In Julia we have a common interface for working with tabular data. It is provided by the Tables.jl package.

The fact that such an interface is defined greatly simplifies interoperability between packages. However, it introduces also a challenge. User needs to decide which concrete type of table to use?

From my experience (biased) two most common types of tables used in practice are:

  • using a NamedTuple;
  • using a DataFrame.

In this post I want to compare them so that you get a guidance which one and when to choose in your projects.

The post was tested under Julia 1.9.2 and DataFrames.jl 1.6.1.

Dependency level

NamedTuple is a type provided by Base Julia. DataFrame is defined in DataFrames.jl.

This means that you always have access to NamedTuple, while for DataFrame you need to install DataFrames.jl and later load it.

DataFrames.jl is a relatively big package. Its installation and precompilation takes over 1 minute. This is maybe not a huge time, but if for some reason your project environment would require frequent recompilation it can start feeling cumbersome.

The other aspect is package load time:

julia> @time using DataFrames
  1.092920 seconds (1.27 M allocations: 78.653 MiB, 6.52% gc time, 0.46% compilation time)

Again, one second is not much, but in some applications users might want to avoid it.

In summary, NamedTuple wins here as a more lightweight option.

Conformance with Tables.jl interface

DataFrame is always a Tables.jl table. NamedTuple is considered to be a table only if its fields are AbstracVector. This limitation introduces an extra level of effort. User needs to ensure and check this property.

Let me give you one example when it is relevant:

julia> DataFrame(a=0, b=[1, 2]) # a table
2×2 DataFrame
 Row │ a      b
     │ Int64  Int64
   1 │     0      1
   2 │     0      2

julia> (a=0, b=[1, 2]) # not a table
(a = 0, b = [1, 2])

julia> Tables.istable((a=0, b=[1,2]))

Additionally NamedTuple does not provide an automatic check if the lengths of all columns match:

julia> Tables.istable((a=[0], b=[1,2]))

julia> DataFrame((a=[0], b=[1,2]))
ERROR: DimensionMismatch: column :a has length 1 and column :b has length 2

In summary, DataFrame wins here as it is safer. With NamedTuple you need to do additional manual checks if the data you are working with is a table indeed.

Data safety

When creating a DataFrame it copies data by default (this can be overriden by copycols=false in the constructor):

julia> x = [1, 2]
2-element Vector{Int64}:

julia> y = [3, 4]
2-element Vector{Int64}:

julia> df = DataFrame(; x, y)
2×2 DataFrame
 Row │ x      y
     │ Int64  Int64
   1 │     1      3
   2 │     2      4

julia> df.x === x

julia> df.y === y

This is not a case for a NamedTuple:

julia> nt = (; x, y)
(x = [1, 2], y = [3, 4])

julia> nt.x === x

julia> nt.y === y

This design means that DataFrame is safer. Once you create it you mostly can forget about the potential risks of modifying the source data that was used to create it. You might think that this is an issue of a minor relevance. However, in practice, not doing a copy lead to many hard-to-find bugs (and that is why we do copy data by default when creating a DataFrame).

In summary, DataFrame wins here as it is safer (especially that you can disable safe behavior by passing copycols=false to the DataFrame constructor if you wish so).


A big practical difference between NamedTuple and DataFrame is that NamedTuple is immutable. You cannot add, remove, or rename its columns. On the other hand DataFrame allows for such operations, which makes it more convenient when you need to manipulate your data.

In the flexibility dimension DataFrame is a clear winner.


There is an opposite side of the flexibility coin. DataFrame is not type stable, while NamedTuple is. This means that, if you want performance, you need to either use separate kernel functions or higher-order functions provided by DataFrames.jl (like combine or select).

