This week, Al Williams wrote up an article on what might be the last scientific calculator. Back in the day, the fanciest of scientific calculators had not just sin, cos, and tan, but were also programmable so that you could code in frequently used formulae. And the calculator that he reviews is certainly powerful: with a screen, processor, and memory almost rivalling a mid-scale smartphone.
Wait a minute! “Almost”? I have a smartphone in my pocket right now. Why would I want something less powerful, when all that the calculator brings to the table is a bit of software? And that app can even be purchased for $20!
I’ll confess. I want a proper desktop calculator from time to time. But why? Sure, I can run calculations on the very computer that I’m using to type right now. And in terms of programming languages, the resources are far superior on my laptop. Unit conversions? Units, or the Interwebs. Heck, I can even type calculations directly into the Unix world’s default editor.
But there’s something nice about the single-purpose device. Maybe it’s the feel of the keys. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t require a context-switch on the computer. Maybe it’s irrational calculator nostalgia. Or maybe it’s an elegant tool from a more civilized age: the user experience is better because the tool is just simpler.
I like stand-alone devices that do their one thing right, and I almost always pick them over their more complex, if also more capable, counterparts when I only need that function. The fixed wrench over the adjustable wrench. The standalone audio recorder over my computer’s software. The simple bench power supply over the programmable. And, when I’m actually setting out to take good photos, a real camera instead of my cell phone’s. Purpose-built tools tend to work much better for their purpose than devices that try to do everything.
The days of the standalone calculator are nearly gone, though, so what am I going to do? I’m certainly not going to shell out megabucks for an overly-fancy calculator, nor am I going to be lured by nostalgia into picking up an antique at the ridiculous prices they fetch online. That leaves one option, and it’s both the Hackaday and the Jedi way. I’m going to have to build it myself. Where am I going to get a nice-feeling numeric keypad?