MATHEMATICS, SIMULATION AND MODELLING
1 May 2007
Reviewed by Felix Grant
I know of no other mathematical software that more closely approaches the feel of working on a blackboard, or the back of an envelope, than Mathcad. Maths for a wide range of applied purposes can be ‘scribbled’ down, played with, manipulated, until the desired results are reached, tidied up, arranged with documentation of process written into the flow, then expanded with text as required. Looked at another way, with its free-form placement of mathematics and text zones it also feels uniquely like a word processor. Focussing on applied use, particularly as a dispersed tool in organisations and with an emphasis on engineering, intuitive communication and collaboration are its unique strengths.
Having missed out on a couple of upgrade cycles, not to mention a transfer of ownership (to Parametric Technology Corporation, PTC, just over a year ago) I was interested to see what had happened to it. What I found was an application quietly, but very effectively, redesigned to strip away nonessentials, refine the interface and emphasise those core qualities.
Starting on the inside and working outwards, the solvers and symbolic capability have both seen extension. Significant work on the solvers focuses on ordinary differential equations (ODE) handling with a state space addition backed up by improvements to capacity, behaviour, and usability. Symbolic development supports the same thrust with vector analysis refinements, Jacobian matrices and a gradient operator being among the range of new additions and progressions. This all works well, and with the smoothness visible throughout the package as a whole. On the output front, there are incremental plotting additions.
Documentation and transparency, always a central Mathcad concern, have been further developed. Search and replace are extended to hidden regions (optionally – like text and math regions, the search may be switched on or off), and denotative documentation within math regions gains keyword-controlled explicit results checking of symbolics. Colour-coded pairwise document comparison has arrived, well designed and implemented, with each region (whether differing or not) popping out in both windows as the mouse passes over it and highlight focus stepping through from difference to difference. Language handling (I mean natural, not mathematical or programming, language) gains Unicode throughout and benefits from PTC’s standard nine localisation options.
For existing users of release 12 or 13 the move to XML file format, with all the usual advantages, will not be news, but it’s worth mentioning for those (like me) whose experience is of older versions. So is the ease and quality of saves to HTML or RTF. The RTF files produced are designed specifically for Microsoft Word, where they perfectly reproduce the work done; the flip side of this is that if you use a different word processor, the results are less predictable (in WordPerfect I can’t read them at all), but this probably reflects the best balance of reality for most users.
I have some minor interface criticisms - not earth shattering, but attention to them would ice the cake. One is the fact that widely accepted Windows formatting keystrokes like Ctrl+I (for italic) and Ctrl+B (bold) don’t work; you have to click the toolbar buttons instead. In an environment so successfully emulating a word processor, this breaks the otherwise smooth workflow. I’d also like to see middle mouse click scroll mode supported - the scroll wheel works just fine, but pressing and dragging doesn’t.
Despite those criticisms, this is a definite step up: a cleaner, better, more capable version of good maths processing environment which strikes a unique balance between the requirements of computer algebra and rich semantic content for applied working environments.