Monday, November 13, 2006


Mestrelab has announced that, during this week, they will reveal to the world the alpha version of MestreNova. Nobody has seen it yet. Everybody seems to know Mestre-C, instead, and I will analyze it. MestreNova has been written from scratch: it can be considered a brand new product whose function is to supersede Mestre-C. The makers had concluded that the old program needed drastic changes, and went for what I always consider the best solution: a fresh new start. Varian preferred to put a new dress over VNMR, and created VNMRJ, which is a dress more than a computer program. Even TopSpin probably contains parts of older programs (some part probably even predates XWin-NMR). Mestrelab has assured me that their new program is 100% new. I hope not to found the bugs and, most of all, the heavy mentality of Mestre-C.
A not so little detail gives the idea of what Mestre-C has always been, namely an unfinished product. Let's say you have assigned and annotated your spectrum: near each peak there is a label pointing to the corresponding atom. You worked for 30 minutes, the results looks nice. There is a multiplet you want to observe in detail. You start zooming in and panning. The spectrum becomes a mess. When you realize that all annotations have changed position, it's too late for undoing. The undo command doesn't work. There is a bug, never corrected, and the effect is that the annotations don't remember their position. You say: "OK, I'll think about it later; now I hide the annotations". Sorry, there is no command to hide the annotations. The best thing you can do is to close the document without saving the changes and open it again. This has been my experience and the experience of the colleagues I have talked with. How do you call it: user-unfriendliness? Using Mestre-C is like dealing with a known thief; the difference is that, instead of keeping your hands into your pockets, you save very frequently, to prevent damages like this. Certainly there is the Undo command, but it is not constantly enabled. It may happen that you can undo a processing command (I prefer reloading the FID, and I have plenty of serious reasons for preferring it) but if you press the wrong key or click the wrong icon, you can't undo.
Mestre-C is very popular because it was the first free NMR software for Windows, has been adequately promoted, and the migration to a commercial product has been gradual. Until last year you could still download a new version every time your old demo had expired. What fascinated the organic chemists is that the authors were other organic chemists. The absence of a price, and the initial lack of experience, had, unfortunately, their natural consequences. The growth of Mestre-C has been slow (taking nearly a decade) and tormented. The chemists could not switch to it, because it was not complete, and considered Mestre-C like a useful tool for special purposes. Eventually they were not interested into switching anymore (I mean: adopting Mestre-C as their exclusive NMR software). They cared very little of the basic functionalities. They already had VNMR or XWin-NMR for everyday tasks. They used Mestre-C as an extension. The number of users reached 20000 long ago, but the number of switchers is very limited, in comparison. The few switchers that I know (myself included) are unhappy. It can be our fault, or a fault of our PCs (all of them are black Dells). Let me bring this example: another absurd bug creates curious and inexplicable ghost splittings. A singlet can show, on the screen only, a perceptible splitting that can be interpreted as a small coupling. When printed, however, it is clearly a singlet. Does it depend on the graphic card, on the operative system or on the program?
The heavy approach of Mestre-C is not a bug, it's a deliberate choice. I can't say that it doesn't work, but I don't like it at all. I prefer doing things with a soft approach and I _feel_ that the heavy approach is _completely_ wrong. Heavy means that:
  • The processed spectrum overwrites the FID and the latter is lost.
  • Processing is not alterable. If you want to change a window function, for example, you have to restart from the raw data: you lose all of your processing.
  • Instead of creating (light) links among spectra, you have to put all the spectra into a single file.
  • To create an inset, you are forced to duplicate the spectrum. Each inset, no matter how small, eats as much computer memory and disc space as the whole spectrum.
  • The document does not correspond to a spectrum. It is instead a container, which can be empty or contain a number of objects. An object can be a spectrum or any other thing. Even if you avoid such complications and always keep a single spectrum/object into each window, you see a frame around the spectrum, with four handles. I myself keep clicking and dragging the frame by mistake and find it extremely annoying.
  • When I add 1D projections along the sides of a 2D plot, I see additional frames.
  • By default I see countless icons everywhere.

The word "defaults" recalls another bug that hits me: every time I update the program I lose my personal preferences. Unfortunately I never remember how to set them. There are too many options, most of them undesired and not understood, they are located in many places, some of them are document-specific, others are application-global. A possible cause of my disorientation can be the fact that I don't like Windows. In my former group, most of the members, like me, came from the Macintosh and SwaN-MR. The year before our company forced us to switch to Windows, it had happened that a young researcher had joined our group and she found similar difficulties, because she was switching from Windows/Mestre-C to Mac/SwaN-MR. There were two fundamental differences, though:

  1. I can show what is missing into Mestre-C, she didn't explain what was wrong with SwaN-MR.
  2. After one year she felt at ease with SwaN-MR and was productive with it. The more I use Mestre-C, the less I like it.

Can you see why I am curious to see MestreNova? Don't believe that the rest of Mestre-C was OK. Remember that there is a space for comments here below, so you can correct me if I am wrong, or add your personal experience. Regarding mine, it was limited to what I call "routine processing". Nor is it simple to learn the rest. Every command adds its own peculiar interface. You have to remember what a right-clicks performs under each circumstance. Even when the interface is the same, a surprise can arrive like a punch in the stomach. Phase correction, for example, has a unified interface in 1D and 2D. In the latter case I can't specify a pivot point. Why? I ignore it. I only know that it's hard to correct the phase without a pivot. To continue the torture, in 2D, you also have plenty of confusing colors.
Of course I have always expressed, along the years, my criticism to the author, detailing it more than today. The usual answer was the unarguable: "Customers like it in this way". Another common, and not acceptable, answer was: "The bug will disappear with MestreNova". The most important answer, although a silent one, is MestreNova itself: the fact that they have rewritten it all sounds like a condemnation to death for Mestre-C. Let us remember the good qualities of the defunct. The manual, a little outdated, is readable and helpful. The printed output is OK. The job, eventually, is done. Without enjoyment, yet done. For some users it can also be great to know that there are so many advanced options in store.
I am curious: will everything change with the advent of MestreNova? If the answer is yes, will the users be happy to change their habits, to learn new commands, to adopt a new mentality? Most of all: will the heavy approach survive?


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