MathCad solves equations-- f-a-s-t

by Alan Zisman (c) 1992. Originally published in INPUT, June 1992

Despite the name, MathCad has nothing to do with Computer Assisted Design, but everything to do with high-end math, especially as used by the technical-types: scientists, engineers, teachers, and students. MathSoft would like you to think of their product as a computer aided scratch-pad--- but one that can also produce publication-ready output.

Programming languages from BASIC to C can be used to produce the answers to math problems. So can most spreadsheets. But try doing that with something like the quadratic formula that was (generally unsuccessfully) drummed into all our heads in high school math--- in a programming language, you might have to type in something like:


and in a spreadsheet, it might look like this:


Either way, you'll get your answer (yes, math teachers, one of the two answers, actually). In MathCad, what you'd type would look just like the illustration that haunted your teen-age years... complete with superscripts for squares, the square root sign, and fractions that actually look like fractions.

So what, you say--- Word Perfect and Word for Windows and Ami Pro (among other word processors) include equation editors that let me include equations already. Well, the big difference is that MathCad, like the spreadsheet, not only lets you type in equations that look like math, it calculates the answer. (Try that in Word Perfect, eh?)

Especially when using a graphical environment like Windows or the Mac, it takes only a short time to get up and running in MathCad. Give X a value, type in a formula, using tools along the sides to get the fancy math symbols. Press the equal sign and you've got the answer. Change the value of X, and the answer changes. Make X a range of values, and you've got a table. One click and you've got an X-Y graph. A wide range of 2-D and 3-D graphs are quickly obtained. A graphical user environment makes it easy to 'pretty up' your screen with fonts and styles for enhanced printed output.

The math supported runs from the sorts of algebra and trig you may have dreaded in Math 11 through vectors and matrices, statistics, fourier transformations, differentials and integrals, and lots more, all with 15 digit accuracy.

New to the Windows version (promised for the Mac later this year,) are two new features. "Electronic Handbooks" have been created as on-line reference material. Hypertext links let you find what you're looking for quickly, and you can paste formulas, values, or entire calculations from the Handbook into your document. A tutorial handbook, and a 'standard' handbook are included, with three others being sold seperately. These join the application packs that have been available for some time to customize MathCad for use in electrical, mechanical, civil, and chemical engineering, as well as statistics, advanced math, and numerical methods.

As well, the Windows version includes a new symbolic calculation tool (licensed by MathSoft from Canadian Waterloo Maple Software). This lets you manipulate abstract functions directly; rather than simply plugging a value into an equation, you can factor equations, simply formulas, evaluate integrals or differentials, substitute complex expressions for a variable, and perform many other practical operations.

The key word here is "practical". The makers of MathCad see it as a tool for people who need to use math to solve problems. There are better programs for mathematicians, using math in a more abstract way: Mathematica or the full Maple software, for instance (both of which also cost at least twice as much as MathCad). If, however, you like the idea an on-screen engineer's notebook, with reference material just a few mouse clicks away, or just need to solve equations fast,
MathCad is for you. Now when we can get it run on one of those little hand-held machines....

MathCad v.3.1
available for Windows (version reviewed),
DOS, Unix, & MacIntosh
Price $495 US list (Vancouver street price
approx. $390 CDN). (Available at a steep discount to
educational institutions and registered students).
-- free working demo versions available.
Windows version requires a Windows-capable machine
(286 or above w. 2meg+ memory, graphics monitor & mouse),
running Windows 3.x, and 7 meg hard drive space. Math Co-processor
supported but not required.
Available from MathSoft, Inc.
201 Broadway, Cambridge, MA. 02139 USA.
Phone: 1-800-MATHCAD; 617-577-1017;
Fax: 617-577-8829

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan