R Compared to MATLAB (or ‘learning a thing or two from your students’)
Near the end of last week I was acting as teaching assistant for a MATLAB course and some of the students wanted to know if there were any viable free, open source alternatives to MATLAB. I duly listed what I considered to be the standard set – Scilab, Octave, SAGE and Python – which are more or less MATLABy depending on your point of view.
One student asked ‘What about R?’ and I had to confess that I didn’t know much about it except that it is used a lot by statisticians and is essentially a free, open source version of S+. I ventured the opinion that maybe R was too specialised to be considered a general MATLAB alternative with the caveat that I didn’t actually know what I was talking about.
It seems that there is nothing a student likes more than to teach the teacher and so much googling ensued. I was pointed to a small set of speed comparisons between MATLAB and R for example which includes some matrix operations like finding eigenvalues and generating Toeplitz matrices. You don’t get much more MATLABy than matrices! Other articles such as this comparison between various data analysis packages also proved interesting and useful.
So, thanks to a line of questioning from some MATLAB students, I have yet another thing on my to-do list – find out more about R. What do you think? Can R replace MATLAB sometimes?