Back before laptops and mobile phones, people used calculators. I was a Texas Instruments kind of guy, others preferred HP. It was the PC vs. Mac battle of the day.

Then computers became common and people wanted to make calculations on their computer in a familiar interface. Actually it started before computers became common in peoples lives.

Xcalc from, still going weak

But the metaphor has not lost its grip.

Windows 7 Calculator in Standard mode

Not even in the best operating systems so far.

Mac OS X in Basic mode

And on my phone, which has much more power than my first PC in 1998, the situation is also kind of embarrasing.

Apple iOS

Calculators do look prettier than they used to, but functionally they’re equivalent to the Texas Instruments and HP calculators anno 1987, and they have not given up on the outdated desktop or pocket calculator metaphor. And it’s an amazing waste of possibilities.

There have been improved versions all along. Even back in the old days of 1980’ies Unix there was the humble and effective bc(1) commandline application, which I still often use. Many programing languages have interactive commandline interpreters that can be used as immensely powerful calculators, if you know how. But these things are not accessible to most people.

There are some nice upgrades out there. When I use Windows XP, which is almost never nowadays, I like the Microsoft Power Calculator, it can even draw graphs. Which I have never needed, to be honest. And it is not ported to Windows 7, so to get this screen-shot I had to go through a hour long process to install and configure a virtual Windows XP on Windows 7.

PowerToy Calc, an add-on to Windows XP from Microsoft

My absolute favourite is Soulver, both for Mac OS X and iOS. The video on the site shows exactly why it is so great. Here’s a common example of my use of it with a swim workout written in almost natural language, and Soulver calculating totals transparently for me. showing a swim set calculation

You can save calculations in .soulver files for later use. Calculations are even dynamic, for example if you need to convert Swiss Francs to New Zealand dollars it use an hourly updated exchange rate (updates configurable), and it does percentages and many other things the right way. showing some of the nicer features

It’s a perfect marriage between a spreadsheet and bc(1). I can’t really think of anything to add to it, perhaps with the exception of IPv4 and IPv6 network calculations, but at least for IPv4 Subnet Calc on iOS has me covered.

So even if Soulver costs $25, both for the Mac OS X and iOS version, the supreme comfort of using it makes it worth it to me. It is the best calculator I’ve used so far. Highly recommended.