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Maple 6.0

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Maple has been mainly aimed at education -- the Web site, for example, shows how to use Maple to solve all the math problems in Good Will Hunting . The latest upgrade, however, includes features that expand Maple's power in professional areas. While it isn't as expansive as its longtime rival Mathematica 4.1, the improved linear algebra engine and integration with Microsoft Excel make Maple an impressive yet approachable mathematics application.

Most laboratory data-acquisition equipment is designed to save data into Excel tables. Excel has very limited computational functions, especially when it comes to large data sets -- Excel is really a business application. But, Maple's Excel interface (packaged as a standard Excel Add-in) makes it easy to import equation-solving code from Maple to handle problems that would choke Excel's Solver. Maple also supplements Excel's limited charting tools by enabling you to import data into Maple for plotting.

Accuracy within the Lines

In the area of linear algebra, Maple has scrapped its old routines and replaced them with new code licensed from the Numerical Algorithms Group (NAG). Linear algebra matrix calculations, which are the center of many industrial applications, are characteristically huge and very sensitive to the details of round-off handling. With the NAG routines, and lots of helpful documentation, Maple's linear algebra abilities now rival those of Mathematica 4.1. Maple has become a good choice for a variety of activities, from aircraft design to chemical engineering.

Choosing between Maple 6.0 and Mathematica 4.1 is fairly tough. Mathematica has a bigger installed base; Linux PPC and OS X versions; MathML support; and a large range of individually priced add-on packages -- from finance to electrical engineering to wavelets. Maple on the other hand has an easier-to-master interface (an important consideration if you don't use math software every day), a growing library of free, downloadable packages, and documentation that starts at a simpler level. Maple also fits in about one-third the drive space of Mathematica, and it works well with older Mac hardware.

Block Party: Maple's new graphics include element-by-element- 3-D matrix plots, which are potentially useful for data imported with its new
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