12 April 2010
Reviewed by Felix Grant
The extension of proper data analysis and visualisation to the generic desktop, putting it on the same omnipresent footing as standard office applications like word processor, email and spreadsheet, is a holy grail. With service release 2, Origin and OriginPro 8.1 are probably the current holders for most accessible and user friendly tool on the market. The approachability agenda has been obvious in Origin's development curve for some time, became especially clear with version 8, and sharpened up further with release 8.1, but it is the inclusion of 'gadgets' in this latest service release that pulls everything together in a decisive leap forward.
The two products are differentiated by absence or availability of particular tool sets, but otherwise have much in common. I'll treat them together here, referring to both as 'Origin' and simply noting when a feature is available only in the 'Pro' version.
Automation, personalisation and reuse are central to Origin workflow. Analyses (as simple as a single plot, or as complex as a multipage report exploring every aspect of a data set) that have once been set up can be saved as templates, with the data stripped out and ready for repopulation. Batch processing allows the same analyses to be applied across multiple data sets (which can be selected on the fly by familiar point, click and drag gestures). Browser style shortcuts to particular Origin components can be saved in any convenient Origin Project Explorer folder, including the new favourites folder for quickly accumulating collection of links in one place. I've hawked my review copy around a range of guineapig groups, from statistically experienced postgraduates to primary school classrooms, and using the favourites folder as a scratchpad for assembly of materials during exploration has been a recurring theme in all of them. Menus are soft, reconfigurable to reflect the user's working priorities.
Gadgets sit on top of this workflow. There are five of them so far (curve integration, FFT, rise time, descriptive statistics and quick fitting), with more presumably to follow in subsequent service releases or upgrades. Each of them is applied to a currently active graph, and allows a region of interest (RoI) to be drawn using click and drag across the displayed data points. Once the RoI has be drawn, it can be moved and resized using handles and results instantly reflect the changes.
In a particularly impressive live trial, a history student with no previous data analysis software experience explored a physical sciences data set with a well accepted third order polynomial model. By using the quick fit gadget RoI as a trial and improvement tool he found that a better fit was obtained by using six separate straight lines. Working backwards from that discovery, using the RoI again with the descriptive gadget as an intermediate stepping stone, he uncovered important new information from primary documents whose significance had previously been overlooked.
Origin has always had a document oriented structure, enabling near DTP reporting, but also now offers an inboard slide show presentation option. For purely data analytic and visualisation purposes this trespasses heavily on the territory occupied by generic presentation software, but there is also a very useful provision for exporting output to Microsoft PowerPoint for use within a conventional office environment.
After all this usability enthusiasm, what of the core function front? There are extensions to the graph types supported, to the ease with which multiple axes are used, and user controlled interfacing with LabTalk. Data reduction and rearrangement tools are provided (to a useful extent in Origin, considerably more so in OriginPro) as are (in OriginPro only) filtered signal decimation, batch analysis of peaks using Origin 'themes', signal envelopes and rise/fall time analyses. Another interesting and unusual option (again in OriginPro only) is the area of surfaces fitted to three dimensional XYZ data.
Team project administration gains a detailed audit log and passworded access which, though not likely to excite the individual user, is a big gain for team working in any serious institutional or corporate environment.