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Is textscan ever better than readtable?

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I have some legacy code that reads in data from a text file. The author seems to avoid using readtable() in favour of using textscan() to get a cell array of strings and then converting the strings to the correct format afterwards. This seems like an awkward way of doing things, and takes a long time for big files so my questions are:
  • Is there any obvious reason to do this? Is textscan somehow more flexible/robust than readtable?
  • Is readtable optimised for reading data in a specified format? (i.e. faster than reading a string and converting)
Daniel Murphy
Daniel Murphy on 9 Mar 2018
Thanks to both of you - the cell array from textscan gets converted into a table after import, and I see evidence in comments of readtable having been used at one point, which is why I'm slightly confused

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Accepted Answer

Guillaume on 9 Mar 2018
readtable internally calls textscan, but does a lot of work before to automatically detect the format of the file and after to split the data into variables of the correct type. So, a properly designed call to textscan and direct conversion to a table is always going to be faster than going through readtable.
What little you may lose in speed (file i/o is probably dominant anyway, so processing speed may not be critical), you make up for it by the flexibility of readtable. readtable is simply textscan on steroid (and it gets better with each release) so unless it is demonstrably slower I would always use it.
Note that early readtable wasn't as good at the autodetection. As said it gradually improved with each release since R2013b. The introduction of the import options in R2016b really makes it powerful.

More Answers (1)

Walter Roberson
Walter Roberson on 9 Mar 2018
textscan() can be a bit more flexible in handling challenges such as using commas for decimal point, or odd quoting, or reading time-like things "raw" because spaces in time formats confuse both textscan and readtable.
Generally, textscan() has more control over skipping data, and more control over number of lines to be processed.
On the other hand with fairly recent updates adding the detectImportOptions facility, readtable can do some fixed-width reading that textscan struggles with.
Walter Roberson
Walter Roberson on 3 Aug 2021
In cases where the file fits in memory, my experience is that reading as character and transforming the characters can be very effective -- relatively easy to code, and sometimes big performance gains compared to parsing line-by-line. This is especially true for semi-structured files, such as files that have repeated blocks of headers and data, or files that have fixed text with embedded numbers.
For example, readtable() and textscan() are not very good at reading a file that looks like
The temperature in Winnipeg at 15:17 was 93 degrees.
The temperature in Thunder Bay at 15:18 was 88 degrees.
The temperature in Newcastle On The Tyne at 15:18 was -3.8 degrees.
but reading as text and doing a regexp 'names' can work really well.

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