The many ways to access Wolfram Alpha

Latest Wolfram Alpha blog shows you several "cool" ways to access the site, from toolbar buttons to dashboard widgets. Follow me as I take them for a spin.

Say what you will about Wolfram Alpha, the creators are hard at work trying to drum up interest in the site.

On Tuesday, the WA crew launched a number of updates to its service, some of which I tested . Now the team's Thursday blog points you to the many "cool tools" you can use to access the site--buttons, widgets, gadgets, and more. You can grab them from the Wolfram Alpha download page, where you'll find the tools organized by operating system and browser. I took them all for a spin to see how they fared.

Toolbars
Wolfram Alpha toolbars are available for Firefox 2 and 3 and Internet Explorer 6 or higher. I installed separate toolbars on both Firefox 3 and IE 8. After setup, the toolbar popped up displaying a text field where I could type my search term directly.

Since Wolfram Alpha's forte is mathematical questions, I asked the question: "What is the value of pi?" (I'm sure we all remember from high school that pi is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter.) As expected, the traditional WA search told me it was 3.14 followed by more digits than I cared to count. So far, so good.

Then I experimented with the other toolbar buttons and learned that each one pointed me to different results on the same question. One button points to a page called the Wolfram Demonstration project to illustrate mathematical concepts. Here I could see the value of pi in action by watching a 3D globe with changing dimensions. A button for the Mathematical Documentation center showed me links to complex equations involving pi. Buttons for Wolfram MathWorld and Wolfram Research linked to mathematical and scientific articles on pi. More than I'd ever want to know about pi, but I know it'd make my old algebra teacher smile.

Wolfram Alpha helps me with pi
Wolfram Alpha helps me with pi.

Windows Deskband
The Deskband installed a Wolfram Alpha search tool on my Windows taskbar. Here the same options were available as with the browser toolbar but conveniently accessible from my desktop. Another handy tool.

Windows Desktop gadget
I next tried the Windows Vista Desktop gadget, which plopped a Wolfram Alpha search field on my Vista sidebar. This came without links to the other sources that were accessible from the toolbar, so I didn't find it quite as useful.

Search engine add-ins
This tool added Wolfram Alpha to my browser's list of default search providers. Quick and easy to install, and it worked well in both Firefox and IE.

iGoogle gadget
I use iGoogle as my personalized home page and rely on all of the gadgets available, so I liked this one. The Wolfram Alpha gadget is similar to the sidebar gadget--displaying a single text field for my query.

Internet Explorer 8 accelerator
I installed the Wolfram Alpha Accelerator for Internet Explorer 8. Accelerators let you select text on a Web page to quickly search on it using different sources. Most of the text I found on a typical Web site didn't lend itself to a Wolfram Alpha computational search, so I found little value here.

Mac OS X Dashboard widget
I couldn't test the OS X Dashboard widget because I don't yet have have a Mac. (No comments from Mac users please; it's on my shopping list.) But it should work similarly to its Windows counterpart. I did get the screenshot below from my colleague Stephen Shankland.

Wolfram Alpha Mac widget
Wolfram Alpha Mac widget

Some of the tools did help me see more value in Wolfram Alpha. Of course, they also serve to promote the site, but that's okay by me as long as they work. Of all the downloads, the WA toolbar and deskband demonstrated more of the scope and versatility of Wolfram Alpha by pointing me to different sources--something I didn't know about just from using the Web site.

About the author

Journalist, software trainer, and Web developer Lance Whitney writes columns and reviews for CNET, Computer Shopper, Microsoft TechNet, and other technology sites. His first book, "Windows 8 Five Minutes at a Time," was published by Wiley & Sons in November 2012.

 

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