We are all geeks here, right? Most of us has mathematics/science backgrounds. So this needs to be discussed: what is your favorite calculator?

When I was in school, I was a TI-86 power user. I had my trusty calculator on me almost at all times, and it served me not only as a calculator, but also as an electronic cheat-sheet, a to-do list and a gaming device. It was an awesome piece of hardware too. I can’t tell you how many times I dropped it or sat on it. And yet it kept going.

Behold: TI-86

I guess it’s because it was designed for high school students and thus had to take a great deal of punishment. I found myself using it throughout my entire college career. By the time I started grad school though, I found that I had less and less use for it. And it wasn’t that I needed to do less mathematics or modeling. It was that I was never really away from a computer that could run Maple, Octave, GNU Plot or MathLab. And most of the time, if I needed to graph or plot something, I also needed to copy and paste the results into some paper. So it just made sense to use these software based tools.

But these advanced mathematical software packages are a topic for a whole another post. Most of these are essentially specialized Turing complete programming languages. Let’s talk about software calculators – stuff that you pull up when you need to add and/or multiply a few numbers. What do you use then?

For the record, this is not a calculator:

Not a Calculator I would use

There is an equivalent tool on pretty much every OS ever made in existence and they all suck. I honestly don’t even know why people keep making these. Actually, scratch that. I know exactly why. All these simple calculator tools are made to be pretty much direct replicas of this:

Raise your hand if you also owned this calculator as a kid

And they are about as useful. Btw, I actually owned a calculator just like this when I was a kid. I have no clue why I remember this particular calculator rather than all the other ones, but I do. I’m fairly sure it got smashed to pieces or lost, at some point doing my childhood but when I wanted to find a picture of a generic, simplistic calculator this is what popped into my mind. And Google image search delivered!

Anyways, making a calculator program that looks and behaves exactly like a cheep $3 calculator is kinda silly for multiple reasons. First off, you are sitting at a computer which has a keyboard with lots of buttons. Chances are your keyboard has a numeric pad section shaped exactly like a calculator keyboard (unless you are on a smaller laptop or notebook). Why do you need virtual buttons on the screen?

Secondly, the cheep calculators (like my Mickey Mouse specimen) could not display and maintain history of calculations because of hardware limitations. They wee built for simplicity. But if you are making a software calculator there is just no reason to make it work this way. This is a classic software engineering trap: replicating functionality instead of improving and automating it. Its silly, counter-productive and it happens all the time.

This is how a real software calculator should look like:

SpeedCrunch Calculator

This little guy is actually called SpeedCrunch. It is an open source tool, and it runs on every platform. I habitually install it on all my machines because it just works. It is simple, easy to use and intuitive. The common functions are exactly what you would expect them to be: sqrt, sin, cos, etc… I highly recommend it.

That said, there was one other calculator I liked better than Speed Crunch. It was the Windows Power Toy Calculator which does not even have it’s own webpage. It looked like this:

Windows XP Power Toy Calculator

It did everything Speed Crunch does, and it also had some limited graphing capabilities. And it looked better, while still maintaining very clean and simple interface. Unfortunately, this tool does not work in more recent versions of Windows. I could not get it to install on 64 bit versions of Vista or Win 7. I was actually quite surprised that Microsoft would create this super neat little calculator and then ditch it like this.

Well, it turns out they did not ditch it. Apparently it became it’s own project which turned into Microsoft Math 4.0, but no one told me. Or at least I assume that’s what happened because both applications are very similar with respect to look, feel and usability. MS Math is just more advanced, and has more bells and whistles (such as symbolic equation solving, better graphing tools, etc..):

Microsoft Mathematics 4.0

Btw, you can hide that ugly pseudo-calculator in the sidebar. All in all it is a very nice calculator tool set, with only a few minor flaws. For one, it does not load as quickly as Speed Crunch or Power Calc. It likes to display a splash screen when you start it up, and asks you if you want to save your calculations when you close it which is kinda annoying. As a result, it is a bit on the bulky side for a calculator. Which makes sense, since it was designed to be an educational aid rather than a side calculator for geeks like you and me. Still, when I’m on windows, I use it interchangeably with Speed Crunch, whenever I need to do something more complex than basic number crunching.

I still haven’t found a perfect calculator for iOS. Right now I’m using the Free Graphing Calculator which is actually pretty decent:

Free Graphing Calculator - prety good

I am not entirely sure that this is the best free calculator on that platform, but so far it has been serving me well. Actually, I only found it few days ago but so far, so good. There might be better ones out there though. If you know of them, please let me know!

What is your favorite calculator? Feel free to talk both about hardware and software calculators.

