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Mathematica 7 review

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Price when reviewed : £2340
(£2035 ex VAT)

Major enhancements to Mathematica 7 make the industry standard near-perfect apart from a few minor niggles.

Despite its availability on other platforms, Mathematica is a quintessentially Mac application, and this new release has hundreds of new features that could make it a working environment for an even wider range of Mac users.

Image processing and analysis are now fully integrated within Mathematica, and offer a huge range of powerful functions that should have wide appeal. Adobe needn’t fear that Mathematica will carve away significant chunks of its Photoshop market, but if you need features that are a bit more specialist, or want to integrate image processing with other forms of data visualisation, these are compelling enhancements. For those with the most demanding requirements, support for an arbitrary number of channels at up to 64 bits per channel, and multiple colour models, make Mathematica probably the most powerful and flexible image processing engine to date available on the Mac.

While image processing is so quick as to be near real-time for many purposes, among Mathematica’s thousands of other functions there are many that load processors heavily. As such, anyone looking to get the most out of modern multi-core Macs will be delighted with the new features that support parallel processing. Unfortunately, running maths in parallel is non-trivial in many circumstances, so there are multiple approaches on offer, from ‘speculative parallelisation’ to a complete and mature set of language extensions for the explicit design of parallel algorithms.

These new powers of parallel processing finally mean that Macs with multiple cores can take advantage of all the processing power available when using Mathematica. However, the standard commercial licence is restricted to a maximum of four cores. Given that high-end Macs already have twice this number, this seems strangely stingy. In practice, however, it shouldn’t prove so much of a limitation, as it does leave four cores for non-Mathematica processes, but if you want to perform heavyweight work on an eight-core Mac Pro, you could end up buying a second licence, there being no scheme apparently for adding extra cores on the same computer (an issue that Wolfram needs to address).

Many other areas have undergone significant enhancement in version 7. Visualisation and graphics now have built-in spline drawing, more automated charting, additional graphics primitives, and better visualisation for vector fields and streamlines. Statistical analyses are more integrated, there’s programmatic access to email that allows you to package up your notebook and send it to a colleague, and secure web and Internet connections are now properly supported. Those who don’t yet spend their entire day ensconced in their Mathematica notebooks will appreciate Assistant palettes, which make it very much easier to access many everyday features such as maths typesetting and quick calculations.

Access to Wolfram Research’s online data collections, introduced in version 6, has come on leaps and bounds, and should extend Mathematica’s appeal both within the scientific community and far beyond. New additions include genomic sequences, genes, proteins, dynamic astronomical calculations, current and historical weather, and accessible chemical data have been increased. Those who construct information graphics containing demographic, climatic and other data should give serious consideration to this new version, as it could save them research time and effort.

Perhaps the most major obstacle to Mathematica’s use outside academia, and where it isn’t a core business requirement, has been its prodigious cost. Recently Wolfram Research has gone a long way to addressing this in its new licensing scheme for a Home Edition, which costs only $295 (about £204). This is rather more than the bargain Student Edition, but a tenth of the full commercial price. Bizarrely, this only applies to the US and Canada at present, so isn’t yet available in the UK or the rest of Europe. However, when Wolfram wakes up to the fact that we, too, deserve such favourable treatment, the Home Edition should be a no-brainer for potential non commercial Mathematica users. Mathematica 7 is now close to being capable of almost anything, from tweaking your digital photos to generating demographic charts for publication. This market appeal ranges from astronomers to zoologists, and it now has much to offer the devout non-scientist. It deserves to sell strongly, both in its full commercial edition, and even more in the new Home Edition once that’s available here.

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