Probably The Most Over-Specified Calculator To Ever Be Manufactured

It’s possible quite a few of our older readers will remember the period from the 1960s into the ’70s when an electronic calculator was the cutting edge of consumer-grade digital technology. By the 1980s though, they were old hat and could be bought for only a few dollars, a situation that remains to this day. But does that mean calculator development dead?

Perhaps not, as [Li Zexi] writes for CNX Software, when he reviews a simple non-scientific calculator that packs an Alwinner A50 tablet SoC and the Android operating system. As shipped they lack the Android launcher, so they aren’t designed to run much more than the calculator app. Of course that won’t stop somebody who knows their way around Google’s mobile operating system for very long — at the end of the review, there’s some shots of the gadget running Minecraft and playing streaming video.

These devices can be had for not a lot on the Chinese second-hand electronics market, and after an extensive teardown he comes to the conclusion that besides their novelty they’re an older specification so not really worth buying.

But it does beg the question as to why such a product was put into production when the same task could have been performed using very cheap microcontroller. Further, having done so they make it a non-scientific machine, not even bestowing it with anything that could possibly justify the hardware. Is there a use case he, and us, have missed? We’d love to know.

We cover a lot of calculator stories here at Hackaday. Sometimes they’re classic machines, but more often they’re modern takes on an old idea.


38 thoughts on “Probably The Most Over-Specified Calculator To Ever Be Manufactured

    1. Guessing this will be sold en masse to Russia for the tanks and missiles that are in need of chips. They are buying a ton of smart fridges for the same purpose…

  1. What a bizarre product, what is the boot up time on this?

    The whole point of a dedicated device is the convenience, this usually means real buttons and instant on. If you have to wait for a device to boot, you may as well use an app on your phone or a computer.

      1. There is a metaphorical ton of apps that use a web framework as a base. These are done by people who can only use such a framework and are tasked to write an app. Few days ago I had to use such a piece of software to file my income tax declaration. It not only uses a web framework as an API, it uses an obscure web framework developed by Microsoft to run on Windows. The app actually works quite well, which surprised me.

          1. The place I worked at last year rolled out some newly acquired enterprise software with a frontend built on Silverlight. The year after Silverlight was EOL.
            This is only one symptom of why they are circling the drain.

  2. It is my understanding that there are a lot of small Chinese companies that buy up old obsolete parts for dirt cheap and then slap them together into whatever they think they can sell for enough to make at least a small profit and then move on to the next pile of obsolete parts.

    1. Small Chinese companies buy obsolete hardware at a massive discount. They then take that obsolete hardware and make it do something else that they hope is more marketable. Rinse and repeat. This calculator is using a full tablet soc to run just enough android to be a calculator. They must have decided nobody would buy a really crap tablet, but might buy a fancy calculator.

    2. Chinese small companies buy a lot of old cheap parts left over from bigger companies.
      The parts are cheap because the bigger company no longer uses them for their products, so they are practically giving them away.
      The small companies design products using the old cheap parts.
      They sell the products for profit until all the parts they bought are used.
      Then they look for other old cheap parts and make different products using those parts.

    3. That seems like a very logical explanation. Since there’s not really anything worth doing with “last year’s” processors, and their scrap value is miniscule, creating something.even marginally useful (since labor and manufacturing costs in China are also low) would be a way to wring at least some value out of NOS parts.

      I’d be interested to see the market analysis that resulted in this being their choice of product..

  3. the world off mass production works in two basic ways today,BUILD TO PRICE,where there is a very loose definition
    of what is bieng built and a exact price point specified
    and BUILD TO SPEC,where the device specification,with
    all standards etc is specified and the price is open to bids
    so inbetween you get android calculators built from who knows what from who knows where,just cause they can,
    having massive redundent design.and supply chains to

  4. Development costs are non trivial, especially if you are basically offloading e-waste. Running Android is probably the quickest way. Akin to embedded dos or XP for your point of sale terminal.

    Would love to run emulator. Or have high vis mode for those with poor eyesight. Pretty cool all around if it is $20. If its more like $40 or $100 no thanks.

  5. This seems like a pretty practical idea for getting some value of screens and phone motherboards sitting around left over from a few year old design not worth assembling at this point. If the radio chips were not initialized by the boot process or possibly desoldered from the board (would take extra labor), the calculator could sleep for days or maybe weeks between performing four-banger calculations. It is probably a lot easier to write or steal a calculator app running on Android than it is to write it for bare metal. This seems like an eminently practical use of stuff that would have otherwise been e-waste and a damn nice display for a calculator. Too bad it doesn’t emulate hp RPN. I guessI’m stuck running an hp-41c emulator on my iPhone for now.

    1. If you really want a quality RPN calculator, then check out the Swiss Micros DM42 or DM41. These are uber high quality and the batteries last for years. They are truly a worthy successor to the original HP 41 CV/CX… unlike the so-so offerings that HP has offered over the last few years.

    1. You are citing the term’s usage in the context of philosophical logic. This is not the only context in which it is used in English though. Her usage of the term is correct, within the context that she used it.

  6. I can think of a few reasons to do something like this. It probably doesn’t apply to when the device was made, but right now a lot of devices are being made with significantly more powerful and expensive chips than are necessary, because the cheaper chips just aren’t available. But even if supply chain issues weren’t a thing when the device was made, it’s still possible that the company making it just had a lot of surplus chips they needed to find an application for, and this was what they came up with. It’s also possible that a company that wanted to make calculators bought the chips from a company that was selling off surplus for extremely low prices. If it was only intended to be a limited production run, and the chips were available as surplus for much cheaper than the normally cheaper chips, they might have decided to go with them instead.

    That said, here’s what I suspect the most likely explanation was: Someone wanted to use Java, so they picked a platform and hardware that would run Java. We tend to assume that businesses are all very well run outfits, that are extremely concerned about profit margins and minimizing costs, but in my experience this is not actually the case. Nearly every business has some place where it just overspends dramatically, either because someone thinks it is more convenient or just general incompetence. (I once worked somewhere that bought new paper towel dispensers every year for three years running, because the price of the paper towels fluctuated. They thought they would save money by changing to the dispenser that used the cheaper paper towels, but the price gap wasn’t very big and the dispensers were very expensive, so they lost money every single time.)

    So yeah, I figure, it’s probably a businesses that decided to be a “Java house” (“house” programming languages are the most idiotic thing ever, for the record; imagine a general contractor that only allows employees to use screwdrivers and no other tool). Either some manager bought into the Java hype or management saw that they could hire a bunch of inexperienced Java programmers for cheap, and that limited the platform to something that could run Java. The programmers probably didn’t know how to do any sort of bare metal programming, so they ended up going with Android, which required a processor supported by Android, and it just goes on from there.

      1. That would be hilarious, however my use case would be as a remote control for home IoT devices or lab equipment. After a firmware and keycaps transplant it could become many useful things.

  7. Seems obvious. You set this up with a custom hotkey combo to switch to an advanced application for unsanctioned test aid (e.g. graphing for engineering). The lack of certain buttons can be compensated with onscreen menus. Given it comes from China, where there exists a culture of academic pressure among some, I’d say there might well be such triggerable software already installed, if you go digging for it.

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