Software tutorial/Extending R with packages

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The basic R installation is pretty comprehensive. One of the advantages of R though is that it is constantly being updated with new packages. A package is collection of functions and other information that expand R's capabilities.

For example, the built-in qqnorm(...) can be used to test if a sequence of values came from a normal distribution. However, there is, in my opinion, a better qq-plot function in the car library, called qqPlot(...), however the car library does not come pre-installed with R.

This section shows how to install extra packages and to keep your R installation up to date.

Keeping R up to date

Even if you don't want to install extra packages, you should keep the built-in packages up to date. You require an internet connection for this step.

The manual approach is to write, at the R command prompt:

update.packages()

Or you can follow these steps in RStudio:

  • Click on Tools on the top menu
  • Then choose Check for Package Updates...
  • If this is your first time updating, then you will have to select the closest update mirror (web site).
  • Typically you would choose the mirror that is geographically closest to you: for example Canada (ON). You can have R remember your choice for the future.
  • Click on the Install button to have R update all your packages to their latest version.

R will fetch and install any updates it requires.

Installing a new package

Installing a new package is easy; finding the package to install that does what you want is a little tougher: there are over 2000 packages available. Here are 2 ways I typically discover packages.

  1. By browsing the hierarchy of packages at http://cran.r-project.org/web/views/
  2. Googling: for example, the other day I needed to figure out how to plot time-series data nicely. I came across a page that recommended the xts package.
  • Click on Tools on the top menu
  • Choose Install Packages...
  • Type in the name of the package you found in the prior step.
  • Make sure you select the check box Install dependencies
  • Then click "Install"

Once the library is installed, you first need to load it. For example, to generate a nicer qq-plot using the car package:

data <- rnorm(100)  # create 100 normally distributed values
library(car)
qqPlot(data)

will generate:

Plot-qq-plot.jpg

To see a list of all functions that are provided by a package:

help(package="car")

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