What happened to HP calculators?

What happened to HP calculators?

Summary: I have to go buy a new calculator for my combinatorics class, as well as for the physics classes I'm teaching next year. While my old HP 48G still works, it lacks the connectivity options I need for in-class demos and it's painfully slow.

TOPICS: Hewlett-Packard

I have to go buy a new calculator for my combinatorics class, as well as for the physics classes I'm teaching next year. While my old HP 48G still works, it lacks the connectivity options I need for in-class demos and it's painfully slow. To HP's credit, it is almost 20 years old and was one of the original graphing calculators. It has served me well over the years and, since my first calculator ever was my dad's ancient HP, I find myself stumbling without the joys of reverse Polish notation to keep track of my calculations.

Fast-forward to 2007, however, and most textbooks (especially at the high school level) have exercises specifically for Texas Instruments calculators. Every other student in my masters classes has a TI and our school has a few boxes of TI-83s. While my students know that I eschew calculators whenever possible, there are many times when they can be useful for demonstration purposes in class, for visualization, or for eliminating tedious work to better focus on concepts. Computer applications like Mathematica and Sketchpad are great, too, but you can't beat a calculator that slips into your pocket.

So why doesn't anyone use HPs anymore? HP's latest and greatest graphing calculator is available on their website for $149.99 and includes all of the bells and whistles you could imagine (and some that only a tiny fraction of the world's population might ever need). TI's latest, the TI-89 Titanium, retails at Staples for $168.99, although I've seen it on sale for $140 before. It has similar bells and whistles, but lacks my beloved reverse Polish notation.

I know that for a while, HP calculators were on the pricey side. However, even comparing the mid-range offerings from both companies, pricing is fairly comparable, while HP's seem to have the advantage in terms of features. You don't often see some grizzled engineer banging away on his old TI...I see a lot of old HPs on the desks of professors in the Math and Engineering departments at WPI.

The HPs are even allowed on the Advanced Placement tests, so what's the deal? I'm afraid I'm doomed to spend a piece of my next student loan on a TI so that I can be compatible with my students and countless textbooks. Anyone out there with some insight, talk back below.

Topic: Hewlett-Packard

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • Back to the Future

    Believe it or not, I just got my (physics major) son a slide rule.

    It seems that the calculators now have enough symbolic-math capability and storage that his profs are banning them from exams (/me recalls the hot debates 35 years ago regarding the HP-45).

    Well, no rules against slipsticks and they have another virtue that you might consider for your students: with a slide rule, you [b]must[/b] learn to estimate. To this day, my younger colleagues don't understand how I can hip-shoot calculations the way I do (answer: practice.) Not a bad skill, even if all you use it for is making sure you aren't being short-changed.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • They even banned slide rules

      When I was an undergrad, HP was still the king of scientific calculators. Of course, they were banned from the tests. Interestingly, they also banned slide rules. But a friend of mine, who loved slide rules (anybody know where I can get a good circular one?), asked if she could bring in graph paper. "Of course. Why not?"

      Well, you can make a slide rule out of log graph paper. Not that she ever did, as that would be a violation of the Honor Code.
      • Availability

        [i]anybody know where I can get a good circular one?[/i]

        There are some circular models still in production and general use for the aviation market, but they may be too specialized for you.

        Me, I just check Froogle.
        Yagotta B. Kidding
      • If you really want one...

        here are a couple of places to try...

        A few years ago, I read of a guy who bought an entire warehouse full of unopened
        slide rules. I bought one for my father (a retired engineer). He told me that one of
        the happiest days of his life was when he bought his HP calculator, and put the
        slide rule away.
      • Circular slide rule

        Yea I got a Pickett 6" circular in case on my desk. I had a dual base log-log Pickett for many years my Ti-50 is long ago peaces parts but my HP-48c is excellent after years.
    • Wow...

      I have a slide rule that I picked up some 35 years ago, a gift from my high school chemistry teacher. I still take it out every once in a while just to reminisce, but I've long since forgotten how to use it effectively. Maybe I'll spend some time with it.

      Carl Rapson
      • I have one about that old

        that I used for college Calc classes. Now it sits on display in our hutch with the other antiques.

        This past year my daughter, now in college Calc classes, was required to purchase a TI calculator that is no longer in production. While they are still available on Ebay, rather than spend $160 on obsolete TI, I suggested that she use my sliderule.

        At first she gave me the, "What planet are you from?" look. When she realized I was serious she asked her instructor about it. He said no! Her textbook is set up for use with a TI and that was all she could use.
        • Training vs. Education

          [i]When she realized I was serious she asked her instructor about it. He said no! Her textbook is set up for use with a TI and that was all she could use.[/i]

          And people wonder why we're sending our engineering work to countries that still do education instead of training.
          Yagotta B. Kidding
  • Three words

    Reverse Polish Notation

    It's a great way to do calculator math, but it's not the way students learn how to do math.

    Textbooks do TI because TI does math the way the textbooks tech it. It's no more complex than that.
    • No, they promote TI because TI is paying ...

