Calculators

Many students need calculators, and I’m no exception, with my physics class this semester.

I got my HP 48GX calculator 10 or more years ago. For those of you not familiar with HP calculators, let me give you a bit of a background.

HP is a company that, for many years, had a dedicated calculator division. They produced many of the world’s most advanced calculators for science, engineering, and business. Their top-of-the-line series, the HP48 and HP49, contained some features that you’d normally have to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars to get in PC applications. In many ways, the HP48/49 series were far more advanced than any other calculator, even most on the market today. Their ability to use both algebraic and stack-based (RPN) modes simultaneously is nice, too.

HP has pretty much killed off its calculator division, though. I don’t know why; I think they were profitable. Perhaps one of Carly’s many “strange” ideas.

Anyway, back to the story…

I recently pulled out my HP48GX, having not used it heavily for about 6 years. I found that I didn’t remember some things about it and went searching for the manuals. The manual that comes with the calculator is 600 pages, and the optional “advanced” guide is another 600 pages. I found that hpcalc.org has scans of the manuals — very nice. And when I say the 600-page book came with the calculator, I mean there was an actual book in the box. Not some 3-page booklet and a CD-ROM with a PDF.

After (literally) dusting off the HP48GX, I pressed the power button. Two surprises: 1) it turned on, and 2) it still had all my data and files from six years ago in memory. Sweet. I had written a few useful programs for the calculator (yes, it can be programmed in its own language, or C or assembler) and was glad to see them intact.
I also discovered a saved Chess game (of COURSE you can play chess on the HP48GX) on the unit.

So I thought — I better back this thing up. First task: find the serial link cable. Took awhile of rummaging through boxes, but there it was. Second task: find a Kermit or XModem program for Linux. (When’s the last time you’ve needed *that*? I’m betting it’s been awhile.) Third task: read the manual, because I forgot *how* to back up the calculator. So after a little while (9600bps, after all), I have a nice dump of the memory.

There are some people, myself included, that believe that the HP48G series was the best calculator HP ever made, and still one of the best available. By the time the HP49 arrived, HP had decided it needed to be “cheaper” to compete with TI. So it was built with lower-quality components. Also, HP wanted to compete with TI in the high school market, so it removed some of the more advanced (and useful) features, and added some geared for that market. Sigh.

7 thoughts on “Calculators

  1. I have a 49G+ and while you’re right that the components are clearly cheaper (though supposedly later revisions are much better than my early version), I really don’t think they removed any features! In fact, they actually added some features. There was some non-HP software package that you used to have to pay for, which HP bought and integrated into the 49G+. RPN is off by default, but that’s simple to turn on. My favorite addition is an equation editor. Even if you’re experienced with entering things in RPN, it’s nice to pull it up graphically and verify what you wrote.

    I did a fair amount of research about the calculator when I upgraded to my 49G+ and I’m really happy with it! It’s much faster, too. And I can back up my files with the SD card slot. Ha.

    Switching topics, I experienced a similar nostalgia with my Newton… When the MessagePad 110s came out in 1994, I scored a MP100 for only $200. I was in high school and mostly just used it for fun, programming, playing games, etc. I stopped really playing with it in like 1997, and in 2003 when I put batteries in it, it still had phone numbers and weird notes from another era. It was a fun little walk down memory lane.

    Reply

    jgoerzen Reply:

    Thanks for the post!

    If memory serves, the things the HP49 left off were the equation library and infrared transmitter. I remember taking an ACT with this calculator. They made me put masking tape over the IR transceiver over concerns about cheating. Never mind that its range was about 2 inches.

    The speed of the GUI on the 48GX is certainly my #1 complaint about it. Other than that, it’s a very nice machine.

    Perhaps if my 48GX ever breaks, I’ll have to get the 49GX on ebay :-) Nice about the SD slot. 9600bps is s l o w.

    It is interesting looking at old files. I used to back up my machine using a CD-R drive (it could write at the mind-blowing speed of 2X!) I haven’t looked at most of those CDs in years. I had a need for some data from them recently, and found myself reading my old e-mail and poking around in my old files. Kinda surreal.

    I’ve never owned a Newton, but I’ve always heard good things about them. My first PDA was a Palm III, but with every PDA I’ve had since then, I transfer my data over. So even on my Zaurus, I can go back and see what was on my calendar many years ago :-)

    Reply

    Michael P Reply:

    It’s true they pulled the IR from the 49G, but they put in back in the 49G+. I believe it’s been crippled since the 48 to only work over very short distances, though.

    And, funny story, I just went to check if my 49G+ had the equation library, and it didn’t… but I found rumors on the internet that they might add it in a future firmware upgrade, so I went to hpcalc.org to check… and they just posted a 2.0 ROM with the equation library last month.

    Really, if you’ve only heard the complaints about the 49G, check out the 49G+ when you get a chance (and when you’re in the market for a calculator). It addressed the bulk of the complaints about the 49G, /and/ its about 4 times faster (and other nice features) too!

    Reply

    jgoerzen Reply:

    Thanks for the advice. It’s true that I haven’t really followed these things since shortly after the first 49G came out. I guess I’ve missed out on the G+.

  2. We have hptalx which well had some bugs back when i last try it … i wonder if the patches i send get in or if they work at all . Maybe you could tell :)

    Greetings

    Reply

    jgoerzen Reply:

    I did take a look at it. I had some trouble getting it to work, but the file manager concept was nice. However, I couldn’t figure out how to make it do a backup (where the calculator generates one large file that represents everything in memory). Also, I’m comfortable enough with kermit and prefer things that work on the command line. But thanks for the mention — it’s nice to see tools like this pop up.

    Reply

  3. HP calculators used to be designed in Melbourne Australia, in the building next to the one where I work every day. They closed it down in 2001 or 2002, intending to continue R&D in Singapore or Malaysia. I don’t know what happened to that though.

    Reply

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