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Wolfram Research's Mathematica (4.5 mice) is an undeniably powerful program for performing numeric and symbolic calculations. But its interface--which presents you with only a blank page and some symbol palettes--can leave new users wondering how to proceed. Wolfram's newest product, CalculationCenter, is an attempt to make the power of Mathematica accessible to new users with just a few minutes' practice. It's the first math program you can use without a manual, and it's the best introduction yet to symbolic math computation.
Show and Tell
At the heart of CalculationCenter is an interactive help feature called Instant Calculators. Nearly every item in the simplified main menu of calculation modes--Basic Math, Algebra, Calculus, Lists & Matrices, Graphing, Solvers, and Defining Functions--calls up an Instant Calculators wizard that offers an example of the calculation, accepts and formats input for a problem, and executes the calculation. The Instant Calculators cover such a wide range of problems, you may find that your day-to-day use of CalculationCenter amounts to simply invoking a few of the Instant Calculators wizards to solve problems quickly.
Because the program records the results of calculations in a standard Mathematica notebook, it's easy to run an Instant Calculators example and then modify it in the notebook to solve your particular problem. The Instant Calculators system also greatly simplifies plotting, carefully walking you through details of 3-D parametric plots and offering, for simpler cases, a SmartPlot option that handles the details for you.
Although CalculationCenter is an introductory product, it's still based on Mathematica, so all functions work in symbolic as well as numeric calculations. The overall scope of the functions is good, if somewhat uneven--for example, Lists & Matrices has a choice for eigenvalues but none of the advanced matrix-decomposition types found in Mathematica.
CalculationCenter reads standard Mathematica notebooks such as those available from Wolfram's MathSource, the giant online repository of usercontributed notebooks. The program doesn't accept notebooks that call on functions from Mathematica's Standard Packages, but most of the MathSource packages we tested ran flawlessly in CalculationCenter. Using MathSource notebooks lets you add a variety of functions--such as statistics, business, and engineering--that CalculationCenter lacks.
One area that needs a bit more work is error handling. For example, if you accidentally enter Sin[x}, you'll be treated to half a page of incomprehensible messages that fail to point out the actual typo. Mathematica veterans will be unfazed by such messages, but a product for beginners should do a better job of handling errors.
Macworld's Buying Advice
CalculationCenter gives new users most of the power of Mathematica without requiring a Ph.D. in math. Thanks to the innovative Instant Calculators feature, you can start working right away without consulting a manual. For a wide range of technical professionals, and for most college course work, this is the computational program to buy.Three Easy Steps: CalculationCenter has an Instant Calculators wizard for nearly every function. Click on a button to see an example, format an entry, or run a calculation.