Wolfram Alpha: “Is It Better Than Google?”

This is usually the first thing people ask when they hear about Wolfram Alpha: how it compares to Google Search. Though both are, at first glance, a search box, both are very different, in one way and yet totally similar in another! It’s very confusing, so let me clear this up.

With Google, when you’re searching for something, you usually don’t expect Google itself to know the answer – although with some simpler searches this is starting to change; try searching [weather] on your phone. While Google typically gets its results from external sources, Wolfram Alpha generally either knows the information itself, or works it out.

Wolfram Alpha describes itself like so:

Wolfram|Alpha is an engine for computing answers and getting knowledge. It works by using its vast store of expert- level knowledge to compute answers to questions you ask.

Zainul over at Web.Appstorm has a great review of Wolfram Alpha’s web version – check it out for more details on the actual engine.

In this article, I’ll focus on reviewing the Android app, which is powered by the same engine.

Some Examples

Wolfram Alpha comes with plenty of examples so be sure to check them out, or check out the examples on the site itself. They’re all quite useful and show the real power and usefulness of Wolfram|Alpha. The examples are all organized into their subject; in the screenshots below you can see some Math and Engineering results:

Math

This is the main use I have for Wolfram Alpha, between quickly plotting graphs or working out otherwise lengthy matrix equations, this alone made the app worth the investment for me. As you can see from the screenshot you merely have to enter “plot” before your desired equation and Wolfram Alpha will draw it.

Engineering

Engineers may find Wolfram|Alpha more useful for its mathematical abilities than for the engineering section itself, but the engineering abilities in Wolfram Alpha are useful for explaining definitions of different terminology – which it can do for quite an array of different topics.

User Interface

Keyboard

Although, in essence, it’s just a simple input box and an output panel, the interface is vital for the ease of use of this app. And while overall it works fine, there’s room for improvement.

Wolfram Alpha comes with its own keyboard for inputting your desired information; the keyboard is twice the size of my usual keyboard, doubling the number of keys on my screen as these extra keys are needed for inputting many of the supported queries. This is confusing at times as it makes it hard to find the exact key I want.

The custom keyboard

The extra array of keys in their custom keyboard (which can be turned off in More > Preferences) is their solution to the problem of having so many different inputs available. I’m also slightly disappointed that Wolfram Alpha doesn’t build its keyboard in such a way that it uses the design of the theme I use, that works system wide – though admittedly this is nitpicking.

The Results

The results are displayed in a well organized and concise manner which is great, allowing for quick and easy use of the app. Wolfram Alpha first displays the assumptions it made in calculating your query, then shows your input; I’ve found this very helpful for finding errors in my input, as with some complex inputs this can be difficult to catch as you type.

The result is displayed next, and shown in different formats.

Sharing Made Easy

Sharing results has been made very easy, as Wolfram|Alpha uses the built in sharing option on Android. This make Wolfram|Alpha brilliantly useful when working in groups, or when you’re working something out for a friend while on the go!

The shared messages show exactly what’s needed, and link to a longer output on the site.

Preferences

There aren’t many options available, though the options that are available are useful (perhaps even necessary).

Some useful options

The first option allows your phone to send location data to Wolfram Alpha – important for privacy. The next enables or disables the aforementioned custom keyboard, though keep in mind that few, if any, custom keyboards let you easily use Wolfram|Alpha’s more advanced features. The next option merely specified whether to use metric or non-metric units.

Short and sweet; I don’t think any other options are needed here.

Extra Functions

The app allows you to mark inputs as favorites, and you can quickly access your history of inputs. It also contains a huge number of examples, which are very helpful for figuring out how to input some queries, as well as showing what Wolfram Alpha is capable of.

This is the only real difference to the mobile site, bar the convenience of having the app. (Having a shortcut to the site might actually be just as useful, though it’s down to personal taste.)

What Wolfram Alpha Knows About Android

For some fun I thought I’d quiz Wolfram Alpha on Android! The results are interesting and factually accurate, though bland:

What is Android?

Conclusion

While it’s a great app, without any offline capabilities it doesn’t offer a whole load more over the (free-to-access) website.

I think its well worth the small price, having used it to check math assignments, help friends, and have some geeky fun! I recommend triyng out the website first to see if Wolfram|Alpha is something you would find useful as a service; if you use it regularly enough and/or like it, then it could well be worth the investment.


Summary

Wolfram Alpha is an engine with computes the world knowledge, mainly used for mathematical equations and definitions.

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