data.table vs dplyr: can one do something well the other can"t or does poorly?

Cover Image for data.table vs dplyr: can one do something well the other can"t or does poorly?
Matheus Mello
Matheus Mello
published a few days ago. updated a few hours ago

Data.Table vs dplyr: Battle of the Titans! ๐Ÿ’ช๐Ÿ“Š

Are you a data analysis enthusiast who's torn between two powerful R packages, data.table and dplyr? You're not alone! Many data analysts and statisticians struggle with choosing the right tool for the job.

In this blog post, we'll dive deep into the key differences between data.table and dplyr and tackle the burning question: can one do something well the other can't or does poorly? ๐Ÿค”


Before we jump into the comparison, let's understand the context of this question. Both data.table and dplyr are widely used in the R community for data manipulation and analysis. Here are a few key points to set the stage:

  1. Speed: Both packages offer impressive speed, with data.table having an edge in scenarios involving many groups or large datasets.

  2. Syntax: While data.table has a reputation for being more concise and efficient, dplyr is known for its more accessible and intuitive syntax.

  3. Database Interaction: dplyr abstracts potential interactions with databases, making it a convenient choice if you need to connect to various data sources.

  4. Minor Functionality Differences: There are subtle variations in functionality between the two packages, but these differences may not be significant for most users.

Now that we have the groundwork laid out, let's address the burning questions!

Question Time! โ“โ“

  1. Easier Coding: Are there analytical tasks that are a lot easier to code with one package over the other for users already familiar with both tools?

  2. Efficiency: Are there analytical tasks that significantly outperform each other, with one package being at least twice as efficient?

In order to answer these questions, let's explore some examples and use cases where one package shines over the other.




  • Grouped operations that return an arbitrary number of rows are not supported, which can be a limitation in certain scenarios. However, this feature is planned to be implemented in dplyr version 0.5. Meanwhile, you can use the do function as a workaround.

  • Standard evaluation versions of functions in dplyr (e.g., regroup, summarize_each_) simplify programmatic use, which can be advantageous when automating tasks.


  • data.table supports rolling joins and overlap joins, making it a powerful option for handling time series or interval-based data.

  • The package optimizes expressions like DT[col == value] or DT[col %in% values] for speed through automatic indexing using binary search. This optimization provides a significant performance boost without deviating from base R syntax.


We've got some benchmark results to back our analysis. Let's take a look:

  • In a benchmark comparing "split apply combine" style analysis with a large number of groups (> 100K), data.table outperformed dplyr substantially.

  • Benchmarks conducted on joins also showed that data.table scales better as the number of groups increases.

  • data.table was approximately 6 times faster in obtaining unique values over dplyr in a benchmarked scenario.

  • According to an anecdotal comment on Stack Overflow, data.table was 75% faster for larger group/apply/sort operations, while dplyr showed a 40% speed advantage for smaller datasets.

  • An extensive benchmark conducted by the main author of data.table showcased its superior performance over dplyr and Python's pandas package on datasets with up to 2 billion rows!


After delving into the features, syntax, and performance benchmarks, we can conclude that both data.table and dplyr are remarkable packages, each with its own strengths. While data.table excels in scenarios involving large datasets and complex operations, dplyr offers a more user-friendly syntax that is easier to grasp for newcomers.

Instead of focusing on one tool being better than the other, it's essential to understand your specific use case and requirements. Both packages have their place in the data analysis ecosystem, and choosing the right one depends on your familiarity with the syntax, the size of your dataset, and the complexity of analytical tasks.

Now that you're armed with this knowledge, go ahead and experiment with both packages! Test them out on your own datasets, and see which one aligns better with your workflow. Remember, the best tool is the one that makes you more productive and brings you closer to your data insights! ๐Ÿ’กโœจ

That's all for now, folks! We hope this blog post helped shed some light on the data.table vs dplyr debate. If you have any questions or insights to share, let us know in the comments below. Happy coding and analyzing! ๐Ÿš€๐Ÿ“Š

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