AGOCG Technical Report
Evaluation of Graphics Packages
University of Edinburgh
Whilst every care has been taken to ensure accuracy the author can take no responsibility for decisions taken based upon this reports contents.
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Copyright © Computing Services, University of Edinburgh 1993,1994,1997
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Introduction and Background
During 1996 it became apparent that Visual Numerics was no longer supporting Stanford Graphics which had been the recommended technical graphics package for PC users in the UK Higher Education sector. Clearly this was a most unsatisfactory situation; a support-less Stanford Graphics could no longer be recommended. A re-evaluation of todays suitable PC compatible graphics packages was imperative, with the ultimate aim of securing a CHEST site licence deal for whichever package(s) would be chosen as replacement(s) for Stanford Graphics. In addition, consideration should be given to whether it might be possible to recommend a single package offering comparable facilities on both PC and Apple Macintosh platforms. This evaluation has been performed by the Graphics & Multimedia Group at Edinburgh University Computing Service on behalf of the Advisory Group on Computer Graphics (AGOCG).
The selection of packages to be evaluated was influenced by the perceived multiplicity of PC computers available to Staff and Students in the UK Higher Education community. Packages requiring a very high hardware specification could not be included since such computers were deemed to be few and far between. Any package chosen should be available for running under all of the existing Windows environments, i.e. 3.1, 95 and NT. Also, to be included a package had to exist in a version capable of being mounted on a Network Server and being run from client machines of differing specifications, as well as being mounted and run from standalone machines.
The PC allocated for this evaluation exercise has a 150 MHz Pentium processor, 32Mb RAM, a 1Gb hard disk and 17" Colour VGA Display. Windows 3.1, Windows 95 and Windows NT were all mounted on this platform. Each package selected for assessment was then installed for evaluation under each of these system environments. Since this hardware specification might be considered more powerful than that normally available some additional assessment was performed, for comparison purposes, on a 90MHz Pentium processor with 16Mb RAM, 1Gb hard disk and a 15" VGA Display, running Windows 95. The evaluation was delayed initially owing to the necessity to complete first a similar evaluation exercise of technical graphics packages for use on Apple Macintosh computers. Even so the evaluation has been completed within the agreed timescale.
Package Requirements and Functionality
A comparative Information and Facilities Matrix was created to demonstrate the hardware, system and user environment demands of any package to be included in the evaluation ( Appendix Ia). The matrix was based on the General Information Matrix included in (Ref. 1), the relevant parts of which publication are included as Appendix II of this document. Extra sub-sections were included in the matrix in order to comment on the level of "user friendliness", the quality of accompanying documentation, the level of support offered by the publisher during the evaluation period, and the packages estimated cost to Educational Institutions.
A companion matrix was created to demonstrate the data-driven functionality of any package to be included in the evaluation (Appendix Ib). The matrix was based on the Data Driven Graphics Facilities Matrix included in (Ref. 1), the relevant parts of which publication are included as Appendix II of this document.
The areas of functionality within which the evaluation sought positive responses were
Data Handling Facilities
2-Dimensional Data Display
3-Dimensional Data Display
Other Display Options
Other Chart Facilities
Chart Object Attributes
Since the purpose of the evaluation was to recommend a successor to Stanford Graphics the aim was obviously to identify packages which equal or surpass what Stanford Graphics provided in these areas of functionality. As a consequence Stanford Graphics was included in the Information and Facilities matrices for comparison purposes.
Package Selection and Procurement
The UK_Mac_ademic and Mac_Supporters electronic mailbase lists were surveyed in the Autumn of 1996 to conduct a poll of a number of UK Higher Education sites where Apple Macintosh computers are available to Staff and Students. A number of packages emerged as being most commonly supported by these sites. Part of the remit for this present survey of graphics packages for PCs was to ascertain whether there might be a suitable package available for running on both PCs and Apple Macintoshes - the cross-platform solution. Obviously packages available only for Apple Macintosh were dropped from the original list leaving the following packages to be considered in this survey for PCs.
Microsoft Office (Excel 5.0 for Windows 3.1 and 7.0a for Windows95/NT & PowerPoint 4.0d for Windows 3.1 and 7.0 for Windows95/NT)
Microsoft Works (3.0c for Windows 3.1 and 4.0a for Windows 95/NT)
KaleidaGraph 3.07* - from Synergy Software
DeltaGraph 4.0.3* - from Delta Point
SigmaPlot 3.03* - from Jandel Scientific Software
Origin 4.1* - from Microcal Software Inc.
* - plus Win 32s for running under Windows 3.1
Procuring the Microsoft products was a simple matter of upgrading software already available at Edinburgh to their latest published versions. Grateful thanks are due to Chris Whitaker of CHEST for his diligent pursuit of Synergy, Delta Point and Jandel Scientific Software who, during Autumn 1996, were each somewhat reluctant to respond to requests for an evaluation copy of the latest Macintosh version of their products, but then also sent the latest PC versions. Chris Whitaker also obtained the evaluation copy of Origin software, from Aston Scientific Ltd.
