Thursday, December 07, 2006

I'm the operator with my pocket calculator

Thirteen years ago I pestered my father enough to fork out and buy me an HP-42S calculator. To this day I love it, and feel uncomfortable when its not by my side. Not in a wierd start-developing-tics-when-its-not-around kind of way, but rather unfortable with the tought that a random calculation will go unaswered. I am terrible at mental arithmetic, and frequently need to multiply numbers. And occasionally find the next prime number larger than N. Or invert a matrix.

Infact I loved the calculator so much that a few months ago it started dying. I opened her up a few weeks ago and the PCB was quite tattered. My cleaning gave her enough life to give me time to decide on my next calculator purchase. This was a big decsision, because while I had bought calculators in the past (including a slew of HP's), nothing stacked up to the 42S. I simply couldn't buy an identical replacement unit, because that would be cheating.

The only thing missing from my 42S was inbuilt finance functions. While I had programmed everything I needed into it, I always dread the thought of losing my programs when I fail to replace the batteries in time. Given this, I decided on a 17BII. Its the same form-factor that my brain is wired to, provides most of my commonly used functions, and is significantly cheaper than a vintage 42S which is now a collectors item.

It will take a while for me to get used to not having access to trig functions, hex and binary, and programming modes. I don't think I will miss the integration, programming, stats or matrices, as these are better done on a computer. It irks me that they have included a 'BUS'iness menu which gives you basically nothing. For example, if you want to know what percent 5 is of 8, on any normal RPN calculator you type '5 ENTER 8 /' - a total of four keystrokes. Or you could use the fancy BUSiness menu and type 'BUS %TOTL 8 TOTL 5 PART %T' - seven keystrokes!?! How silly is that?

What really kills me, however, is the thought of having to see ugly buttons dedicated to parentheses when they are completely reduntant in RPN mode. (See here if you have no idea what I am talking about.)

Basically, HP introduced the 17B as an algebraic calculator with no RPN mode to appeal to business users. Of course, everyone in finance who needed to get answers as fast as possible loved RPN because you could enter calculations with fewer keystrokes than on algebraic calculators, and the method of entry was less error-prone as the operator has no need for using, or keeping track of, pesky parentheses. Of course, the 17B was a flop until re-released as the 17BII, with an optional RPN mode, but the ( and ) buttons remain to support the underwhelming algebraic mode.

The good news is that given how close the layout is to the 42S, I should be back to touch-typing on the calculator soon and won't have cope with those parentheses staring at me like the eyes of a dim-witted child. But until then, I'll probably find some cute stickers to put on the buttons so I never have to see them again.

I am such a dork.

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Blogger Bill Starr said...

Hi, Josh. My google alert on "HP-42S" articles just pointed me to your post.

I love my HP-42S too.

I don't know if you've stumbled on it, but I find that Free42 is a great substitute when I don't have my "real" HP-42 handy.

It is not as nice as pressing the "real" buttons, but other than that is a great substitute.

I have tried the Windows version a little, but have set up the Palm OS version on my Sony Clie SJ22 as the default calculator.

It even has the advantage over the real calculator that importing and exporting programs is relatively easy. I have downloaded and installed several programs to my Palm that I would likely never be bothered to put into the real calculator one keystroke at a time (with no practical means of backing them up there either).

Best regards,
Bill Starr
Columbus, Indiana
Fri, 8 Dec 2006, 8:38 am EST

5:40 AM  
Blogger johnk said...


A) Kraftwerk quote rules.

B) I love the comment from Bill Starr that opens with: "My google alert on "HP-42S"..."

That dude pwns you when it comes to nerdiness!

10:36 PM  
Blogger josh reich said...

Thanks for the feedback!

I'm starting to regret my 17BII purchase. Over the weekend I was doing some coding and needed to do some calculations in hex -- which is something I can't do on the 42S. You'd think that I'd be comfortable using the computer to do it, but I'm not that ready to change my ways.

I have considered using an emulator, but its not the same.

I think my next calculator will be a 27S.

1:33 PM  
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3:51 AM  

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