MathCAD 13: Approachable expert.
Mar 10, 2006 (Updated Mar 15, 2006)
Review by theuerkorn
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:Layout capability, ease of use, correct math annotation, powerful kernel, clean interface, extensions, XML
Cons:Antiquated interface appearance, can be pricey, symbolic evaluation behind market leader
The Bottom Line: A solid math program that pleases mostly those that have to publish their results.
When I heard MathCAD for the first time (some 13 years ago), the CAD stuck more with me than the Math (as a mechanical engineer). Hence the confusion when realizing that MathCAD is not math-ladden version of AutoCAD, but a very approachable math software with (relatively speaking) outstanding layout functions. So the positive surprise turned into an everlasting companionship where I rely on MathCAD to fill in for my limited math skills. Now we're several versions later and a few things changed while one thing remained the same: MathCAD is still exceptionally easy to use.
Recommend this product?
MATHCAD + 13 = LUCKY NUMBER?
To be honest, most recent changes may not affect a large number of users that -- like me -- need MathCAD to solve relatively "simple" problems that otherwise would require a dusting of college math (hidden somewhere deep in the dark part of the memory maze). Afterall, it allows to download a worksheet (or create it once) and reuse it with varying parameters without every understanding the needed math. (Of course it would be beneficial to know what might go wrong.)
Anyway, MathCAD's interface and the correct annotation along with the relatively free placement of all elements like formula, comments, pictures and graphs make this program one of the easiest to approach math monster in the market place. As long as critical elements are in order for the calculation path (top to bottom, left to right), the user is free to place any of those elements freely. This is even more flexible than a line oriented word processor (i.e. Microsoft Word) since any element is placed freely by an anchor (where ever you click with your cursor) -- much like a graphics or DTP program.
Beyond the layout, MathCAD provides strong unit support, good graphing and good symbolic solving. The devil is in the details, and in many cases it's up to the user to simplify results to a reasonable level or at least find the right strategy to instruct MathCAD to do so, as especially symbolic solutions tend to be a little lengthy. Nevertheless, interactive debugging works just like Word's spell checker and highlights problems with syntax or definition of variables. It's still up to the user to verify whether the formula fits the application and the result makes sense.
Pricing is a touchy subject with MathCAD. For home users it's expensive and for business or faculty the most cost-effective solutions. Students get exceptional value out of the specific version. However, upgrading is an art in itself. Depending on the life cycle of each MathCAD iteration the price for an upgrade varies significantly. From $365 for the regular update, MathCAD 13 Premium can now be had for $299 (which included all extensions -- a $2500 value). Following this kind of "blow out" is typically the release of the next version. (Look out for v14.)
At this point I am not going into mathematical analysis of the kernel and its power or limitations. The simple truth of the matter is that MathCAD exceeds my math skills by far and is here to help. So I am looking at aspects that support the math kernel.
Installation / Documentation: [****-] Installation is easy and offers no hurdles. The program is relatively small and extensions are typically handbooks which are copied to the respective folder inside MathCAD. Since version 11, the product must be activated via the Internet to be usable after a trial period on top of typing in the serial number upon installation. The included manual covers the basics only and MathSoft relies on the electronic documentation in form of a help file and tutorials. In today's age that's very common and saves cost. An actual book, however, is sometimes easier to work with.
Interface: [****-] The user interface is one of those things that virtually remained unchanged for a decade. New users might feel that the buttons and icons feel a bit like Windows 3.1 and it would not be too far off. Subtile changes were introduced over time, but overall MathCAD 3 (my first version) and MathCAD 13 look largely the same from what I remember. That's good for seasoned users, but may raise some eyebrows with more recent users regarding how old the software is. Looks, however, can be deceiving and the simplicity with which pages of math essays can be created and remain fully editable is one of the strongest points of MathCAD. Overall, I wish MathCAD could adopt a docker philosophy as seen in CorelDraw or DreamWeaver.