KaleidaGraph, DeltaGraph, SigmaPlot and Origin are all supplied as 32-bit application software. To run under Windows 3.1 the Win32s interface is required, and the result is slower operation.
Appendices Ia and Ib present an easy to view comparison of the requirements and capabilities of the selected packages as derived from running them and from perusal of their accompanying documentation. Where applicable all matrix entries were tested to verify claims in the documentation. Every effort has been taken to present correct information as at end-April 1997, although comments on "ease of use" and "documentation" are necessarily subjective.
All of the selected packages offer a spreadsheet-like data input facility, and will also accept text files containing space-separated, comma-separated and tab-separated lines of data. All will also accept data in at least one external proprietary format such as Excel. The data can be sorted or transformed by applying in-built or user-defined transformation functions. Selected data can then be displayed by choosing from a menu of scientific and/or business graph types or possibly by applying a curve fitting algorithm. All of the packages offer a "tools palette" so that you can add extra drawing features, change colours and/or line styles, add annotation, etc. You can save a template copy of the format and style of a graph display for future use thus avoiding having to rebuild it each time it is required.
All of the packages can be mounted on a Network Server machine and run from client PCs.
This package offers a comprehensive spreadsheet and slide presentation facility including good graphics displays. Excel does not offer as wide a range of 2-dimensional or 3-dimensional displays as Stanford Graphics, and has no contouring facilities. PowerPoint adds a powerful slide presentation capability, but Stanford Graphics also had slide show production facilities. The amount of data Microsoft Office is capable of handling is limited compared with the more dedicated graphing packages. Despite being generally easy to use the package exhibits somewhat inflexible graph editing capabilities, especially those concerned with axis format and labelling.
Microsoft Office is relatively cheap to purchase, but expensive to run in terms of disk space consumption. One comprehensive manual covers both Macintosh and Windows versions of the package.
This package is a composite featuring word processing, database management, graphical display and slide presentation. It is similar in functionality to Microsoft Office and offers a similar variety of possible 2- and 3-dimensional display formats (except 3-dimensional surface drawing), but there is again no contouring capability. Again the amount of data Microsoft Works is capable of handling is limited compared with the more dedicated graphing packages. Its ease of use is detracted from by these limitations in functionality.
Like Microsoft Office, Microsoft Works is cheap to purchase, but relatively expensive to run in terms of disk space consumption. The manual is specific to the PC implementation and, while the Windows 3.1 manual is excellent, the Windows 95/NT Works Companion is woefully inadequate as a learning/reference document..
Surprisingly for such an otherwise competitive package in the area of graphical display of scientific data KaleidaGraph only offers 2-dimensional display options, and even these are limited. There are also no slide show production facilities.
A disturbing feature on data entry is that the default data sheet is only 3 columns wide and 11 rows deep. It is necessary to expand this window for comfortable working, otherwise data disappears from view as it is typed in. Once that idiosyncrasy is overcome, however, the data entry capabilities and capacity are extensive, and the package is quite easy to use. Display editing facilities are very good, although the ability to add labels to data points is limited to line, scatter, pie and bar charts. Re-drawing after picture modification is quite fast. The manual is comprehensive and covers both Windows and Macintosh versions of the package.
This is a most comprehensive graphics display package; there are very few negative entries in the information and facilities matrices. Only 3-dimensional histogram and combined surface/contour are missing from a huge list of supplied options in the Chart Menu (which can be displayed by name or by icon), and there is even a Chart Advisor to suggest an appropriate scientific or business chart option given the data selection you have already made. Functions used to create Data columns are associated with those columns, consequently their contents can be recalculated at the touch of a button if there are any dependent source data alterations. A data entry sheet may have many pages, but only one of them can be "in view" at a time, although its capacity is large at up to 256 data sets each of up to 32000 points. Alterations to the Document/Print Setup and various Preferences settings are not retained properly between DeltaGraph sessions - DeltaPoint is addressing these problems for correction in the next maintenance release.
Display editing facilities are excellent and include the ability to preview the effects of any modifications before actually applying them. Re-drawing after modifications is fast, except under Windows 3.1 where it is slow by comparison because of the Win32s interface. There is also a wide range of graphics image filters for Import/Export of graphic images. A full slide show production facility is included. The package comes with a large on-line folder of sample files which can be used to demonstrate technical and business chart displays and curve fitting. One comprehensive manual covers both Windows and Macintosh versions of the package.
Like KaleidaGraph this scientific graphing package is surprisingly short on the availability of 2-dimensional display options compared with Stanford Graphics. 2-d contouring is included, but in the 3-dimensional display list only scatter and surface plots are offered. Other functionality is very good as in most other packages, but there are no slide show production facilities.