Here is an example of performance unfriendly and performance friendly code for DataFrame:

julia> function sum1(table)
           s = 0
           for v in table.x
               s += v
           return s
sum1 (generic function with 1 method)

julia> function sum2(table)
           function kernel(x)
               s = 0
               for v in x
                   s += v
               return s
           return kernel(table.x)
sum2 (generic function with 1 method)

julia> df = DataFrame(x=1:10^8);

julia> @time sum1(df) # after compilation
  5.810585 seconds (400.00 M allocations: 7.451 GiB, 1.78% gc time)

julia> @time sum2(df) # after compilation
  0.041333 seconds (1 allocation: 16 bytes)

Note that there is no such issue with NamedTuple:

julia> nt = NamedTuple(pairs(eachcol(df)))
(x = [1, 2,  …  99999999, 100000000],)

julia> @time sum1(nt) # after compilation
  0.042012 seconds (1 allocation: 16 bytes)

julia> @time sum2(nt) # after compilation
  0.051452 seconds (1 allocation: 16 bytes)

The winner is NamedTuple. It is easier to have good performance using it.


The downside of NamedTuple being compiled is that it can take a lot of time to compile a function taking it (or even to create it) if number of columns is large. DataFrame does not have such issues.

Here is an example:

julia> @time df = DataFrame(transpose(1:10_000), :auto)
  0.008328 seconds (39.53 k allocations: 2.431 MiB)
1×10000 DataFrame
 Row │ x1     x2     x3     x4     x5     x6     x ⋯
     │ Int64  Int64  Int64  Int64  Int64  Int64  I ⋯
   1 │     1      2      3      4      5      6    ⋯
                                 9994 columns omitted

julia> @time nt = NamedTuple(pairs(eachcol(df)));
  4.660914 seconds (604.77 k allocations: 27.920 MiB, 0.20% gc time, 99.15% compilation time)

As you can see there was a significant compilation overhead of creation of nt.

For wide tables DataFrame is a clearly preferred option.


DataFrame uses a nicely formatted PrettyTables.jl display. NamedTuple is not that readable. Try displying the nt object I have created in the last section. You will get several pages of hard-to-read output.

DataFrame has clearly superior default display mechanism.


NamedTuple is a generic data type, while DataFrame was designed for working with tabular data specifically. Therefore DataFrame provides numerous convenience functionalities that NamedTuple lacks. Let me give two examples:

  • You can select a column of a DataFrame using a string or a Symbol as its name; with NamedTuple you have to use Symbol; allowing for strings has two big advantages: first it is slightly easier to generate column names as strings programmatically, second - it is easier to type column names containing special characters, like e.g. whitespace, for instance "some column name" is inconvenient to work with using NamedTuple.
  • You have convenient column selectors like Cols or regular expressions which work with DataFrame and are not supported by NamedTuple.

If you need convenience DataFrame should be your preference.


Last, but not least DataFrame comes with dozens of convenience functions provided by DataFrames.jl package. These include split-apply-combine, joining, sorting, subsetting, broadcasting etc. of DataFrame objects. None of this is available for NamedTuple out of the box. Indeed there are extra packages that work nicely with NamedTuple, but this means that you need to install and load them separately (and usually you will need several to get your job done).

Additionally there is a host of convenience packages (like DataFramesMeta.jl or Tidier.jl) that make it easier to work with DataFrame objects.

When it comes to functionality DataFrame is a winner.


DataFrame supports storing table level and column level metadata (attributes in R or labels in Stata are a similar concept). NamedTuple does not provide such a functionality.

Therefore, if you want to annotate your data DataFrame is preferable.

Concluding remarks

Let us summarize our findings:

  • NamedTuple wins in: dependency level, performance
  • DataFrame wins in: conformance with Tables.jl, data safety, flexibility, compilation, display, convenience, functionality, metadata

Given these considerations I would say that most of the time DataFrame is a safe default choice for tabular data storage format. This is especially true for interactive workflows.

However, there are cases, when you will find NamedTuple preferable. In the Julia world usually performance gets a high priority. NamedTuple is preferable here especially if you would have millions of small tables, as in this case the overhead of larger DataFrame object will be noticeable.