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

Bill Vinyard wcvinyard at earthlink.net
Sun Apr 25 17:44:51 CEST 2004

I was exposed to and have used Matlab and R both in and out of the
classroom, both as a student and as an instructor.

1.  Both Matlab and R are "smart."  In terms of flexibility, I think they
are both about the same.  This includes their FSF or commercial counterparts
Octave and SPlus respectively.  With appropriate guidance, all of these
applications can be used to develop better programming habits.  As a general
rule the commercial versions have a smoother appearance and better
documentation...but this is not true of R.  R has some of the best
documentation around as well as superb on-line support via the R mailing
lists.  From a student's perspective access to well written documentation
and on-line support are essential.

2.  Both require the user to have some programming experience; otherwise the
learning curve is steep in the beginning.  Both can be used to introduce
programming provided you make room in your syllabus for the basics in the

3.  In my opinion, the main difference -- besides the obvious one...cost --
is that R is easily accessible anywhere in the world, costs nothing (which
makes it affordable for students), has excellent documentation, a robust,
friendly and helpful user base, superior on-line support ...

4.  The power of R and Matlab is that they are both easily extensible.  If
you can't find a ready-made function to do what you want, you can easily, on
the fly, write your own and then make it a permanent function for your use
at any time.

-----Original Message-----
From: r-help-bounces at stat.math.ethz.ch
[mailto:r-help-bounces at stat.math.ethz.ch]On Behalf Of Tamas Papp
Sent: Sunday, April 25, 2004 05:08
To: R-help mailing list
Subject: [R] R vs Matlab: which is more "programmer friendly"?


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
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