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Origin 9.1: A review

The latest version of the popular graphing software has new features that enhance power and usability.

OriginLab software has long been one of the industry standards for collecting, plotting and displaying data obtained from experimental laboratories, including physics labs. Since 1993, OriginLab has been releasing semi-yearly updates to their established software, including updates to plot types, user interface, computing and fitting algorithms, and data storage. Last year’s update, Origin 9.1, focused on updating the plotting procedure and increasing the types of plots, with a sub-focus on making the software more accessible and user friendly.

After installing the 9.1 update, the user is met with a smoother, sleeker, and more visually appealing interface compared with previous iterations. Where scientific software commonly employs a Spartan, industrial appearance, the various functions on the toolbars of 9.1 are represented by brightly colored and intuitive symbols. The toolbars themselves are wrapped around the borders of the display window, giving the space a sense of openness and reduced clutter.

On plotting my first set of data on the update, I was greeted with a feature unfamiliar to me as a user coming from Origin 7.5: the workbook. Rather than create window after window of tables, one can simply add worksheets to the workbook in an effort to consolidate data and maximize working space. The interface is reminiscent of Microsoft Excel, which, to my mind, is exactly the type of way data should be stored. While users coming from Origin 8 will recognize this feature, the update has brightened the look, and improved sparkline plots.

The new version also incorporates features to comment on various columns, rows to write in units and functions, and the means to format the data in various styles. As someone whose primary job is recording and plotting data, the ability to do so in such an organized manner, combined with the detail I was able to instill on each data set, made me glad I had made the crossover.

An example of a waterfall-style plot. CREDIT: OriginLab

An example of a waterfall-style plot. CREDIT: OriginLab

The updated Origin is jam-packed with new types of plots and graphs, but in a stroke rare for graphical software, these new, complex plots have been made as easy to graph as the simplest line plot. The waterfall plot is particularly stunning; it offers clear, easy to navigate three-dimensional plots of multiple pieces of two-dimensional data. I also enjoyed the ability to rotate 3D plots at will, a feature that vastly eases comprehension of complex plots. The ternary surface graph, while offering only niche data representation, looks gorgeous and showcases the powerful graphing ability Origin now contains.

Any user of graphical software for analysis can tell you that a highly important, and often frustrating, feature is the ability to fit curves, particularly involving nonlinear and user-defined functions. The difficulty of creating a comparatively general yet efficient solver has stumped software companies for years. While Origin still isn’t perfect, and will have a tough time with the most abstract pieces of data and complex functional forms, the new fitting algorithms work quicker than ever before, and, by utilizing Lowess and Loess smoothing, they can represent patterns such as sine curves with noise. The feature came in handy for the specific type of data I was plotting. The interface conveniently records various parameters regarding goodness of fit for particular trial functions, enabling side-by-side comparisons of various fitting functions on one table.

Origin has a reputation for including niche features that you may never notice the first times, or years, that you use the software. Each use opens the possibility of discovering a new feature that, while perhaps not Earth-shattering, is cute and potentially applicable to some future use of the software. My favorite of these was the ability to plot data directly to a slideshow in real time. I could just picture the scenario where a student, cramming for a last-minute presentation, needed to take his data and plot it while giving his talk. My adviser even said that a real-time updating presentation was something they joked about back in the 1990s. Regardless of its application, the feature is a testament to the level of detail and comprehensiveness Origin has inscribed into the update.

One feature that makes 9.1 a successful and worthwhile upgrade is the improvement to the user guide. Typically, software manuals can be confusing, overly detailed, and too disorganized to be of much use. The 9.1 user guide, however, is simply and conversationally worded, filled with screenshots of the software in action (to show you what you’re actually supposed to be looking at), and chock-full of tutorials that guide first-time and new users along, not only the basic functions, but also the more complex procedures. Whenever I wanted to investigate a new plotting or customizing technique, I found it easily, and was walked through it thoroughly in the user guide. This improvement should not be understated, as even veteran users can get stuck trying to navigate some difficult task; I feel it is one of the best features to come out of the update.

Updates to established and functional software are often perceived as a money-grab for the companies. However, as someone who uses the software on a daily basis and has spent months investigating all the changes, Origin’s absolute attention to detail made me believe that they genuinely care about their users. While running Origin 7 or 8 will suffice for most tasks, and nothing truly groundbreaking has been added to the 9.1 update, I do feel that this upgrade will be worth it in the long run. For users who have never used Origin, this is the most user-friendly version on the market, and is easily worth the extra few dollars. After such a comprehensive overhaul, I can only imagine what Origin has in store for their next update.

Benjamin Huber-Rodriguez is a graduate student at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

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