About alternatives to Matlab

sturlamolden sturlamolden at yahoo.no
Sun Nov 26 18:43:48 CET 2006

Phil Schmidt wrote:

> Well, that kind of gets right to my point. Does the "added" effort with
> Python to interface with data acquisition hardware really result in
> less productivity? I am very familiar with Matlab, Labview, and Python,
> and frankly, Python is the most productive and powerful programming
> language of the three. But it's the hardware compatibility thing that
> concerns me with Python.

This is really a question that has no general answer. It depends on the
specific hardware and the solutions available.

Generally, Matlab and Python sucks equally much when it comes to
interfacing with hardware. Both tycan use C extensions (which you may
have to write) or ctypes (Matlab's equivalent is the loadlibrary/callib
functions). If only a C SDK is available, SWIG can autogenerate Python
wrappers  (require some tweking). Matlab's loadlibrary can sometimes
parse C header files, but it is not always successful.

Both Matlab and Python can use COM/ActiveX objects on Windows. In
addition, Matlab can use Java classes, with which Python does not
interface easily. On the other hand, Python can use .NET objects, if
you use Microsoft's IronPython or "Python for .NET" with classic
Python. Last time I checked, Matlab could not use .NET objects, but
that was a year ago.

Most data acquisition hardware are supplied with SDKs for C, and
perhaps COM/ActiveX objects for RAD tools like Visual Basic and Delphi.
Modern hardware is often supplied with .NET SDKs. LabView drivers are
also commonly supplied. If none are supplied by the vendor, there are
often prewritten solutions for Matlab, Python or Java available on the
Internet, but you will have to search for them, or write your own.

Thus, it is not generally true that it is easier to interface hardware
with Matlab than Python. It depens on what SDKs you get.

On the programming side, Python is a general purpose language, Matlab
is designed for working with matrices easily. Array and matrix
computation in Python require NumPy, which has recently been declared
stable. Matlab has been stable for quite a while. Python is
multi-threaded, Matlab is single-threaded. Matlab uses pass-by-value
even for the largest of arrays, Python always pass references.

With Python, you can program with multiple threads; with Matlab, you
have everything in one thread. As Matlab only supports synchronous i/o
out of the box, you cannot do anything else while Matlab's fwrite or
fread functions are 'blocking' (i.e. waiting for data from hardware or
writing to disk). This is Matlab's major disadvantage for data
acquisition applications. Thus to make your data acquisition run
smoothly and efficiently with Matlab, you must resort to writing CMEX
extensions for performing asynchronous I/O or spawn off threads. Have
you ever looked at overlapped i/o in the Windows API? I can guarantee
that it is hundred times more complex than anything a hardware vendor
can throw at you. Alternatively, you can code the i/o in Java, and make
have Matlab call Java for i/o tasks. With Python, this is a non-issue.
You can put blocking i/o in separate threads or use prewritten APIs for
non-blocking i/o. It is obvious which is the better option here.
Generally, non-blocking i/o and multithreading is essential for any
serious data acqusition application, and Matlab does not support any of

Both Matlab and Python is interpreted languages. Matlab has a
rudimentary JIT compiler, whilst classic Python is interpreted only.
Microsoft's IronPython uses the .NET JIT compiler. Jython uses Java's
JIT compiler (run the Server JVM or IBM's JDK for best performance,
don't use the client JVM with hotspot). However, if you use IronPython
or Jython, NumPy is out of the question. Thus, Matlab has perhaps a
slight advantage here.

With Python you can inline C in your Python code (e.g. using SciPy and
Weave), and even inline assembly in the inlined C. Thus you can easily
deal with hotspots in your Python code. You cannot do this easily with

For these reasons, my general view is that Python is better for data
acquisition than Matlab. But using Python for the sake of using Python
is nevertheless silly. The same holds true for Matlab.

A data acquisition program ofte require fast graphics as well. For slow
2D plots, Python and Matlab perform equally well (Python requires
Matplotlib). Matlab can draw 3D graphs, but not quickly. Python require
VTK for this, which may be harder to use. For fast 2D or 3D graphics,
i.e. DirectDraw, Direct3D or OpenGL, Python is the only game in town.
DirectDraw is used by SDL, which in turn is used by PyGame. Direct3D is
available though DirectPython (or COM objects or .NET objects). OpenGL
is available through PyOpenGL, which has recently been redesigned to
use ctypes; previously the build process for PyOpenGL used to be a
nightmare. For GUI, Matlab only has rudementary capabilities. Python
has several high quality GUI libraries (not counting tkinter). You can
create multimedia applications with PyGame, you cannot do this easily
with Matlab. E.g. do you want to play sound while you record?

> It seems the answers are hard to come by on this issue. I sure would be
> willing to give it a try, except that I'm getting paid to get a job
> done, not to tinker around with Python and DAQ hardware. But if
> tinkering around could save my project money on commercial software,
> and still get it done on schedule, it would be a big win. I just don't
> have confidence that it would.

That you will have to figure out your self. The answer is not obvious.
But for GUI, forget about tkinter.

More information about the Python-list mailing list