Review: Mathematica 8

About every year Wolfram Research releases a new version of its data processing and mathematical environment, Mathematica. And never are these upgrades skimpy, but this year, Wolfram has outdone itself. Mathematica 8 has reached a new height in ease-of-use, power and integration with the vast data source that lies hidden in Wolfram Alpha (Wolfram’s own data search engine). Users can now enter commands in plain English, and the capabilities of Mathematica now extend further into the statistical, financial and image processing world than ever.

The most significant and spectacular new feature in Mathematica 8 is free-form linguistic input, which allows you to enter plain English commands. Mathematica apparently then connects to Wolfram Alpha letting the search engine perform the ‘translation’ and comes back to you with results. If there are multiple results possible, you’ll be presented with the ability to immediately tap into those inside the Notebook as well.

Mathematica 8 also includes a new Cell Insertion Assistant as well as full typesetting and graphical input support in the Find and Replace Dialog. In my testing, these features worked like a charm, and that’s an understatement…

Mathematica 8 now offers the largest — according to Wolfram — collection of probability distributions, as well as full support for several dozens of properties, including distribution functions, moments, quantiles, and generating functions. Combined with this new statistical functionality, there also is a vast increase in the number of statistical visualisations you can now tap into.

This is also true of financial computation and analysis, and the charts that one usually can draw as a result thereof. The financial data can be set to stream into a Notebook through Wolfram Alpha, after which you can create interactive financial charts. Although my skills don’t go as far as that, I very much appreciated the many examples on the Wolfram site showing me how to create these charts and what to expect from them. In my opinion, after having played a bit with the financial capabilities of Mathematica 8, you can even use the software to analyse your amateur portfolio yourself — including a huge range of technical indicators.

Some of Mathematica 8's statistical distribution plots

Wolfram says Mathematica 8 also introduces fundamentally new ideas in distributional modeling. The first is that of a nonparametric distribution that automates and generalizes a whole range of nonparametric methods used for computing specific distribution properties. The second is that of a derived distribution that is created from any existing distribution through common operations such as functional transformation, truncation, or mixing, etc. The third is that of a distribution defined by a formula such as a PDF, CDF, or survival function. The different types of distributions work together seamlessly, but as these go over my head I couldn’t find out for myself.

However, I could try out the next group of improved and new functionality: the extensive support for new data formats in areas such as graph modeling and computing, geographic information systems, bioinformatics, 3D modeling, web services, code generation, and multimedia creation. It’s all at least partly due to the tight integration with Wolfram Alpha, but in some areas this really means you get access to a vast ocean of data, examples, analysis material and whatever else makes you tick. The new Help system also offers seamless access to Wolfram’s online knowledge, which makes Mathematica 8 probably the easiest software to learn of its kind.

Mathematica 8 also introduces new import and export capabilities, including QuickTime and Excel modules, and furthermore introduces a plug-in architecture that allows users to seamlessly integrate their own file format converters with Mathematica’s Import and Export functions. If I understood correctly, plug-ins can be created within Mathematica itself. In terms of programming, the software also gains: there’s now automatic C-code generation, CUDA and OpenGL support.

With the previous version you could do impressive things with images, and version 8 builds further on those capabilities. Image processing now also includes the ability to analyse and process medical images, and even wavelet analysis. Graphics are better too, with the ability to have texture mapping and even more capabilities with respect to different ways of visualising data.

After having tried out the features that I thought to appeal to the largest market, I believe Mathematica 8 is the first of a new generation of mathematical/programming environments that offer more intuitive and less complicated interaction with an increasingly powerful set of capabilities. Mathematica already was the Swiss knife of computation-enabling applications and it has just become an even more all-round computational tool. It will therefore undoubtedly appeal to a huge market that includes people who never before would have used it, such as financial analysts, risk calculators, etc.

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