How To Find The Best .NET Reporting Tool For Your Needs

Reporting tools are often at the heart of an application. The means to visualize data, drill into details and extract results as PDF or website is one of the core features for ERP systems, CRM applications or even industry specific software.

While for a simple list you often do not require any 3rd party software, offering customizability of reports or supporting the usually required large range of export formats quickly decide the make or buy decision in favor or the latter.

This article aims to help you make an educated decision for taking the best .NET reporting tool for your needs.

Types/Kinds of .NET Reporting Tools

When searching for the best reporting tool solution for your .NET software project, you first have to differ between those two kinds:

  • Specialized components that focus on reporting, like GrapeCity’s ActiveReports or combit’s List & Label.
  • Component suites that offer a large range of UI controls for a number of platforms, including report generation. Prominent members of this club are Telerik and DevExpress.

When to take a specialized reporting component?

Specialized reporting components on the one hand typically offer a wider and more advanced feature range.

When to take a component suite?

A pro for this choice is that often you already have licensed the component suite. Thus, also using the reporting comes as a cheap, included option that might well be sufficient in a number of scenarios.

Specialized Components
 

ActiveReports

ActiveReports is the first specialized reporting component I want to introduce. The reporting component offers a wide range of supported platforms. You can use it from ASP.NET (Core), WinForms, and WPF.

Pros

ActiveReports comes with different viewers for a number of platforms and supports three different report types – one for banded reports, one for fixed layout forms and one for RDL (Report Definition Language) reports. The supported data sources include common formats like MS SQL, OleDb, ADO.NET or business objects as well as a couple of file-based formats. While the out-of-the-box list is somehow limited, you can write your own data providers to support other formats as well.

Cons

A number of export formats are supported; however, you require the Professional Edition for thorough support of a basic format such as PDF. The fact that the Standard Edition is somehow insufficient is also evident in many other areas. The end user desktop designer is only available in the Professional Edition and doesn’t use the usual Office ribbon UI but rather a menu and toolbar/tool area approach. This might be a pro or con, depending on how you and your end users like the MS Office UI. The web designer and web viewer can be used from a number of different front-end technologies, but are also not included in the Standard Edition.

All in all, Active Reports is a solid choice, however, you’ll likely need to pick the Professional Edition for serious work as the Standard Edition is quite restricted.

List & Label

Being on the market since 1989, combit’s List & Label is mature and feature rich. It can be used from all platforms, including ASP.NET (Core), WinForms and WPF. It even supports a number of other IDEs, including Delphi and C++. There are viewers and designers that can be used with each of the supported platforms – for the desktop, this is royalty free for the user even in the Standard Edition, for web development you’d need to choose the Enterprise Edition. The desktop designer sports an Office like ribbon UI, the web report designer is a React based WebComponent that can be used from any frontend technology.

Pros are the wide range of supported objects, there’s even a PDF renderer included, allowing you to directly embed PDF content into your reports. The product comes with a number of data visualizations, including all common chart types and a wide range of gauges. All export formats are fully supported in all editions. There’s a vast number of data sources supported out of the box with the ability to add custom ones as well. List & Label runs in Azure hosted Docker containers and fully supports all current Windows and Visual Studio versions.

Con is the requirement for a Windows OS, List & Label cannot be run on Linux or Linux hosted docker containers. If this is a hard requirement, you’d be better off with another product.

All in all List & Label is a very good choice if you’re living in the Windows world – you’ll hardly miss a feature there. If you strive to run on Linux or iOS, this will only work for the client, not the server side.

Component Suites
 

Telerik Reporting

If you decide to go for a component suite included reporting tool, Telerik Reporting is an excellent choice, especially if you’re already using their UI controls. You may also buy the solution stand alone, however the pricing becomes much more compelling when looking at the whole package.

Pros are definitely the wide range of supported platforms, the tool can be used in Web and Desktop applications, supporting ASP.NET Core, Blazor, WinForms and WPF to name just a few. Also, the product has been on the market for a while and is mature and feature rich. Telerik has also been investing heavily into their web based offering, with Angular and React support on their roadmap, as well as an easy way to reorder columns in the Web Designer.

Cons are somewhat unexpected inflexibilities – you cannot split Excel exports to different workbook tabs when working with multiple tables. Also, the page count information is not available outside of the page header/footer sections. Swapping columns via Drag & Drop is not supported but requires a quirky workaround. It also misses a Gauge control, a basic building block for interactive dashboards.

All in all – if you’re running Telerik UI controls and you’re happy with the features of the reporting part you won’t be caught on the wrong foot when doing so. Just keep in mind that migrating to a different tool later in the process can become a cumbersome and tedious task as most of the time you will have to regenerate all your reports. This holds true for any of the listed products, however.

DevExpress

DevExpress is well known for their excellent component suite, which also contains a reporting engine. It's a solid choice for all who are working with the suite anyway.

Pros are definitely the wide range of supported platforms as well - you can use it in WinForms, WPF, Web, Blazor and WinUI amongst others. It even has a custom rendering engine for Linux (as opposed to others) that is supposed to improve the otherwise quite buggy GDI+ emulation output on this platform, which is often an issue otherwise. On the web app frontend, you can choose between e.g. Angular, React and Vue.js.

Cons according to users seem to be the usual bugs from time to time, although DevExpress support seems to be quite helpful. The list of export formats is a bit restricted with formats like XML or JSON missing. The image export lacks support for a vectorized, scalable output like SVG. The PDF export cannot use EMF files. The Excel export does not support different sheets for different parts of the report - you either get one sheet per page or one sheet altogether.

All in all you can easily go with DevExpress Reporting if you don't require top notch export formats and best of breed features. If you plan to support a multitude of platforms (Web/Desktop) you need to purchase a higher level edition. If you want to support other languages like Delphi as well, this is yet another product that needs to be purchased. However, if you're using their controls anyway, it's a good start into the reporting world. 

Comparison at a Glance

In the table below I try to give a compact overall impression based on the number of report, export and viewer features.

But of course, it should be clear that the number of features in certain areas does not automatically mean that the one you absolutely need is included.

Use this interactive Reporting Tool Comparison to see the details behind the numbers below and to compare more categories like supported data sources.   

  Specialized Reporting Components Component Suites
  ActiveReports List & Label Telerik Reporting DevExpress
Report Design Features 21 29 25 25
Viewer Features 12 18 17 13
Report Features 12 24 20 16
Export Features 19 26 18 15
Total Number of Supported Features 64 97 80 69