24 June 2009
Reviewed by Felix Grant
All Golden software grows from a background in mining expertise, but their multidimensional data visualisation tool Surfer is fully generic. My testbeds for review this time round were a virology study and an investigation into the efficiency of institutional space usage, and it made valuable contributions to both.
Visualisation in Surfer starts from nodes in a 2D grid. Most data sets need to be ‘gridded’ (restated in terms of this underlying grid system) before work begins, so developments in that area seem a good starting point. The process itself is more transparent now with a toolbar giving direct access to common functions (toolbar customisation means that user-tailored alternatives are also available), and the option to directly generate a grid from a database. Grids can also now be built from images loaded directly into the node editor. The limit on grid size (or, therefore, resolution for a given size) has increased dramatically from ten thousand nodes in each (x, y) direction to 32,767 – roughly a tenfold improvement across the base area of a plot.
Improved operational friendliness is apparent across many areas, from basic layout and interface design to refinement of core commands. The interface is still page-based, but its handling and presentation have been brought in line with evolution in Windows conventions. Changes of this type are too numerous and detailed to enumerate, but collectively they greatly contribute to ease and productivity. Personal favourites include tapped panes, an auto hide option on the object manager palette (it collapses to a slim but still visible button at the edge of the frame, not the screen, so doesn’t interfere with any other auto-hidden artefacts on the same side), customisable keyboard shortcuts map, and intuitive navigational use of a mouse wheel where available. Information feedback has been fine tuned, too, with constant (x, y, z) cursor tracking in the status bar, cross tracking between maps and worksheets, and a single properties dialogue for frame, limits, scale, view (with limits and scale automatically preserved as new layers are added into the frame).
Reuse of base maps and other aspects is smoother, data can be filtered on import and added directly into blank base maps if required. Projections can be assigned within the worksheet, point data labels interactively edited. Import and export are expanded in several directions, from direct loading of XLSX files to export of contours.
Control over the construction and properties of a visualisation are extended and gain subtlety, with qualities such as opacity across a range of components, custom colours (from a colour wheel or by RGB specification, with a good stock of starter palettes), label formatting, object grouping (and ungrouping), switching or updating of wireframes, surface management, smoothing and splining, reshaping and transforms, all instantly and intuitively accessible.
The changes are all well managed and unobtrusive. If you already know Surfer in its previous version, there will be no shocks or significant re-learning discontinuities. If you don’t already know it, learning it will be quicker and less conscious.
It’s nearly seven years since I last reviewed Surfer, from Golden Software. Not from neglect, but because this is the first full digit version upgrade (from 8 to 9) which Golden have released in that time. Even seven years in, however, Surfer 8 was a finely tuned tool for its purpose; upgrade to 9 makes it even more so.