(Cross-posted at We Hate Math)
As a programming and math nerd, I’ve certainly made good use of Wolfram Alpha. After all, it’s free*, it’s ubiquitous (all you need is a Web browser but there are also apps for both Android and IOS) and it’s natural language interface is very powerful and easy to use. It’s certainly a cost-effective alternative to commercial math packages like Matlab ($50 – $2,150) or even Wolfram’s own Mathematica. ($139 – $2,495)
However, much as I love the folks at Wolfram, it’s nice to have your own math software that:
- doesn’t require an Internet connection
- runs on computers you control
- still gives you a lot of power and flexibility
It’s even better if the software is:
- Free (for either sense of the word)
- Easy to install
- Runs on Windows, Linux and Mac OS X
It turns out that there are several software packages that fit the bill, each with their own strengths and weaknesses but all absolutely free and cross-platform. With that in mind, I’m going to be reviewing each of them from the perspective of a teacher and casual programmer. To keep things consistent, I’ll be looking at the following categories:
System Requirements – Because there’s no point downloading the software unless you can actually run it.
Installation – How easy is it to find and install the software? How big of a download is it and how much disk space and RAM does it need? How does installation compare between platforms? I’ll be installing the software on Windows 7, Debian Linux and Mac OS X Mavericks and comparing the experience.
Documentation – Does the developer offer good documentation and/or tutorials? (By ‘good’, I mean documentation you are actually expected to read**.) Is information available from third parties?
Compatibility – Like it or not, MatLab and Mathematica are the big dogs in the math software field. How easily could a MatLab or Mathematica user transition to this package? How easy is it to port code? The easiest way to test this is to see if scripts designed for MatLab or Mathematica will run with minimal or no modification.
Command Line vs. GUI – Some of these packages allow you to run them from the command line as well as in a graphical interface. This is very useful as it allows you to integrate the software with your native scripting language for easy automation. How do the two compare? Do both offer the same functionality? Does the software operate in the same way on different operating systems?
Summary – Pros, Cons and whether I’d recommend this to my students.
As I’ve said, I’m looking at this from the perspective of a math teacher. Are there other aspects of the software you’d like me to examine?
*for a certain definition of ‘free’
**I’ve noticed that a lot of open source software documentation seems to assume that the target audience are those who don’t need to read it. Yes, poor documentation makes me cranky.