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19 Responses to Calculators

  1. Athanor UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    HP-28. I know, not near as popular as the 48’s, but I liked it. Infinite (well, big) stack, RPN, awesome.

    I had some TI-55 calcs, both the original (LED display, yeay!) and the version 3 (thin, lcd, programs didn’t loop on their own, yuck).

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  2. Phil UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I had and used a TI-89 all throughout High School. I loved it. Then I went to College, put it in the back pocket of my backpack, walked through a rainstorm, and the thing died. Ugh. And since it was $200 to replace it and I was a poor college student, I resorted to some other TI scientific calculator. It may have made me better at math actually, since I had to do some grunt work.

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  3. Rob UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    I was a TI-85 user myself. I guess every high school was a little different. Now I’ve got a TI-85 emulator on my Droid X: Although it doesn’t appear to be available in the Android Marketplace anymore.

    Also I’ve been a happy Speedcrunch user since you recommended it a while ago. Now it’s one of the first programs I install when I fire up a fresh install of Windows or Linux.

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  4. IceBrain PORTUGAL Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    I was also a TI-86 user in high school, although I didn’t own it (the school provided them on request), so I couldn’t try writing programs in Assembly. TI-Basic is nice, but it’s rather slow.

    Nowadays I either use the RPN module I wrote for my WM, which can calculate basic operations, or WolframAlpha for more complex stuff, where I can actually calculate “sqrt(6 * pi * (earth diameter))” ;)

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  5. jambarama UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    TI-86, luxury! I was lucky enough to have a TI-83, which was great. Now for calculation I use the following tools, in order of sophistication & flexibility: HP 10S, excel, wolfram’s alpha, and maxima (free open source maple clone).

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  6. Chris UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    My favorite calculator would be the Emacs calculator (M-x calc), which has been part of Emacs for a few years now.

    It’s really a computer algebra system, including calculus capabilities. It’s stack based, but algebraic expressions can be entered, and pushed onto the stack. It has arbitrary precision, it’s programmable, and it knows all about units so it can convert between them easily as needed. If you have gnuplot installed it can generate plots. It directly supports operations on vectors, matrices, dates, HMS, ranges, ratios, and complex numbers.

    There’s a lot packed into that thing. I use it at work every week.

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  7. rev UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    i started using RPN in college and never looked back. i still have my HP 32S and 42S and i even had that beast HP 48S but i sold it. as far as software goes, i really like calc98. for the iphone i use RPN Calc

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  8. Nathan UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I’m a big fan of Calc. It works on the command line or in interactive mode.

    [nathanb@nathanb-box ~] calc 1+1
    [nathanb@nathanb-box ~] calc 45*3
    [nathanb@nathanb-box ~] calc “sqrt(9)”

    I used a TI-83 through college, but I’m a bit disappointed that with all the advances in computing and electronics, handheld graphing calculators still cost a bomb and suck. Seriously, I paid less for my touchscreen Android phone than I did for my calculator.


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  9. MrJones GERMANY Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    You either stole the pics from the interweb or dont seem to know the power of Alt+CptScr ;)

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  10. Eric Google Chrome Windows says:

    When I was in highschool they did not allow calculators.

    The software calculator that is included with windows has multiple modes but is not really designed for people who are into math. It is designed for the average person who just needs to do a quick calculation and hates math.

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  11. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Athanor:

    One of my CS professors had one of those. It was sort of a running joke – each semester he would find some excuse to lend it to an unsuspecting, clueless student and watch him squirm. :)

    @ Phil:

    Wow, that sucks. I remember these things to be freakishly expensive.

    @ Rob:

    Nice. Glad I could help. Btw, I found some TI calc emulators of the iPhone but none of them are free.

    @ IceBrain:

    Heh! Good old Wolfram. I forget it can do stuff like that.

    Is it worth buying the iPhone app for $2?

    @ jambarama:

    Most of my friends had TI-83’s. I decided to buy the slightly newer version because I had no clue which one I needed. The downside was that we could not share games. The upside was that mine had more features. Everyone actually wanted to borrow it for the tests because it had the automatic solvers and etc…

    @ Chris:

    Emacs == Operating System. :P

    @ rev:

    I never really caught the RPN bug. I mean, I see it’s benefits – I just never actually used it. Well, other than my occasional dabbling with Lisp.

    @ Nathan:

    There is also the good old bc.

    Also, very true – why the hell are the TI calculators still so expensive? It’s crazy!

    @ MrJones:

    I only stole the TI pick, the Mickey Mouse and the iPhone app (out of laziness really). I took the rest of the screen shots myself using Alt+PrintScr. Why? Am I missing some fine point of screen shot taking on Vista?

