Lesson 1.1 – MATLAB Introduction

Learning Objectives

After reading this lesson, you should be able to:

  1. know why MATLAB is useful for engineers and scientists,

  2. get MATLAB on your computer,

  3. comprehend the free alternatives to MATLAB.


What is MATLAB?

MATLAB is a high-level programming language built for scientists and engineers who work in academia and industry. MATLAB is relatively user-friendly and provides many out-of-the-box tools and resources relevant to engineers for mathematics, controls, data analysis, data manipulation, data acquisition, and more (see MathWorks documentation for a full list of toolboxes).

This software has built-in abilities like plotting and statistical analysis that many other popular programming languages do not have, which makes it attractive to engineers who are more focused on the problem-solving rather than the computer science happening behind the scenes. For example, MATLAB offers a “mean” function to compute the average of a set of data. The user can simply use this function without specifically adding data values and then dividing by the number of data values.


What is MATLAB used for in engineering and science?

While MATLAB is capable of all of these and more, this topic will only cover the essential utilities, while presenting practical examples. These essentials can be further used to figure out the more advanced utilities.

  • Data manipulation - Math operations, statistics, linear algebra, vector and matrix manipulation, optimization, etc.

  • Data Presentation - Plotting/graphing (2D/3D), animation (2D/3D), graphical user interface (GUI) application, remote deployment, etc.

  • Hardware Communication and Control - Sensor reading, actuator control, signal processing, signal generation, etc.

  • Media Processing - Computer/Machine Vision, audio recording/playback, frequency analysis, etc.

  • And much, much more…


How can I get MATLAB onto my computer?

MATLAB is a proprietary programming language held by its parent company MathWorks, which means you, your school, or your company needs to pay for a license to use it. You can see buying options and pricing at MathWorks, but they do offer a student version.

If you do buy MATLAB and have the option to include toolboxes for a discounted price, you should consider doing so. A student version can be downloaded for as low as $49 (as of November 2019). MATLAB is highly modular, meaning that various specialized toolboxes can be added to the core software. Some toolboxes come standard with MATLAB, while others have to be purchased. Some of the toolboxes, such as the Symbolic Math Toolbox, are fundamental to common uses like solving equations.

To install MATLAB, follow the usual procedure for your operating system. There is no need to set up environmental variables, set a path to a compiler, etc. (if you have done that for other programming languages). If you run into trouble during the installation process, go to for details on how to install your version of MATLAB.


Are there any free alternatives to MATLAB?

Not every engineer or engineering company is able to afford a software license to use MATLAB. However, many universities and large companies provide MATLAB licenses to students/employees free of charge, so check with your university/company first! The list below shows the current most popular numerical analysis software alternatives to MATLAB. In most cases, these alternatives offer nearly identical commands and syntax/code structure.

  1. Octave Online: fastest to use, no setup/install required

  2. Octave: most common alternative, the closest program to MATLAB

  3. SciLab and FreeMat.


Where can I find more information and help with MATLAB online?

Complete documentation and examples on MATLAB commands and functions can be found at We will go over how to use documentation in later lessons. A good and complete MATLAB overview, relating to programming and programming languages in general, can be found on Wikipedia.

Multiple Choice Quiz

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Problem Set

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