At a Glance
- A fantastic device once you figure out a few uses for it
- some great examples to get you started
- dual-keyboard layout enables quick entry of text and numbers
- It’s all available for free on the WolframAlpha website
- price is much higher than most other iPhone apps
We can’t deny that WolframAlpha is an impressive service, but there’s something of a disparity between offering a free web service and charging £30 for an iPhone app. Especially when you can simply access the online site from your iPhone for free. Having said that the application is well built and there’s no denying the usefulness of the information. There are people who swear by WolframAlpha and use it on a daily basis for all kinds of computations. We suggest you become familiar with the online service first, and if you find it becomes indispensable then invest in the iPhone app.
WolframAlpha has changed the way we think of search engines, proving that you don’t have to be like
Google to succeed. You just have to think different – which should go down well with the Mac crowd.
WolframAlpha is something of an oddity (in a good way). Ostensibly the service is a search engine, like Google or
Bing, however it works in a completely different manner.
Billed as a ‘computational search engine’ WolframAlpha isn’t so much about searching for information results as it is about ‘number crunching’ the information.
For example. Search for ‘UK’ in Google and you get the Wikipedia result for United Kingdom, followed by Amazon UK. Search for the ‘UK’ in Wolfram Alpha and it returns a number of stats about the UK (flag, map location, geographic properties, population, and so on). Where it gets interesting is combining results – tap in ‘UK France Population’ and you get to compare stats between the population levels of the two countries including population history, life expectancy, median age, and so on.
So far so good if you’re looking to compare populations. But what else can it do? The main other use is mathematical number crunching, and you can perform all kinds of equations directly in the search box.
Beyond that it starts to get a bit confusing. The online search engine enables you to look up and compare a stunningly large array of topics from the areas of maths, statistics, chemistry, engineering, astronomy, finance, geography, books, films, historical figures. The list of areas is pretty exhaustive but it’s hard to know where to start (the
WolframAlpha examples page has examples to get you going, but it still can be difficult to think of a use for WolframAlpha.)
The WolframAlpha input screen handily features two keyboards. One for letters and another for numbers
You’ll also have to get used to the app stating “WolframAlpha isn’t sure how to compute an answer from your input”.
Will you find WolframAlpha worth the money?
Still, when you do find a use for WolframAlpha you’ll wonder how you managed without it. Here at Macworld, for example, we use it to compare relative prices of items between different areas taking up to date currency conversion and VAT figures into account. This is a useful tool for accurate measuring of the validity of ‘rip-off Britain’ stories; also to ensure that the prices we pay in Britain are fair in comparison to the rest of the world.
And there’s no doubting the power of the search engine. It remain a truly impressive means to work with information on the Internet. Which brings us to the iPhone app. The more observant amongst you may well have noticed the price – at £29.99 the WolframAlpha app can hardly be thought of as an impulse purchase (although once again we are struck by how much the App Store has lowered the amount that is considered acceptable to charge for a professional program).
Indeed, very few other apps charge this kind of price. The only other real examples are some medical applications and the SatNav programs. There’s no denying that it stands out from the crowd at this kind of price, and not necessarily in a good way.
Matters aren’t helped by the fact that the free WolframAlpha website is perfectly accessible from the iPhone at
www.wolframalpha.com. And because the iPhone requires a data connection to get accurate information from WolframAlpha there’s no real advantage to working with the iPhone app. It presents the information in an iPhone-formatted style, although you have to scroll left and right for comparisons.
One nice touch is that the text entry has not one, but two input keyboards. the regular one for text and a second one for numerical input. It also has the ability to email results to you, and you can share your findings on Twitter. Dissapointingly – at least with email – it merely passes on a link to the website rather than creating an HTML email to send to you.