Review: PCalc 3.7

It’s not new, I know, but it’s a long time favourite of many people. That made me curious (it made me curiouser and curiouser as a very famous person once said). I tried PCalc and try to answer what all the fuss is about.

PCalc 3.7 is James Thomson’s idea of a desktop calculator. James is also the developer of DragThing, another favourite amongst Mac OS lovers. DragThing comes to us from pre-OS X times, and I believe PCalc is not much younger. Both applications are quite powerful though. I’ll concentrate on PCalc 3.7 for this review.

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Mac OS X’s built-in calculator has a conversion capability, and three modes: one for simple minds, one that uses RPN notation for scientists and people who would like to think they are (I count myself to that group), and a mode that appeals to programmers. Strangely enough PCalc has those as well, but immediately when I switched the mode to RPN there was one thing that caught my eye in PCalc: it doesn’t just have RPN, it also has the RPN mode my old and trusted HP48 handheld calculator had.

This first example is why anyone would want PCalc: it’s a calculator, but it offers just that one extra feature that you’ve always looked for in a desktop calculator. Another example is PCalc’s design. By default you get bigger numbers in a bigger, blue display. Mac OS X’s built-in calculator has a screen, but it doesn’t resemble a handheld calculator. PCalc’s does, right to the LCD ‘ghost’ numbers that you’d expect to see on the screen of a handheld.

Another skin.

PCalc 3.7 also has skins. Not the ugly ones, but skins that again resemble the real thing. But the real thing wouldn’t have conversions, functions, and constants in a toolbar, now would it? Apple’s calculator doesn’t have these either (well, conversions, yes, but I’ll discuss those later). PCalc 3.7 does.

When you first start PCalc 3.7, the toolbar is hidden. Clicking the pastille in the top right corner reveals the toolbar with three extra buttons and a microphone icon that will speak the display to you (!). The extra buttons give direct access to functions, constants and conversions. Functions include AppleScript, trigonometry, complex numbers, financials, etc. Constants include astronomical, atomic, maths, etc. Conversions are my personal favourites. Although Mac OS X’s calculator has them too, PCalc 3.7 has more of them, far more. For example, try converting lumens-per-square-inch to foot-candle with Apple’s calculator.

It won’t work, because that conversion simply isn’t supported. PCalc 3.7 does and it does a lot more too. And because all of it is tucked away nicely until you need it, the interface stays clean and easy to use — just like a handheld calculator.

In RPN mode, PCalc 3.7 gets a slide-out sidebar with the ‘tape’ that goes up to 9 levels deep. You can also slide out an Info panel at the bottom where you’ll find readily available conversions between decimal, hexadecimal, etc. And finally, you can also show a traditional tape at right. You can select from a range of styles, and you can choose from half a dozen sizes / layouts.

Of course, PCalc 3.7 isn’t Mathematica, but it’s better, and certainly more powerful than my HP48 and than Mac OS X’s calculator by a very large margin. And it’s dirt cheap at approx. 9 Euros.

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