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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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..):
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:
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.