12 April 2010
Reviewed by Felix Grant
Since we last reviewed it, two and a half years ago, the world's most widely used graphical equation editor has seen several updates and incremental service releases. From the full digit version 6 at that time, we are now (as I write this) at the recently released 6.6a.
As an already mature product, MathType now develops by subtle enrichment rather than bolting on new headline features, and the first thing a version 6 user would notice on upgrading now is a general and indefinable feeling of everything that used to work well now working even more smoothly. At the same time (and more importantly) there is also recognition of, and proactive response to, changes in the larger computing environment. Design Science has, unlike some providers, demonstrated a consistently clear understanding that mathematical notation is communication, and only one component within a structure that is developing organically on several levels. A simplistic diagram of that structure would depict it as a tension between one dominant content platform, its principle challengers, the complex collectivity of other applications, and continuous evolution of the World Wide Web as a connecting medium. MathType has, so far, very successfully ridden the resulting currents.
Thorough support for MathML and TeX, and a spectrum of inboard converters, mean that it's now fairly easy to transfer material across a very wide range of other applications. From Maple and Mathematica (bringing in symbolic results) on into Adobe PhotoShop (specialised annotation of those results for publication) is a simple matter of drag and drop, as is two-way transfer between MathType and many wiki based resources. If you make use of web 2.0 tools like Google Docs or Wolfram Alpha, there are converters available to shift material back and forth between those and your own desktop tools.
If you can’t immediately achieve the result you want, it's worth spending some time getting your setup right so that everything runs transparently in future. Within MathType itself, options such as the cut and copy preferences (almost 70 variants) may need tweaking. Your system settings and choice of browser may affect things. On my review machine, Google Chrome is exasperatingly recalcitrant and it took me a little while to get the trick of importing PlanetMath content properly, but persistence paid off handsomely.
In a Windows 7 environment, especially for those who work extensively with Microsoft Word, the new enhancements to exploit its facilities are themselves enough reason for making the upgrade. Support for Microsoft's MathML-based Math Input Panel (MIP), including specific mathematical handwriting recognition even on complex two dimensional notation constructs like matrices or limits, is fluid. That last is probably the single facet that most impressed me at a gut level: I expected it to work crudely, but it is actually a leap forward in usability. Suggestions that MIP competes with third-party software are answered here: MathType has turned the tables to use MIP in strengthening its own position.
In the first paragraph I referred an 'equation editor'. I did so because most people still think of it as such: a more powerful form of the built in equation editor which came with their word processor. Like some other special function utilities, however, MathType has evolved into something more strategic; a better description of the product as it now manifests itself would be 'mathematical materials handler'.