanced users.
Use a wizard to formulate a question
Or just write a SQL query directly
  • SQL snippets: This feature allows users who can write queries to save and share them so that others can reuse them. Depending on how it’s managed, it could either be a central hub of analyses that can be reused or a total mess of infinite versions of SQL bits and pieces 🙃.
Simply input SQL snippets to insert reused code

Metabase has a ton of features which look and feel friendly to use. I think a general audience would really like it.

5 out of 5 points

3. Cost

You can either self-host the open-source version of Metabase or go the Cloud route. There’s a base rate at the Pro and Starter Cloud levels that are clearly outlined and then an extra rate for each extra user per month. Scaling out the licenses for the team seems really cheap at $10/user/month for Pro and $5/user/month for Standard. Enterprise is of course custom price but I do appreciate how upfront Metabase is about its pricing.

4 out of 5 points

Simple, straightforward pricing

4. Audience Fit

Do I think Metabase fits my general audience? Absolutely yes!

With a simple and inviting user interface (honestly, it really does feel like walking on a cloud compared to other technical tools out there), I don’t think it would be an uphill battle to get people take it up. It feels light, it’s easy to drill down and flip around charts, and the X-rays answer basic questions users may have about the data in a way that avoids a “cold start” problem where people stare at a blank screen and don’t know what to ask. It scales well and I think it’s a fantastic tool for general audiences. In terms of customizability, I don’t think it can replace tools like Tableau and Power BI unless the organization is very small and simple charts are all that’s needed. But as an additional tool, I think it would be a great fit.

5 out of 5 points

Verdict

I think Metabase is a fantastic data analytics tool to add to an organization. It’s super easy to flip around charts and drill down into an analysis in a friendly-looking interface. The reservations I have about it concern its lack of customizability and what features it may be lacking. At the time of this writing, Metabase lists “CSV Upload” as a new feature. That’s strange to me as that seems like such a basic feature which leads me to question what else is missing. Charts are not as customizable as the mainline BI tools. But again, as an additional tool I think these gaps can be covered.

18 out of 20 points

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