Page Two

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2003-07-14 Email Print this article Print

Version 5.0 does not improve the performance of every function in every situation. eWEEK Labs tests found some benchmark speeds actually lower than before, albeit on hardware thats probably less memory-endowed than what would be purchased by someone who plans to push Mathematica to its limits. It would have been a mistake for Wolfram to optimize Version 5.0 for systems in the middleweight class of those on which we did our review, but users with comparable hardware should keep their performance expectations under control.

For users who prefer to compare performance or verify compatibility between Mathematica versions on a case-by-case basis, we were pleased to note that installation of Version 5.0 left our Version 4.2 setup intact. We had no difficulty in bringing up either one as desired, although font libraries and some utility files were replaced with more current versions during the process. Mathematica also warned us of potential compatibility problems with notebook files.

Our customized files, such as preference settings, were automatically incorporated from the 4.2 installation, although users of Mathematica 4.1 and earlier will need to copy those files manually into corresponding directories to use them with 5.0.

Medical professionals and educators will take note of Version 5.0s support for the DICOM (Digital Imaging and Communications in Medicine) image format, while many Web-oriented tasks will benefit from a new PNG image format capability. Many enterprise problems will find more rapid solutions thanks to Version 5.0s more generalized tools for finding minimum and maximum values of complex expressions.

For profit-sector professionals, however, Mathematica is no impulse purchase. Its $1,880 price is at least unchanged from the previous version, 4.2, which eWEEK Labs reviewed last year (see The academic price is only $895, and enrolled students can purchase the full-function product for individual use for less than $140.

Neither is it an impulse decision to master the product beyond its most obvious capabilities. The products distinctive document-centered interface, with its hierarchy of nested cells containing commands, formatted text, elaborate data plots, and both static and animated visualizations, provides unsurpassed power for building systems that build upon themselves. Every element of a Mathematica "notebook" is an expression that can serve as input to other commands or can be formatted as presentation output.

The top-to-bottom consistency that enables such flexibility comes at the cost, however, of a modest learning hump. For example, new users must get comfortable with Mathematicas use of distinctive grouping symbols, such as brackets and braces, in roles where other mathematical software tools are often content with multiple levels of parentheses. Like other powerful programming languages, Mathematica is somewhat more difficult to write—the worthwhile price of being less ambiguous to read.

With the greatly expanded power of Version 5.0, Mathematica users may find themselves spending more time in the environment—giving them more opportunity to develop their facility with its conventions and to use it even more effectively than before.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at

Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developersÔÇÖ technical requirements on the companyÔÇÖs evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter companyÔÇÖs first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.

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