Wolfram Alpha review

It’s been no less than one of the most hyped launches in recent tech history. We check out search engine Wolfram Alpha.

A different language

This, however, is where the difficulty lies, in that there's a lot that Wolfram Alpha doesn't understand. Typing "tallest mountain in the world"- brought up Wolfram Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input'- a message that you'll see an awful lot of on first use. However, tallest mountain', does the trick.

One of the most immediate features that users will note about Wolfram Alpha is that it doesn't just provide the answer but also provides information round it that it thinks you'll find useful, hence, the answer, Mount Everest', is accompanied by it's height, (29,035 feet) and the names and hands of the next four tallest mountains with their respective heights too.

The next entry we tried was: "date of Kennedy's death". This brought up the date, (22 November 1963) but then listed how many years, months and days it was since the date from today, that it was the 326th day of the year, and in the 47th week. It also told us who else died that day author C.S. Lewis as it turns out. So perhaps it's not so much Google that could be considered a competitor but Wikipedia instead?

Revealing sources

This then brings up the issue of trust. Wolfram Alpha works on the basis of presenting factual information, but for its data it needs to use sources and if you are to believe the facts it gives back to you, you need to trust its sources which it does, in fact, list.

Comparison is the real strength of the engine. It will generate, charts, graphs and diagrams on the fly if you enter information it knows how to deal with. Enter a sum of money and it will convert it for you into a number of other currencies pulling in live data while it does so, making it quicker to use than say, XE.com. It will also give up to date information on stocks and shares, and can compare then over time.If you want to know the weather in a particular location it will tell you what it is right now as well as plotting you a graph of what the weather has been like over the past week, month, year or even 10 years.

If you get a chance, it's worth checking out the overview video presented by Stephen Wolfram, which takes you through many of the things that you can do with it. It's clear from watching this that the more of a scientific, and mathematic bent you have, the more you will get out of the engine.

US centric

The fact that Dr Wolfram is British just makes it all the more of a shame that at the moment Wolfram Alpha is decidedly US centric. Type in two locations and it will give you the distance between them. But if you enter, "Croydon to San Francisco", it clearly has never heard of the charming town in Blighty, but instead goes with the one in Pennsylvania.

Sports statisticians will be chomping at the bit to use the engine, but UK football fans will be disappointed it's never heard of Liverpool Football Club or Manchester United, but it does know all about the Red Sox.

Wolfram Alpha is free for use right now, but it's likely to become ad supported in the future, or add free on a subscription basis in the future. And yes, there is an iPhone customised version available already.

The simple difference between Google and Wolfram Alpha is that the former goes out and presents links to other sources of information to the user, whereas Wolfram Alpha looks to provide answers itself to specific questions. Wolfram Alpha thinks it knows the answers itself, while Google just knows someone else who does.

When Dr Wolfram states that he wants to take, "all the data, methods, models and algorithms that have been accumulated in our civilisation and make them immediately computable", it's clear that he has a job on his hands.

Click here for our verdict on Wolfram Alpha.

Verdict

At the moment, Wolfram Alpha frustrates more than it startles but it’s clear that those who can learn to use it properly will enjoy a real advantage in being able to gain access to powerful knowledge that can help them with their homework, presentation or report. We just have to hope that the amount of information available to it expands further, as at the moment it’s too easy to find holes in its font of knowledge.

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