07 Dec 2012 - Münster (by James)

Unravelling Wolfram|Alpha Pro

Here at fruux, we're officially in love with Wolfram|Alpha. Why? It knows the answer to even the most obscure questions and saves you an awful lot of time hunting around for the answer on forums, Wikipedia articles or endless Google searches. We featured it in our iOS productivity article, stating:

Wolfram|Alpha is pretty much the only utility your phone will need. It can provide answers on almost any category, from really simple ones like "How many ounces are there in a pound?" (there's 16, by the way) to the flashpoint of octane (15.56°C).

But there's even more to this great service, and that's through the Pro account, which costs $49.95 annually ($29.95 for students) or, if you prefer to pay monthly instead, $4.99 ($2.99 for students). With this, you get a whole sleuth of features, which I'm going to look at in a bit more detail below, that can make your Wolfram|Alpha experience a whole lot more enjoyable (and powerful, if that can be imagined). Let's see what's in store.

Inputting images

With Pro, you've got the opportunity to enter images into Wolfram|Alpha and perform a range of tasks on them. These tasks include things such as:

  • Image analysis (for example, characteristics, source information, segmentation analysis, transformations and so on)
  • Filters
  • Feature detection
  • Colour processing (such as increasing and decreasing the image's contrast, transforming into sepia colour and so on)
  • Image effects (for example an oil painting or charcoal effect)

Pro users get 20 image uploads a month and you can choose between a range of sample images provided by Wolfram|Alpha or you can upload your own either by browsing for it on your hard drive or by dragging and dropping it into the box. To bring up the image upload feature, simply fire up Wolfram|Alpha and click on the little camera symbol underneath the main text box.

To see how this feature works, let's upload a sample image and see what it spits out. For this, I've chosen the wonderful picture of Westminster Abbey in London in all its glory – all I needed to do was select it and hit Enter for an automatic image analysis.

Wolfram|Alpha will then present you with a range of results related with the image you've just entered (for the full list for my Westminster Abbey picture, click here). You can also perform adjustments and transformations on your images without having to enter in separate commands.

Inputting data

If you work with a lot of data then Wolfram|Alpha Pro can help you manipulate it a lot easier with just some simple commands. Take the Intel Corporation's share price from September to November 2011. You can upload this data in either numeric or tabular format or you can upload it as a file instead (either in tabular data or spreadsheet format).

Hitting Enter performs an automatic analysis of the data you've just inputted and plots the data in both a timeseries graph and a histogram and also presents you with some more advanced statistics on it, such as (in the case of stocks), a distribution of the returns, the accumulated return, the value at risk, the inflation-adjusted stock price and the compound interest gained (full results here).

Wolfram|Alpha Pro can interpret virtually any kind of data and it doesn't have to be purely numerical, either. Type in a list of cities, for example, and you'll be presented with a map of the world with the cities plotted onto it, along with the distance (useful if you're planning a trip, for example!) and the cumulative distance in between them as well.

File uploading

Along with the ability to input data directly into the Wolfram|Alpha computational engine you can also upload files as well for analysis. Over 60 types of files are supported, including text, image, vector graphics, 3D geometry, audio and scientific formats such as chemicals, mathematics and medicine. Depending on the rule that is uploaded, Wolfram|Alpha will perform a different kind of analysis on it – so, in the case of a WAV file, for instance (or any other sound file) you are presented with a waveform and spectrogram of the file.

For a full list of supported files that you can upload into Wolfram|Alpha Pro (there are simply too many to list here!), then head over here. There's also some good examples highlighting what you can do with the file as well.

Step-by-step solutions

This is probably my favourite feature of Wolfram|Alpha Pro – step-by-step solutions to almost any mathematical problem. As an Economics student, I spend quite a lot of time working out endless equations and a step-by-step solution is extremely useful in finding out how you get an answer, rather than simply being presented with the solution.

Let's look at a example. Say we want to differentiate the equation:

The mathematically-orientated reader will know that this equation requires the chain rule (and Wolfram|Alpha knows that as well!) which, depending on your working, requires several steps. In Wolfram|Alpha, you need to type the following

differentiate y=ln((2x+1)/(√4x+3))

which should (hopefully) bring out the solution

However, if you're unsure how this answer came about, then you can click on the step-by-step solution button then click on Show all Steps, which presents you with the following:

The sum has been broken down into bitesize steps with a clear explanation for each one and with Pro, there's no limit on the number of step-by-step breakdowns you can view either. If you're using Wolfram|Alpha for a lot of mathematical computation, then the Pro version also gives you access to additional computing power, meaning that more advanced sums can be calculated.

Extended keyboard

Just like on the iOS version of Wolfram|Alpha, the Pro version also gives you an extended soft keyboard so you can input special characters (such as mathematical operators, Greek letters and so on) – all you need to do is click on the little keyboard icon underneath the input box.

And there's more…

Wolfram|Alpha Pro includes CDF (Computable Document Format) interactivity which brings you a new dimension to your calculations with interactive controls, parameter manipulation, 3D graphics, enhanced visualisations and more. For this, you'll need to install the CDF Player plugin (which is free) from here – it is supported by most major browsers, including Safari, Firefox, Chrome and Opera.

You'll also get a completely ad-free experience with Pro, along with the ability to download Wolfram|Alpha data directly, as well as advanced customisation of output and, as I mentioned earlier, the extended computation time for longer computations.

We love it!

We thought it was hard to beat the bog-standard version of Wolfram|Alpha however the developers seem to have done just that with the Pro version – and it's fantastic. Hopefully this piece has helped unravel the mysteries surrounding it and for quite a small price per month, you can get some really useful and cracking features for this great little utility.

Trying before you buy is also great, so that's why you can get a 14-day free trial of Wolfram|Alpha Pro before committing to buying. I'd highly recommend it as once you've tried it, it's so easy to get addicted to the sheer power and usefulness of this great utility.

About James

Nothing pleases James more than the smell of the countryside and the atmosphere of his university city of Birmingham. Follow him on Twitter.

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