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Tuesday, April 13, 2010
iPhonetunes review: Wolfram Alpha
iPhonetunes review: Wolfram Alpha

“There was a war. A few years from now. Nuclear war. The whole thing. All this … everything ... is gone. Just gone. There were survivors.
Here. There. Nobody knew who started it. It was the Machines… Defense network computer.  New. Powerful. Hooked into everything.
Trusted to run it all. They say It got smart… a new order of intelligence. Then It saw all people as a threat, not just the ones on the other side.
Decided our fate in a microsecond…  extermination.”

– Kyle Reese, Terminator movie

iPhone apps | Wolfram

When it first debuted, the Interwebz were filled with comparisons to Skynet and after seeing it in action, I’m not entirely sure they were unfounded. Billed as a Computational Knowledge Engine, Wolfram Alpha stands as one of the most unique endeavors on the Internet. In a nutshell, visitors are presented with a single field into which they can enter free-form natural language queries. Wolfram Alpha will crunch the numbers and spit out results faster than expected. What counts as a free-form query? I’ll give you my personal favorite: “big mac, large fries, medium coke.” Just enter that and Wolfram Alpha assumes you want to know the nutritional info on your value meal, and so it gathers the data and presents it to you in a recognizable format. 

But, just as easily, you could have entered an integral from your calculus homework. You could ask about astronomy. The example page gives the example query “alpha Centauri A, beta Centauri, gamma Centauri”. This one will provide you with every piece of data needed to compare these three bodies in detail. Frankly, I’m wasting my time trying to tell you everything you could do with this amazing tool. Go to their site and poke around. This review isn’t about Wolfram Alpha, after all, it’s about the iPhone app…

Released last year, it entered the AppStore under a small amount of controversy. Debuting at $50, it was one of the most expensive apps in the AppStore. Worse, there was apparently no difference between what the app could do and what you could get by simply going to the Wolfram Alpha mobile site. That is, until the mobile site was pulled and replaced with an ad for the expensive app in December. As expected, this generated a lot of negative chatter in the blogosphere. Wolfram Alpha has since reversed everything by reinstating the mobile-optimized site, slashing the price of the app to $2 AND offering refunds to anyone who asks. 

I’d been wanting to review this app for some time, and when we got a code from Wolfram Alpha, I jumped at the opportunity. I just couldn’t see shelling out $50 for an app that wasn’t even getting great reviews. Now that I have it, though, what’s the verdict? In a nutshell, well worth the $2. Don’t get me wrong, the technology and service provided by Wolfram Alpha is well deserving of the kudos heaped on it since its inception. The iPhone app, however, is simply a conduit into that technology (I like their advertising: “it’s the supercomputer in your pocket”). I think the best way to see the benefit is to compare the app to the mobile website. After all, if you can access the site via Safari, is there really a reason to pay for the app? (Aside from the geek cred that so totally comes with having it on your Springboard. Add to the Dock for extra credit.) Let’s take a look…

iPhone apps | WolframiPhone apps | Wolfram

The first pair screenshots (below), should show the first benefit of the app: the advanced keyboard. Of immediate benefit are those taking calculus. Having an integral symbol rather than having to type “integrate” is a time saver, especially on those nights your prof inundates you with homework. In trying to type in the example I used for both, it took about twice as long to do on the mobile site because I had to keep switching between keyboards (the caret is on the “second” symbol keyboard on the iPhone, for example). At first blush, it may seem a trivial benefit, but in the long run, it’s huge.

iPhone apps | WolframiPhone apps | Wolfram

Next, we have the examples section. Team Wolfram does not leave you to your own devices when trying to figure out how to use this beast. They provide ample examples for a myriad of subjects in which you can try to push the limits. Both the mobile site and the iPhone app will show you the same examples, grouped by the same categories. In both, you can click the example shown and it will calculate your result.

iPhone apps | WolframiPhone apps | Wolfram

One huge plus in the favor of the iPhone app, though, is at the bottom of its example screen: a History section. Once you’ve got a formula entered as you like it, you can save it for future use by saving it as a favorite. Now, granted, if you’re using the mobile site, you can actually bookmark your results and return to them, and Safari does have a history if you need to go back to it. But, how often do you browse other sites? How likely is it that result’s going to be in your browser history a week from now? A month? Wolfram Alpha has a long memory…

The final comparison is only of benefit to math geeks, who, frankly, already purchased the app and are just reading this one as a positive affirmation of their choice. However, if you’ve just walked out of a cave: the iPhone app allows you to export your results and/or formulas in other formats. Most specifically in the language of Mathematica so you can use the results on your desktop. The mobile site returns results as graphics, so you can only save them to your camera roll.

iPhone apps | WolframiPhone apps | Wolfram

Overall, when compared to the mobile site, it’s my opinion that the app is definitely worth $2. I have no idea what they were thinking when they initially priced it at $50, but they’ve gotten over that sickness. Time to forgive and forget, and give it a shot!

Features - 4.0
Appearance - 3.0
Usability - 4.5
Value - 4.0
Overall: 3.9 stars out of 5



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