[R] R vs Matlab: which is more "programmer friendly"?

Daniel Bebber danbebber at forestecology.co.uk
Sun Apr 25 17:29:35 CEST 2004

I have been using R for about 2 years and recently took a 6 week
introductory course to Matlab.
I can give entirely personal answers to your questions.

1. 'How smart?'. Don't know exactly what you mean, but both languages are
extremely functional. Both emphasize writing of functions to call rather
than repeatedly typing in the same code, so they encourage good programming
practice. I started with R, so prefer its syntax.

2. 'Learning curve'. Similar. R has a simpler interface. Matlab has various
enhancements that may help in the learning process, for example the path
browser and workspace browser in which you can interactively keep track of
all the objects in the workspace. Both have comprehensive help packages.

3. 'Further development'. Has to be R- its FREE! I don't know many students
who would fork out the money for a Matlab license.

4. 'Flexibility'. Both are perhaps infinitely flexible. You can write any
code you like, to do any statistical or mathematical processing. I would say
R is better for statistical analysis (though Matlab has a stats package you
can purchase), while Matlab is designed for mathematics. With Matlab you can
compile GUIs to run analyses, which are probably useful for sharing with
people who can't program.

Some other points.
1. I have heard that Matlab is faster than S-PLUS (and hence R?) at
performing calculations.
2. I found Matlab to be quite frustrating in its handling of data- for
example it is extremely difficult to save a data frame in which variables
are labelled with there names.

Hope this helps.

Dan Bebber

Department of Plant Sciences
University of Oxford
South Parks Road
Oxford OX1 3RB


Message: 24
Date: Sun, 25 Apr 2004 11:08:09 +0200
From: Tamas Papp <tpapp at axelero.hu>
Subject: [R] R vs Matlab: which is more "programmer friendly"?
To: R-help mailing list <r-help at stat.math.ethz.ch>
Message-ID: <20040425090809.GA704 at localhost>
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The department of economics at our university (Budapest) is planning a
course on numerical methods in economics.  They are trying to decide
which software to use for that, and I would like to advocate R.  The
other alternative is Matlab.

I have found comparisons in terms of computational time for matrix
algebra, but I don't think that is relevant: the bottleneck for
economists is usually the programmer's time: if it takes a couple of
hours to write something that is run only a few times, one should not
care whether it runs in 2 or 2.1 minutes...

I am an economist, and I have used Octave, but only until I found R.
So I am not in a position to evaluate Matlab vs R.  I would be
grateful if somebody could compare R to Matlab, especially regarding
the following:

1. How "smart" the language is.  R appears to be a nice functional
programming language, is Matlab comparable?  Last time I used Octave,
it seemed to be little more than syntactic sugar on some C/Fortran
libraries.  It appears to me that using R gradually pushes people
towards better programming habits, but I may be biased (I am a Scheme

2. Learning curve.  If somebody could share his/her experience on
using R or Matlab or both in the classrom, how students take to it.

3. Which language do you think is better for students' further
development?  We would like to equip them with something they can use
later on in their career even if they don't become theoretical
economists (very few undergraduate students do that).

4. How flexible are these languages when developing new
applications/functions?  Very few of the problems I encounter have a
ready-made solution in a toolbox/library.



Tamás K. Papp
E-mail: tpapp at axelero.hu
Please try to send only (latin-2) plain text, not HTML or other garbage.


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