    @ Eric:

    Firstly, hating math is like hating gravity or oxygen. It’s a bit of an absurd thing to hate. At least that’s my opinion.

    And yes, it was designed for average non-scientist, non-techie user. Still, some “features” do not make sense. Like the one-cell display. Why can’t they use a scrollable window with calculation history? Why use the silly MR, MC functions when the user can copy and paste results? Some of these design choices are just blind replication of functionality. Breaking with them would yield a better, more user friendly application. But I guess the fear was that clueless users will be frightened by a UI that does not look exactly like the Mickey Mouse calculator.

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  12. Karthik UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux says:

    For simple tasks, I use bc. When I need a little more power, I use emacs-calc, which handles matrices, complex numbers, numerical root finding and even symbolic algebra. Of course, if I need even more (like solving differential equations), I just fire up Mathematica or Octave.

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  13. IceBrain PORTUGAL Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    Luke Maciak wrote:

    @ IceBrain:
    Heh! Good old Wolfram. I forget it can do stuff like that.
    Is it worth buying the iPhone app for $2?

    I have no idea, I’m still using a Nokia E65 with no Internet connection (besides Wifi).

    Also, very true – why the hell are the TI calculators still so expensive? It’s crazy!

    Didn’t you post about this in the past? It’s purely based on lack of competition; the school system standardized on a few TI models as ‘allowed’ in tests, exams, etc, so now they can jack up prices all they want. How’s going to buy a cheaper calc if they can’t use it when they really need?

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  14. nitro2k01 SWEDEN Mozilla Firefox Mac OS Terminalist says:

    … MathLab…

    It’s actually MatLab. “Mat” doesn’t stand for math, but matrix. As you might’ve noticed, MatLab is very much focused around the use of matrices. :)

    For the record, this is not a calculator:

    Try view, scientific. Not exactly a TI-8* replacement, but it does have parentheses and essential scientific functions and compares with an ’80s/’90s non-graphing scientific calculator.

    Why do you need virtual buttons on the screen?

    I think the reasoning is that the calculator has some functions where it’s not obvious which keys you would use (memory functions, sqrt, 1/x and also much more in scientific mode.) And then it would be silly to include buttons for just those functions and not the numerals and other operators.

    This is how a real software calculator should look like: [Speedcrunch]

    There’s a similar widget in OSX that actually using Safari’s Javascript engine. Pretty neat.

    Well, it turns out they did not ditch it. Apparently it became it’s own project which turned into Microsoft Math 4.0, but no one told me.

    Looking good. Let’s check the system requirements.

    Windows XP (32-bit) with Service Pack 3 (SP3)

    That’s what I use. Looking good.

    1 GHz Pentium processor or equivalent (recommended). 512 MB or more (recommended)


    Video card with 64 MG of video RAM

    Dude! I don’t have 64 mega-Gauss of video memory… That’s like right in the middle of an MRI scan and a neutron star, on a log scale!

    In all seriousness, though, Wolfram Alpha is pretty cool if you need to look something up quickly. It can calculate values, solve equations, and do simple graphing.

    Then there’s always things like EvalDraw, PolyDraw and one more tool that I can’t remember the name of, if you want to do more fancy and less mathematically strict graphing,

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  15. Kevin Benko UNITED STATES Konqueror Linux says:

    When I was in high school, calculators were not allowed, but we learned to use log tables and do interpolations from them.

    The HP48 series was my favorite hardware calculator, especially since the TI calculators were popular, and people only asked to borrow my calculator ONCE, and never again….


    bc (of course), and Maple.

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  16. nitro2k01 SWEDEN Mozilla Firefox Mac OS Terminalist says:

    I clicked one of the related posts, which got me a bit confused. I thought I was reading an updated version of the this post…

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  17. smcquay UNITED STATES Google Chrome Mac OS says:

    I have an hp-48g. very nice for vector math.

    I went through a Matlab phase before I found out about opensource software. Then it was a Scilab phase. Then Octave.

    Nowadays I do all of my scientific calcs in Python using Numpy/Scipy. If you haven’t looked at or used them, it’s worthwhile (if you’re still doing serious calculations).

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  18. Ben UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Gentoo Linux says:

    I use Octave almost exclusively. It’s free (libre/beer), and I can script it to operate on a whole directory worth of files. It might be overkill for some addition, but I just fire it up once the desktop is done loading and minimize until needed, no reason not to use it then.

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  19. Pingback: 5 Phone Calculator Apps you need to have | Terminally Incoherent UNITED STATES WordPress

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