Mathcad or Excel?

Why do you need Mathcad when a spreadsheet program like Microsoft Excel has such a wide range of calculation and graphing functions? We certainly wouldn’t suggest ditching your spreadsheet: but if you want an effective way to progress, document and communicate technical projects, you need Mathcad on your desktop too. This article explains why.

Most of us these days have PCs with Microsoft Office pre-installed, and good compatibility with the Office programs – a significant benefit of Mathcad – is a great aid to productivity. The Microsoft Excel spreadsheet application is very capable and flexible, and is widely used by engineers and just about everyone else who needs to perform calculations and handle data.

Excel does have its limitations, however. There are surely times when you miss being able to write out your formulae in proper maths notation – equations are usually more intuitive than a spreadsheet’s nested arguments. Excel’s cell structure can often be a problem too – it’s not easy to check formulae and verify data when they’re hidden away in cells.

That’s just two of the reasons why so many engineers use Mathcad to supplement, and for many tasks to replace, the spreadsheets. While it can handle all the calculation and graphing functions – and more – that Excel does, its interface is like a word processor’s. You start with a blank page, and place your equations (in real maths notation), text, annotations, graphs, tables and drawings wherever you like.

In that way, Mathcad is more like a desktop publishing program than a word processor, because you can define regions and drag them anywhere on the page. You can format text fonts and maths symbols, add images, use headers and footers – you can even create style sheets to match your corporate standards or publication guidelines. And you can hide and lock away (behind robust, encrypted passwords) any information you don’t want others to see. As well as protecting your intellectual property, that also means you can, as with a spreadsheet, present only summary information and results.

Mathcad works alongside Excel: you can embed spreadsheets into your Mathcad worksheet, or Mathcad routines or whole worksheets into your spreadsheet cells, and use Mathcad to calculate and drive spreadsheet variables. Mathcad is also compatible with most other popular engineering applications running under Windows, including MATLAB and SmartSketch.

So while we certainly don’t suggest you stop using spreadsheets, we do think you should consider the advantages of adding Mathcad to your desktop. When you don’t want to be restricted to a rigid tabular format; when you want to see your calculations and workings clearly in a form that’s easy to check and validate; when you want to combine your calculations with other text and visual information, and document your work as you go: that’s when you’ll appreciate the Mathcad advantage.

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