Visualize This!

With Tecplot 10, what you've got is what you see

Illustration: Tecplot Inc.

Engineers are good at crunching numbers, but they often need help in making sense of the results and communicating their findings to others. Tecplot 10, from Tecplot Inc., in Bellevue, Wash., is a major update to a superb program that lets users visualize massive amounts of data and create attractive graphics for publication and presentations.

Tecplot 10 provides, roughly speaking, graphics functions of the sort that are familiar to users of Microsoft Excel: visualizing data by creating a wide variety of plots and customizing the plots with great flexibility. But Tecplot 10 has another advantage: specialized to the needs of engineers and scientists, it is vastly more powerful than Excel or any other visualization software I know of that runs on personal computers.

With this package, users can create two- and three-dimensional plots, including contour, mesh, scatter, and field plots. Its many options include various lighting schemes, perspective control, and removal of hidden lines. Users can also create animations of time-dependent calculations.

This makes Tecplot 10 an ideal tool for visualizing the results of finite-element calculations, which are commonly used by engineers and produce reams of data [see "Retaking the Field," IEEE Spectrum, July]. For example, you can create attractive displays of calculated electrical fields, mechanical stresses, or fluid flow in complex structures. You can superimpose traces of the motions of particles on a field plot or show a pattern of fields in planes that transect complex 3-D structures. With the program's numerous options and excellent graphics capabilities, you can create stunning graphics.

This latest version adds many improvements to an already mature product. These include better undo commands, many new display options, data journaling (which saves any modifications made to data with layout files), and more.

New data loaders let you enter data from a variety of sources, including Excel spreadsheets. However, to enter finite-element meshes and other complex data, you must format the data in specific ways, which is likely to require considerable effort.

This update superficially resembles other scientific graphing programs, such as SigmaPlot from SPSS Inc., in Chicago. But it is best suited to a particular group: computer-savvy users who need to display large and complex sets of data, which are typically generated by other computer programs.

Illustration: Tecplot Inc.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Numbers

Tecplot 10 can create compelling graphics of engineering simulations, such as a solar eruption.

For users outside this group, the program is less well suited than some competing products. For example, Tecplot 10 includes mathematics capabilities for transforming data (by means of a programming language similar to Fortran) and various curve-fitting routines. But it lacks the extensive statistical capabilities, commonly found in high-end scientific graphics programs, that are often needed to analyze experimental data.

Also, unlike other scientific graphics software, Tecplot 10 is not geared to novice users who simply want to create nice-looking x-y or scatter plots for publication with as little fuss as possible. New users will face a difficult learning curve, which is only partly addressed by a few tutorials on the vendor's Web site. Ordinary mortals may find the 628-page user manual dense and overly technical.

In my own explorations with the program, I had to work hard to accomplish a simple task--copying several columns of data from an Excel spreadsheet into Tecplot 10 to create a graph with several scatter plots--something easily done in a few keystrokes with SigmaPlot. The price tag of US $1600 will be another stumbling block for the casual user. Would the company consider releasing a "Tecplot Lite" version that has been adapted and priced for ordinary users?

But for those who need its graphics capabilities, Tecplot 10 is an outstanding product. If one has already spent much time and money doing calculations or collecting huge data sets, why not present the results in as informative and attractive a way as possible?

Tecplot 10, Tecplot Inc. , 13920 SE Eastgate Way, Suite 220, Bellevue, WA 98005; phone, +1 425 653 1200; fax, +1 425 653 9200; e-mail,sales@tecplot.com; Web, http://www.tecplot.com. Available for Microsoft Windows, Linux, Unix, and Macintosh. An OpenGL accelerated graphics card is recommended. US $1600; updates and support, $320 per year. Academic discounts and site licenses are also offered.

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