      ... them to promote TI.
      M Wagner
    • "Algebraic notation"

      IMHO, this is the worst thing ever devised for calculators, especially when you combine it with a multi-line display so you can type in really long formulas. In my many years of teaching a college "pre-Chem I" class, students get totally baffled with the number of parentheses they have to put into a formula on their TI calculators in order to get the math to come out right (usually in science of you are off by a factor of 10^46, or even 10^12, it is considered a significant error). And when you have an odd number of parentheses, where in the heck does the other one go? (At the end, obviously ;) ).
      • Which is why the TI 89 is so nice..

        After you get it all entered, it uses "Pretty Print" to show the thing just like it would look in a book. Makes it easy to see if you typed what you meant.
  • It's a terrible shame about HP's calculators

    Though at least they have allowed others to make the manuals and ROMs from them available online so you can still run emulators. I've run an excellent on on a Palm before so it was still a calculator sized HP and I have a 48G as my pop up calculator under Windows.

    What I have huge objections to are the fleecing of parents and teachers everywhere by TI. Back in 2001 I compared the TI-83 Plus against a Palm M100 and the comparison was ridiculous. The speed of the processors, the resolution of the screens (6,144 pixels vs. 25,600 pixels AND A TOUCHSCREEN), memory (24K vs. 2M) and yet both had a comparable price. Once TI got installed as "the blessed calculator" with no major competition they stopped innovating and stopped having to ever drop the price. Doubtless the profit margin on those calculators is stratospheric compared to almost anything else they sell at this point.

    Maybe your fellow ZDNet blogger has the right idea and cell phones are our calculator salvation:

  • I may have an answer (no, not retro)


    Yeah, it's a cellphone. Sort of. Since it's also a totally open software architecture it should be pretty easy to port one of the (dozens of) calculator emulators to it, and it has the connectivity you need for class.

    For class projector operation, you might be better off using a PC-based calculator emulator.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
  • Two words

    Too good. It's like that commercial for the gum that "lasts too long" so nobody ever buys another pack. My HP-35 lasted from 1973 to 1985 (battery problems), then my HP-11C (watch batteries) lasted from 1985 until last year. And this was with my dropping it from my shirt pocket all the time, at least half a dozen times into the dogs' water bowl while filling it (shake, blow dry, remove batteries and put them back in). Now my HP-33s should last until I retire (many years, unfortunately). If I want to graph something, I'll use Excel.

    One advantage of an HP with RPN - no students are going to borrow your calculator for a test and forget to give it back until next class day. Just hand it to them and wait until they ask "Where's the equals key?" to get it back.

    As far as not being able to use it to show the class how to do something, this is one way in which I encourage student participation, so they can show others how to do calculations. Someone is always willing to demonstrate, students are more willing to ask him/her questions about the problem, and the class gets a welcome respite from my droning on and on ...
  • HP 16C

    I have an old HP 16C, called a "programmer's calculator", that I have had for about 25 years or so. I hardly ever use it, but it still works just fine. HP products built in the 70s and 80s were legendary for quality. And I agree, I miss reverse polish notation. Once you get used to it, it beats standard algebraic notation all hollow - at least, on calculators.

    I also have a TI-83, but I hardly ever use it either. Not much call for calculators outside of school these days. As is mentioned elsewhere, a slide rule would be more useful.

    Carl Rapson
  • Inertia

    What keeps people with TIs is sheer Inertia. Until a workalike calculator at much lower price comes out there won't be a dent in their market share and even then there will be the snobs who refuse to buy anything but 'name' products. An example of this kind of attitude is this: I was in a computer store back in the '80s and overheard a salesman try to sell an IBM Workalike at a considerable savings but the customer refused. The same sort of thing happens with ALL products, not just in technology.
    • I think it has more to do with HP's ...

      ... inability to market effectively. The only profitable part of HP is their printer operation -- and that is only because they made a deal with Canon decades ago to have exclusive access to Canon printer engines -- still the best made! (Even Canon can't make enough of them to compete with HP printers.)
      M Wagner
      • Not exactly...

        Not exactly exclusive--my circa 1993 Apple LaserWriter Pro 630 has the same
        Canon engine as the comparable (at the time) HP 4 series, and I've been
        buying HP toner for it for ages. The thing is bulletproof, it still cranks out
        great 600 dpi every day, the internal hard drive works perfectly after all these
        years, the Ethernet port now connects to my wireless router and I still prefer
        true PostScript to emulation. Yes, 1993. OK, it is slow...8 ppm.
  • Chris, I share your misery over the loss of RPN

    I still use my HP-15C, which I bought in 1984 (or was it 1985) after my HP-25 (circa 1977) died.

    On my Windows desktop, I use Artis-11C, version 2.0, a good HP-12C emulator (shareware). Though it hasn't been updated by the author in years, it runs fine under Vista.

    Another good HP emulator is MathU, from www.creativecreek.com. They sell several methmatical/scientific tools for Palm OS and Windows Mobile. Don't leave home without it!

    Short of actually teaching students to use a slide rule (which forces students to think about significant digits -- and about how numbers 'work' in general), RPN is the way all students should be taught.

    Regardless of most non-scientists think, the mind really does work in RPN. You write down one number, then another number, and only THEN do you perform the operation on those numbers.

    Algebraic notation is a representation of the completed operation, not the the operational process itself.

    Too bad we have such a shortage of well-trained math and science teachers. Had we adopted the metric system and begun teaching RPN thirty years ago, our kids wouldn't be so far behind!
    M Wagner