In general the package is quite easy to use, and has an excellent all-in-one window where modifications to the various attributes of the graphic display can be specified. Re-drawing after modifications is fast. One disturbing problem arises when using the Graph page scroll bars - the window goes blank until the mouse button is released, so it is very difficult to tell how far you are moving the picture! There are no example display files. The manual is a comprehensive reference document specific to the Windows version of SigmaPlot.
Like DeltaGraph this is another most comprehensive graphics display package; there are very few negative entries in the information and facilities matrices. Again only 3-dimensional histogram and combined surface/contour drawing formats are missing from a large list of supplied options. The 3D & Contouring module is a standard part of the international version of the Origin package. This module offers an excellent 3-d palette allowing dynamic picture rotation and perspective changing. Worksheet data must be converted to a matrix before performing contouring operations.
Presentation and editing facilities are good, and re-drawing after modifications is fast. However, under Windows 95/NT the package crashes with an invalid page fault when you click the Normal or Bold text option buttons within the Text Control window after changing the font or rotation settings and not re-selecting the text string - a summary demise for a small user error. The range of Import/Export graphics image filters is very limited and, while the other packages offer full OLE support, Origin is limited to exporting its own images into other Windows applications. There are no slide show production facilities. OLE support is limited to exporting Origin images to other Windows applications.
A disturbing feature on data entry is that the default data sheet is only 2 columns wide and 10 rows deep. It is necessary to expand this window for comfortable working, otherwise data disappears from view as it is typed in. Once that idiosyncrasy is overcome, however, the data entry capacity is huge at up to 600 datasets of 100,000+ points per dataset in each worksheet, and there is a comprehensive range of data analysis and curve fitting functions. It is not possible to select non-contiguous data for drawing though and, if you wish to swap worksheet data rows with columns you have to convert the worksheet into a matrix first, perform the swap, then convert back to a worksheet again.
There is an on-line folder of sample files which can be used to demonstrate technical and business chart displays, curve fitting and the various analysis and editing facilities. The Users and 3D & Contouring Manuals are excellent documents, although those supplied were for Origin version 4.0, not 4.1 as was the software version.
Conclusions and Recommendations
The purpose of this evaluation exercise was to find a graphics package for PCs which equalled or surpassed Stanford Graphics in its provision of facilities. Principally this meant seeking packages offering enhanced data handling (missing data and non-contiguous data selection) and enhanced freedom in determining the appearance and presentation of the graphics images produced.
Whilst Microsoft Office and Microsoft Works are easy to use and are relatively cheap to purchase they are each essentially Spreadsheet packages with charting facilities added, rather than data driven graphics display packages as such. Overall they do not offer any enhancement in the range of facilities offered. Especially they lack contouring capability.
KaleidaGraph offers no advance over the functionality Stanford Graphics offered. Especially there is no contouring or 3-dimensional display capability, nor slide show facilities.
SigmaPlot also offers no advance over the functionality Stanford Graphics offered. The limited range of graph menu types is disappointing; again contouring is absent and the 3-dimensional display options are few. It is also a very expensive package.
DeltaGraph offers a huge list of graphic display options, only 3-dimensional histogram and combined surface and contour drawing are missing. Its range of graphics image import/export filters is also extensive. Full slide show production and display facilities are provided. Its display editing is simple to use and consequent re-drawing is very fast. Given the range of functionality it offers it is the most cost-effective of the packages surveyed.
Origin also offers a huge list of graphic display options. Again only 3-dimensional histogram and combined surface and contour drawing are missing. It appears to have a wider range of data analysis and transformation functions. However, it does not offer slide show production facilities, and its range of graphics image import/export filters is very limited. It is also a very expensive package.
It is recommended, therefore, that DeltaGraph should be adopted by CHEST as the approved graphics package for use on PC computers in the UK Higher Education community, with the rider that Origin would be a contender if a suitably competitive pricing agreement could be reached.
Cross platform Macintosh/Windows assessment
The AGOCG Technical Report - Evaluation of Graphics Packages for the Apple Macintosh (January 1997) recommended DeltaGraph as the approved graphics package. Given the above recommendations for PCs, and the fact that Origin is not a contender on Apple Macintosh since it only works there through SoftWindows, then DeltaGraph must also be the recommended package for the cross-platform solution.
Thanks are due to:
AGOCG for funding this evaluation;
Chris Whitaker (CHEST) for acquiring the packages not already available in Edinburgh;
Roy Middleton for general guidance;
Alex Nolan, Francis van Millingen and Richard Bacon for their previous work on which the matrices in this report are based;
Roy Middleton and Francis van Millingen for their assistance, proof reading and comment in the compilation of this report.
(Second edition, November 1994).
Richard Bacon, Alex Nolan, Francis van Millingen
University of Edinburgh
Ia. General Information Matrix
Ib. Data Driven Graphics Facilities Matrix
Extracts from (Ref. 1) including explanations of the matrices of Appendices Ia and Ib