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I need to evaluate the efficiency of my code. Therefore I would like to evaluate the time the code need for some calculations. Mathematica gives me two possibilities for this kind of evaluation:


evaluates expr, returning a list of the absolute number of seconds in real time that have elapsed, together with the result obtained.


evaluates expr, and returns a list of the time in seconds used, together with the result obtained.

For both functions the Mathematica Documentation does not provide the section "Properties & Relations" which normally helps to find out the differences between two or more functions.

Does anyone have an idea?

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You've read this? –  J. M. Nov 5 '12 at 17:04
I use AbsoluteTiming for everything. But opinions do differ here:) –  Ajasja Nov 5 '12 at 17:21
@J.M. - something interesting - i noticed Timing[100000!;] is shown with "Second" in the output, whereas I dont see that on my machine's output –  my account_ram Mar 13 '14 at 20:47

2 Answers 2

up vote 30 down vote accepted

Which one we use depends upon what we are trying to determine. If our goal is to measure algorithmic time complexity, Timing (used carefully) is the tool. If we want to measure how long a computation took to run in our environment, AbsoluteTiming is what we need.

Timing measures the amount of CPU time consumed by the kernel to evaluate a given expression. The result is only approximate since, depending upon the underlying platform, it may or may not include CPU time used for system calls, page faults, process swaps, etc. It will also not include any CPU time used by parallel processes and threads, even other Mathematica kernels.

AbsoluteTiming measures the amount of elapsed time (i.e. wall-clock time) to evaluate an expression. Again, the result is approximate due to platform-specific overhead and clock resolution.

Let's look at some examples.

Let's try evaluating a computation-heavy expression across multiple kernels. First, we'll measure the CPU time using Timing:

bigSum[n_] := Sum[RandomInteger[10]&[], {i, 1, n}]

ParallelTable[bigSum[i] // Timing, {i, {2^22, 2^23}}] // Timing
(* {0.015,{{2.98,20964693},{5.913,41923486}}} *)

We see that the master kernel racked up only 0.015 seconds of CPU time since it was spending most of its time twiddling its thumbs waiting for the subkernels to finish. The two subkernels were busy though, using 2.98 and 5.913 seconds of CPU time each. The total CPU time used for the entire computation was 0.015s + 2.98s + 5.913s = 8.908s.

Now let's measure the same computation using AbsoluteTiming to get the elapsed time:

ParallelTable[bigSum[i] // AbsoluteTiming, {i, {2^22, 2^23}}] // AbsoluteTiming
(* {5.9904000,{{2.9952000,20982605},{5.9592000,41944028}}} *)

We see that the first subkernel was done in 2.995s of elapsed time. The second subkernel needed 5.959s. The master kernel took just a little bit longer since it had to assemble the results, running for 5.990s. Unlike CPU time, these quantities do not add so the total elapsed time for the expression was the largest, 5.990s.

We can contrast these results with those from a computation that is not CPU intensive:

ParallelTable[(Pause[i*5];i) // Timing, {i, 1, 2}] // Timing
(* {0.,{{0.,1},{0.,2}}} *)

This time we see that, for practical purposes, none of the kernels used any CPU time. They did, however, take real time to execute:

ParallelTable[(Pause[i*5];i) // AbsoluteTiming, {i, 1, 2}] // AbsoluteTiming

From these results we can see that Timing is valuable when we are trying to determine the CPU load of a computation. This measure has a strong correlation to the time complexity of an algorithm, provided we take care to track the CPU time in all relevant processes.

AbsoluteTiming is valuable when we don't really care about CPU resource usage or time complexity, but are primarily interested in how long a computation will take (to know whether we should take a coffee break or a vacation while we wait). It can also be useful to estimate computational cost of external processes that we cannot monitor directly (e.g. protected system processes or remote machines).

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I used to use Timing[] for all my performance evaluations ... and have completely stopped doing so ... I now use AbsoluteTiming[] for everything. The reason for my switch is predominantly the advent of parallel processors and multiple kernels.

If you evaluate on a multiprocessor machine:

 Timing[  blah ]

... Mathematica returns the time taken for ONLY the master kernel to issue the instruction to the slave kernels and manage them ... which might be 0.01 seconds; the slaves might spend an hour each on the calculation, but the timing taken by the master kernel is 0.01 seconds and that is what is reported back to you. In other words, Timing[] in a multiprocessor environment has become highly misleading and largely pointless. It is not the timing function you generally want.

So, I now use AbsoluteTiming for everything! It does what you expect Timing to do. For me, Timing is to be avoided.

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