WolframAlpha (for iPad) review

WolframAlpha (for iPad) brings the WolframAlpha "answer engine" to the iPad, with satisfying results.
Photo of WolframAlpha (for iPad)

WolframAlpha (for iPad) takes the WolframAlpha “answer engine” and brings it to the iPad . It’s more convenient than calling up the WolframAlpha website in Safari, as you can save your favorites , view your history, and more, and the app is built to take advantage of the iPad’s screen and features. WolframAlpha isn’t for everyone, but if you can benefit from its specialized computational and search features, it is worth buying the app.

WolframAlpha is a self-described computational knowledge engine; unlike a traditional search engine, it doesn’t search the Web for results but relies on its own curated knowledge base, compiled from specific data sources, and its computational ability—based on Wolfram’s own Mathematica—to generate answers. The WolframAlpha website is free to use; a paid version of the site with advanced features (WolframAlpha Pro) is available by subscription.

Just the Facts
At the top right of the WolframAlpha app is a search field, outlined in orange. It’s finicky about the sort of input it accepts; it’s not good for general searches on a topic, but responds to specific and factual questions. I input “strongest major storms,” and the app interpreted this as “strongest major storms,” for which no data was available. Strangely, the app suggested that related WolframAlpha queries included “third richest in fibre food,” “5 most populated countries,” “fastest bird,” and “food richest in calcium.” But the app had no trouble telling me the GDP of Kenya or who won the 1987 World Series.

To the left of the Search window is a field with four tabs: Examples; History; Favorites; and About. Examples is a good place to start, as it gives you a better feel for the sort of inquiries it accepts. Subjects listed are as diverse as Mathematics, Physics, Weather, Places and Geography, People and History, Culture and Media, Sports and Games, Music, and Colors.

The Mathematics of Colors
The answers are numerical, notational, or statistical representations. For example, enter “orange,” and you’ll get a swatch, as well as various representations of it: “24-bit RGB: red 255, green 128, blue 0,” “CMYK: cyan 0%, magenta 50%, yellow 100%, black 0 %,” in hexadecimal format (#FF8000), as well as several others. For music, enter “F#”, and you’ll see in in music notation, its position on a piano keyboard, scales associated with it, its standard frequency (369.994 Hz), or as a MIDI note.

WolframAlpha can be useful for comparing similar items, but it can be hit or miss. Enter “hydrogen, helium”, and you’ll get a wealth of data for each. Enter “Yankees, Red Sox” and you’ll get some basic team information about each, as well as 2013 stats and comparative statistics of each team’s top 5 hitters. The information that comes up is selective; for example, no pitching stats appeared. I was able to get some pitching info for a single team’s pitchers by entering “Yankees pitchers,” but it was limited to the pitchers’ date and place of birth, the height and weight distribution for the pitchers on the team, and distributions for the number of games played and games started. Finally, asking for “Yankees pitchers ERA” brought up some more comprehensive pitching stats for each pitcher.

Continue Reading: Math Wiz

Math Wiz
As WolframAlpha is mathematically based, it’s not surprising that the keyboard that comes up when you tap the search field includes more mathematical symbols than usual, adding square root, integral, pi, and more. You can shift into another sub-keyboard that has the Greek alphabet and additional symbols. It solves equations, and you can do anything from basic arithmetic to algebra, calculus, geometry, plotting, logic and set theory, and more. If you start to enter a sequence of numbers, for instance the Fibonacci series (“0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, …”), it will try to identify and continue the sequence (which it did correctly in this case). It can be finicky about the format needed to enter math, so it’s a good idea to look at the examples.

The second tab (after Examples) is History, from which you can access. It maintained a complete record of all the searches I’d performed while testing the app. The third tab is Favorites; the Share button at the screen’s upper right lets you add a search to favorites, as well as share a search on Twitter or Facebook, or email it. When you email a search, you’re not actually emailing the search results, but links to the WolframAlpha site or the app, with which the receiver of the email can call up the search on his or her own device.

To the left of the search field is a camera icon, with which, provided you make an $0.99 in-app purchase, you can input a photo or other image for WolframAlpha to analyze, compute a histogram for, and offer color corrections for. It’s a cool feature and worth the dollar.

WolframAlpha isn’t a conventional search engine— you won’t be replacing Bing or Google with it. This a different beast entirely. WolframAlpha is sort of a cross between a calculator and an almanac, good for specific numerical or statistical inquiries or basic scientific data. If you have any use for its computational abilities, it’s worth trying out. The iPad version takes full advantage of your Apple tablet’s features, and is worth the modest investment—a steep discount from the $50 price tag at which the original iOS app launched.


Verdict
WolframAlpha (for iPad) brings the WolframAlpha "answer engine" to the iPad, with satisfying results.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc