Loren on the Art of MATLAB

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Monitoring Progress of a Calculation 38

Posted by Loren Shure,

Users sometimes want to monitor the progress of some calculation or simulation. Here's a recent example from the MATLAB newsgroup.


Some functions have an option you can set that displays information throughout the course of a calculation, for example, fminsearch via the OutputFcn in optimset. What are your choices when you want some intermediate output from your own code? I see three choices.

  • Mimic behavior of the OutputFcn idea in your own code so you can specify the output.
  • Use waitbar for a graphic progress meter.
  • Send output to the command window in a way that's legible and doesn't clutter the information, using fprintf and taking advantage of some of the special formatting capabilities.

Graphical Output Option Using waitbar

Here's a very short illustration of the kind of control you can get using waitbar. First, create a waitbar and get its handle.

h = waitbar(0,'Initializing waitbar...');

Here's an update when the calculation is halfway done. Make sure to use the waitbar handle to update the existing waitbar.

waitbar(0.5,h,'Halfway there...')

And further along again:

perc = 75;
waitbar(perc/100,h,sprintf('%d%% along...',perc))

Close the progess meter when the calculation is done.


There are a plethora of alternatives to waitbar on The MATLAB Central File Exchange. I count 29 today when I search for waitbar.

Textual Output Option

fprintf can print output to the command window by specifying the file identifier as the value 1. In addition, you can take advantage of escape characters, such as \b for backspace, to control where the output goes.

Look at lines 2 and 4 in the code snippet here. On line 2, I print out a line, but do not terminate it with a newline character \n. On line 4, we use the backspace capability to overwrite our previous integer, before pausing so the command window output can be updated. Finally, when the loop is complete, I use fprintf to advance the cursor to a new line \n.

dbtype cmdwinProgress
1     % Example Code for Printing Progress to the Command Window
2     fprintf(1,'here''s my integer:  ');
3     for i=1:9
4         fprintf(1,'\b%d',i); pause(.1)
5     end
6     fprintf('\n')

Here's the final result from that command window, having first made sure the screen (using clc) before running cmdwinProgress.

Progress Indicators

What do you look for in a progress indicator? Do any of the options mentioned above work for you? If not, why not? Post your thoughts here.

Get the MATLAB code

Published with MATLAB® 7.4


Comments are closed.

38 CommentsOldest to Newest

naor movshovitz replied on : 2 of 38

Thanks Loren,
I use both of these methods regularly, but I don’t always get a consistent behaviour with command window output, so maybe you can help me. Is using pause(0.1) the only way to update the command window? Does pause actually force an update or just allows an update? If the latter, is there a way to force an update?


anon replied on : 3 of 38

I’m just happy when it’s not spitting warnings and error messages at my code. The less I see, the better. That’s progress.

StephenLL replied on : 4 of 38

I use a more general logging utility. This can write out progress, warnings, etc..

I typically write to a file and that file is monitored using a tail utility to display the most recent changes to the file.

Typically my loops are “vectorized”, ie each loop is doing a block of iterations at a time where the calculations are completely vectorized, so having a utility to write out to a file after each block is done is not going to slow down my code by a lot. I also have the ability to turn off this logging.

There are several tail utilities out there for all OS. Under windows you can find a nice gui one that will display several files. I have even seen utilities for mac and windows that will put the progress as a background on your desktop.


Ben replied on : 5 of 38

The backspace is my favorite trick, and I am delighted it is mentioned here. Log files are nice for after-the-fact monitoring, but for “interactive” monitoring the backspace is a nice fix for a rapidly scrolling command window (especially for command windows that only occupy a small corner of a MATLAB desktop.)

A more sophisticated trick for longer running codes where the overhead/time spent in fprintf() or friends is of concern could be solved with a more intelligent output routine. The mentality there would be to call the update routine every loop iteration, but to only fprintf() unless a specified amount of human-significant wall time has elapsed since the last fprintf(). (Credits for that go to a colleague of mine.)

Daniel Armyr replied on : 6 of 38

Finally!!! I spent 3 friggin years cursing Matlab because you couldn’t print something on the commandline without getting that stupid trailing newline. There really should be a mention in the documentation of “disp” that references the fprintf. As it is now there is only a reference to sprintf, but sprintf allways has to go inside a disp, so you get the newline either way.

Either way, now I can finally get reasonable ammounts of output without spending a significant ammount of coding time doing sdvanced tricks of the variant that Ben mentioned.

Loren replied on : 7 of 38

Wow folks! I’m stunned and gratified that I hit a helpful nerve here.

The pause WILL flush the buffer. I haven’t found any others that are reliable. If you know of a case where pause doesn’t update the command window, please send a report in to technical support.

For files, there are options for fopen that help you control the buffer flush behavior.


Markus replied on : 8 of 38

Funny that I just today had another look at my version of function wdisp from the File Exchange…

One drawback of the “backspace trick” shows up if the command window already has a scrollbar and line breaks are overwritten and retyped. Then the command window flickers, to my feeling randomly. Is there anything one can do about that?


Jette replied on : 9 of 38

We have sometimes situations where one single MATLAB command lasts some time (lets say, several minutes) and we want to give the user a feedback that the program is still running. Usually users don’t look at the command window – so we need something graphical. The classical waitbar solution doesn’t work here because there is no possiblity to update the waitbar. Do you know a trick for this?

Loren replied on : 10 of 38


You have to program in the waitbar functionality for it to work. Or some other method for showing progress, in your own code. Only you know how long it will take. MATLAB can’t do that on it’s own.


Yash replied on : 11 of 38

I was just wondering, how much effect does displaying the waitbar() has on the speed of execution?

I tried using the following:

for i = 1:1000000;
if (mod(i,1000) == 0);
% Do nothing.

Elapsed time is 2.342689 seconds.

w1 = waitbar(0, ‘waitbar()’);
for i = 1:1000000;
if (mod(i,1000) == 0);
waitbar(i/1000000, w1);

Elapsed time is 3.240022 seconds.

w2 = waitbar(0, ‘waitbar()’);
for i = 1:1000000;
if (mod(i,1000) == 0);
waitbar(i/1000000, w2, i); % Update title.

Elapsed time is 5.276238 seconds.

Han Geerligs replied on : 12 of 38

Here is an improved version of the command line progress bar printing: the endvalue is configurable and the required backspaces are put in:

% Improved example code for Printing Progress to the Command Window


fprintf(1,[‘here”s my integer: ‘ blanks(required_blanks)]);
for n=1:required_blanks
% build format_string: put backspaces in, define format specifier (leftalign)
format_string = [backspace_string ‘%-‘ num2str(required_blanks) ‘d’];

for i=1:endvalue
fprintf(1,format_string,i); pause(.1)

Loren replied on : 14 of 38

You can post most code to blog comments using some html tags. I will write them out with spaces so you can see them and they won’t be interpreted:

< p r e   c l a s s = " c o d e " >

< / p r e >
Tim Davis replied on : 15 of 38

If all the work is inside a mexFunction, then this method won’t work. You’d need to modify the mexFunction. I gave it a try using mexCallMATLAB at the link listed here, and it works fine.

But what if all the work is, say, inside x=A\b, or another built-in? The proftool seems to update itself when time marches on inside a built-in, but can waitbar do that to?

Elmar replied on : 16 of 38

Dear Loren,

great blog!

I would like to reuse a waitbar for several loops and avoid new windows popping up. (Sure, old ones can be deleted with close, but still, every new waitbar diverts attention from what I am currently doing.)

– Is it true that I cannot reset a current waitbar with handle “h” using “waitbar(0,h)”, once the counter has been larger than 0?
– Is it possible for a waitbar to be created in the background?

Many thanks in advance!

justin replied on : 17 of 38

…I’ve always thought that the drawnow function should also flush the text buffers, since it performs an equivalent task for the graphics.

jonny replied on : 18 of 38

The ‘\b’ trick is nice as long as you run the code in the command window. But once I compile it to a stand-alone application and run it in the MS-DOS command prompt window, the \b seems to be ignored. Instead, the MS-DOS (Win XP) command window starts a new line at every increment.
Does anybody know a workaround, to make the MS-DOS command prompt window output look like the Matlab command window?

Antunes replied on : 19 of 38


The use of waitbar you mention is really nice.
But here’s a problem:
I use waitbar inside a function, but during debug my code has errors and exits from within that same function.
Now the handle to waitbar is not global, so ‘close(w1)’ won’t close the waitbar, neither will ‘close all’.
This means I am left with a lot of open waitbars and have to close them manually -rather annoying!

Any ideas?


jkarretero replied on : 21 of 38

Here is another proposal:

for i=1:110
    fprintf(1,'%d',i); pause(.1)
    for n = 1:ceil(log10(i+1)), fprintf(1,'\b'); end

Syl20 replied on : 22 of 38


Ok for the waitbar. I use it for quite a long time now… But it’s more to show progress of the program than to invite user to wait.
I would like something animated just to do that, regardless of the program progress. Is it possible ?

Loren replied on : 23 of 38


I am not sure what you mean. Perhaps changing the figure pointer property (perhaps to an hourglass helps)? Or your own custom pointer perhaps?

Possible pointers include:
crosshair | {arrow} | watch | topl |
topr | botl | botr | circle | cross |
fleur | left | right | top | bottom |
fullcrosshair | ibeam | custom

See the doc for more info and go to the pointer property.


Ljubomir Josifovski replied on : 24 of 38

Somewhat related: is a way to temporarily pause a program on emitting output in the command window? The thing that ctrl-s / ctrl-q (pause/release) do in most terminals? Hm, maybe this even works by default in a matlab session inside Unix-type terminal, just not in a Matlab console on a PC?


Loren replied on : 25 of 38


I am unaware of doing something exactly like ctrl-s/ctrl-q.

A user can sort of control the command window using the function “more” though I doubt it will be exactly what you are looking for.


Ljubomir Josifovski replied on : 26 of 38

Thanks. Correct, I want to be able to control from “outside”, without getting the Matlab application involved. I guess then it is the responsibility of the outside app where the command window runs to provide that functionality (as a termninal does). Not a big issue at all, just a handy one at times. Oh, well. :-)

Samuel A. Hurley replied on : 27 of 38

Text-based indicators of progress are a great idea — I’ve found that very long computations (~2-3 days running time) will eventually crash with a java memory error if you use progressbar().

abe lau replied on : 28 of 38

I found that the waitbar isn’t very useful especially in situation where a single command takes a long time (a transformation etc…). In that case, the waitbar will basically be frozen (same as other part of the UI).

The closest workaround I found is to create a timer such that the waitbar still keeps on going, showing the user that it is still working. and delete the timer after the operation is done.

It would be great if the default waitbar function can be improved such that those situation be catered. E.g. an option to trigger the waitbar to just move to and forth.

Loren replied on : 29 of 38


Good suggestion. Please use the support link at the right to make the request (it counts more if it comes from you than if it comes from me).


Julia replied on : 30 of 38

I’d like to know if there is any way to overwrite fprintf built-in function? I wan to add some my own action in fprintf function before I call the built-in fprintf.
I know how to overwrite disp, but I do not know how to overwrite fprintf. I’d like to know if it is possible. Could you please help? Thanks.

Loren replied on : 31 of 38


You CAN but it’s not necessarily a good idea. A better idea is to write myfprintf and call that. Put your extra code in there and then call myfprintf. Otherwise, the version of fprintf will have your modifications even for applications that aren’t expecting it – perhaps code from other people that you have downloaded, etc.

To change fprintf, you need to find a directory on your path in which to create a subdirectory called @char NOT on your path. Inside that @char directory, create the version of fprintf that you want, and then, use the builtin function to call the version of fprintf from MATLAB from your own. Again, I REALLY DISCOURAGE you for doing this! The different name scenario is much safer.


Gianluca replied on : 32 of 38

I’d like to know if there is any way to use the waitbar in a parallelised code (i.e. matlabpool, spmd). I tried that and I keep getting this error..
Warning: This functionality is no longer supported under the -nodisplay and
-noFigureWindows startup options. For more information, see “Changes to
-nodisplay and -noFigureWindows Startup Options” in the MATLAB Release Notes.
To view the release note in your system browser, run
> In uitools\private\warnfiguredialog at 19
In waitbar at 39
In remoteBlockExecution at 48

Do you know what the reason is?

Kamil replied on : 33 of 38

Another example:

    progress.text = sprintf( 'Completed: %%3.0f%%%%%%s' );
    progress.clear = sprintf( '%s', ...
        sprintf('\b')*ones(1,length(sprintf(progress.text,0,''))) );
    N = 100+400*rand();
    for n = 0:N
        fprintf( progress.text, n/N*100, progress.clear );
        pause( 0.01 );
    fprintf( progress.text, n/N*100, sprintf('\n') ); 
Loren replied on : 34 of 38

Kamil- Thanks.

Gianluca- I don’t know. But I think you need to start WITH the desktop instead of -nodesktop. That’s just a guess based on the warnings. Otherwise, I suggest you contact technical support (link on right of the blog).


inwoo yoon replied on : 36 of 38

Regarding backspace, I noticed that when multiple backspace is printed, Linux version will stop at the beginning of the line and PC version will go past the beginning of the line and to the previous line. Is that how it’s supposed to work?

Loren replied on : 37 of 38

inwoo yoon,

Can you please tell us exactly what version of MATLAB you are running on PC and linux? Thanks.


Andrew replied on : 38 of 38

I just came across this page and wrote my own little version that’s a bit like jkarretero’s example but without a double FOR loop using a compact implementation of repmat():

m = 1e3;
bs = ‘\b’;
sp = ‘ ‘;
msg = ‘%d iterations…\n’; % carriage return included in case error interrupts loop
msglen = length(msg)-3; % compensate for conversion character and carriage return
for i=1:m
fprintf(1,[bs(mod(0:2*(ceil(log10(i+1))+msglen)-1,2)+1) msg],i);

This can be modified a bit if you don’t want the progress digit at the beginning:

m = 1e3;
bs = ‘\b’;
sp = ‘ ‘;
msg = ‘Iteration %d…\n’; % carriage return included in case error interrupts loop
msglen = length(msg)-3; % compensate for conversion character and carriage return
for i=1:m
fprintf(1,[bs(mod(0:2*(ceil(log10(i))+msglen)-1,2)+1) msg],i);

Note that it’s a good idea to include a carriage return at the end of your message because any error message from a loop whose progress you’re monitoring doesn’t start with a new line.

Also, maybe it’s obvious, but as long as the code whose progress you’re monitoring takes a nominal amount of time to execute, don’t forget to remove any pause() statements from your loop. All they do is slow it down and I haven’t seen any problems with the command window not updating. …Except… I have however seen what looks like a race condition when the schemes above are called in a sufficiently tight loop and the first character or two don’t get written (R2011b, Mac OS X 10.6.8). It’s most noticeable when the loop increment is a power of ten. The non-updating of those characters in the command window persists even after the code has finished executing.