Math Expert: [*****] MathCAD is an expert system and not a math tutor. It will not help much to learn math like calculus and algebra. (Educational software like MathSuccess and StudyWorks are better suited for the learning process, but unfortunately there is not much available to learn higher math on a graduate school level.) MathCad 13 provides more than 80 core math functions, 10 discrete fransform function, 110 statistics and probability function, 18 differential equation solvers and more features like 18 built-in units and user-defined functions. Needless to say that despite my MSc-ME degree, this is more than I need in my job -- most of the time. (Not to mention the time needed to keep those math skills functional.)
Functionality: [****-] Numerics as well as symbolic calculation are supported on a very hing level (beyond grad school) unless you're an advanced math major and then freely programmable systems like Mathematica may be more up your alley. In my application, the underlying math has never been an issue, unless we're talking symbolic evaluation where my own inability to simplify complex expressions were not helped by MathCAD either -- sometimes. Graphing is good but very business-like, or in other words "boring". In professional groups that's the proper form of communication, but a little limited should you prepare something for marketing or to be published. In that case one might take the graph and manually update design in any of the existing graphics specialists (CorelDraw, Illustrator etc.)
Extras: [***--] I chose the premium edition and all extensions are included. A total of 8 handbooks with varying themes like mechanical and civil engineering or data analysis make for a great resource if your problem is covered. The statistics graphic software (Axum 7) from previous Premium editions is not included anymore. Stagnant development might be the culprit there (Statistica is now virtually the only choice.), but MathCAD's improved graphing still doesn't make up for the loss in functionality. SmartSketch is a third-party product that also is not included anymore and now officially will not be supported beyond v13 anymore either. In my case, I never used it anyway since there wasn't much offered beyond the parametric design.
Extensions: [*****] MathSoft offers a total of 8 CDs with numerous extensions for MathCAD. Those are relatively pricey should you not get the Premium version of MathCAD 13 which has all the extensions included. Bought separately they could sum up to more than $2500. Extensions often are "nothing more" than handbooks and collections of formulas with examples. Simply copy the to your worksheet and you're ready to go if you find what you need. For me the most useful extension is the Mechanical Engineering with excerpts from Roarks and Mark -- standard engineering text books. Depending on your application, other extensions might be more useful. In any case, buying extension separately may set you back $300 on average (each) which makes the premium edition an excellent deal.
Layout / Printing: [****-] This was the single biggest reason for me to give MathCAD 3 a try, in times when the expert math programs like Maple and Mathematica offered no layout whatsoever and one virtually had to write a program to access the huge math library and solve problems. That often did not help to prepare papers for college and another formula editor (i.e. Word extension) was needed to actually write the report. MathCAD allows to set formulas in their correct annotation and even include graphs and text regions and other graphics just like a graphics program like CorelDraw. Formula editing aside, the major difference in MathCAD's favor is that it's life and the underlying math kernel processes the information with every change and keeps the sheet updated. MathCAD's screen display is close to the printed output and therefor easy set professional looking documents. The only elements that need to be imported (other than data) are illustrations (i.e. to show an apparatus). The support for the previously included SmartSketch has officially come to an end, the generation of such graphics is left to other programs. Check out CorelDesigner for technical illustrations. Alternatives regarding correct math annotation are the formular editor in Word and MathType. The Word module has to be manually installed and MathType is a specialized word processor. However, neither of those goes beyond displaying the formula correctly and keeping them editable.
Compatibility: [****-] MathCAD 13 relies on a XML architecture which is basically an open set of instructions that can be accessed by other applications via a common format (interface definition). This is essential for an enterprise-wide deployment and most significant for MathSoft's own Calculation Management Suite. Engineers might like the interface with SolidWorks and Microsoft Excel or Labview most. (MathSoft supplies a plugin for Excel that accesses MathCAD for more advanced features right in Excel.) MathCAD is also able to communicate directly with MatLab, Ansys and PowerPoint. By virtue of exporting data, the list extends to everything that supports HTML, PDF and RTF. MathCAD is also able to output MS Word files directly. However, unlike Excel (via plugin) that exported worksheet is not live anymore and does not update with changed parameters. (Formulas and graphs are exported as pictures.)
© 2006, theuerkorn
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