Grapher 8

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Golden Software's new version of its big gun product Surfer, reviewed here in June, was followed last month by an upgrade to version 8 of its page-oriented technical graphics sibling Grapher.

Among the core function developments is the very useful extension to ternary plots of digitisation (to status bar or file write, from either Grapher output or an existing bitmap) for generation of XYZ data sets. There is also the spread of continued additions to, and refinement of, graph and plot types, which one would expect in such an upgrade. The upgrade also features development of visualisation controls, including a range of new fill types produced to US Geological Survey specification. There are numerous extensions to the fine tuning of output for both structure and presentation, across most areas from main graph body to legend.

A neat inset magnifier provides a very convenient means of zooming in to examine (and output) sections of a plot in detail. Here again, well designed access is important and usage is a trivial task; after selecting the relevant tool, the mouse is dragged across the area of interest and grab handles used to size the resulting pull-out box. This is just as easy and quick as mouse wheel zooming of the display (it took less than two seconds, for instance, to reveal the enlarged 3D surface detail shown in the screen shot), but different in purpose, providing a contextualised panel directly linked to the still-visible whole. You can add as many such enlargements as you like and, so far as my experiments took me, at any size and level of magnification.

An interface that facilitates productive efficiency is a primary requirement in such software - arguably as important as core function. Grapher's designers are clearly aware of this; version 8 offers a far richer user experience than its predecessor. Operation is intuitively obvious, and default settings generally approximate closely to what a user is likely to expect, making it very quickly productive. The default structure displays visual output previews and associated worksheet tabbed in an upper pane, data manager in a spreadsheet below, and object and property managers to the right of the display. User configuration allows plenty of rearrangement, however, including options to hide or reveal components, or undock them into floating windows. After four weeks' use, exploring my own preferences, I now have a completely different arrangement from the one that came out of the box. Menus and toolbars are also now editable, allowing a customisable environment to evolve as buttons and options are pushed around to suit particular requirements.

A week into the review period, I handed over the machine on which Grapher was installed to a 12 year old working on a school project. After 10 minutes of exploration and familiarisation, and a further 30 minutes work, with no help, he had produced a detailed and usefully informative A3 poster containing multiple graphics. The poster is now in use as part of in house training by a local GP practice. That says more about the product's usability and utility than any amount of technical description.