The iCalc and the Jornada: A Handheld Fable

Okay, this isn't really a fable, but a rant is close enough. Today, in the mail, I received a nice surprise. The HP49G graphic calculator I had ordered last week arrived, curiously enough in a large refrigerated carton. Eagerly I ripped into it, anxious to sample the latest of HP's venerable calculator line. My 48GX has served me well for many years now, until I broke the screen in a horrible accident a few months ago.

Now, I realize that a column about a calculator isn't entirely on-topic for a palmtop web site. But frankly, the 48GX is the calculator equivalent of the 200LX, so I consider them related. The 48G series has an even bigger cult following than the 200LX, and some of the programs written for it put our palmtop to shame. (It's amazing and a bit embarrassing that things like Doom/48 and Lemmings can run on a friggin' 4MHz graphing calculator with smooth-scrolling, but Lair of Squid on the palmtop runs agonizingly slow even on a 16MHz machine.) No palmtop user should be without an HP calculator, and even if that weren't true, this editorial IS relevant to the palmtop, so read on.

The first thing I noticed after unwrapping the protective cardboard layers from the calculator was the new packaging. HP is sure skimping these days. My 48GX came in a big box stuffed to the brim with a plastic-enlclosed calculator and accessories, and the manuals for the calc sitting outside the plastic. The 48GX also used HP's old color scheme, a white background and blue and purple bubbles and blurbs and writing on the box. Well, the 49G is completely different. No box here; the hard clear plastic is all it's got, containing the (extremely thin) manual right next to the calculator itself. The color scheme has changed to look like one of HP's inkjet cartridges; for an instant I thought they'd slipped up and sent me a DeskJet refill rather than my calculator. But no! It was in there, all right.

The calculator itself was frightening. Of course it's a sellout to TI; the distinctive HP look is gone, replaced by today's "I'm a happy clone of a TI or Casio graphing calculator for elementary school children!" look. Ever seen an iMac? Well, this is the iCalc. The calculator itself is a metallic blue, and the hard plastic cover that slides over it to protect it is a clear blue. Rather unprofessional, if you ask me, but I'm not surprised, as HP wants to sell this calculator to high-school students more than it wants to sell to engineers and professionals. Huge sales and massive profits have again won out over engineering finesse. Sigh. But hey, what can we do? I can't blame HP for wanting to make money.

I can, however, blame them for being stupid, and don't think I won't.

The HP49G is essentially the same as an HP48. No real hardware improvements have taken place. Several key features have been removed, but there are no true improvements except the addition of flash memory. The main improvement, supposedly, is in the software area. But first let's look at the 49G's hardware.

The 49G runs the same processor as the 48G, at the same speed. Big upgrade there!

The 49G's keys are not like the 48GX keys, which means they're not like the 200LX keys. These keys are rubber, and SOFT rubber, too. On the other hand, they're a fairly firm version of soft rubber, and they do have a nice 200LX-like feel to them. So the keyboard isn't too bad, hardware-wise. However, they switched the layout all around, so anybody familiar with a 48 will immediately find their knowledge is useless. Grr.

The screen is also exactly the same size, and no backlight. HP and the 49G FAQ claim that the 49G screen is better than the 48 screen because it is now black instead of blue, and uses "Crystal Clear" technology. Here's what the FAQ says:

Don't worry, the LCD is still better than the HP48's. Because it is black instead of blue and uses Crystal Clear technology, it is much higher contrast than before. An independent non-scientific test by Peter Karp found that the HP48G has a contrast value of 0.24 and the HP49G has a contrast value of 0.55, where 1.0 is perfect contrast (black on white) and 0.0 is no contrast.

This is, to put it nicely, pure bull. "Non-scientific" test is right. Sorry, guys, but my friend Paul and I just put a 49G right next to a 48GX, and the 48GX is the clear winner for screen visibility. The 49G's screen looks washed-out and dim, whereas the 48GX's screen, though the pixels are much bluer and on a greener background, had far superior contrast under the ordinary lights of my room. Paul agreed that the 48GX was much easier to read, and more pleasantly tinted as well.

To be fair, we think this discrepancy is a result of the 49G's screen being covered by a large clear plastic plate, whereas the HP48 screens were bare glass, with no protective plastic at all. The designers obviously added this because the TI and Casio calculators have it, and lots of people have complained about how easy it is to break the HP48 screen. However, this plastic overlay is extremely reflective, and produces plenty of glare, cutting useful light (and screen contrast) down severely. In addition, the plastic is optically active, acting as a circular polarizer, which absorbs even more light. Both of these factors combine to make the 49G display seem fairly crappy in the real world. Perhaps the FAQ author, and the non-scientific tester Mr. Karp, did their tests with prototype models which did not have the plastic overlay on. Or maybe they're just being overly-optimistic. Whatever. The fact is that the 49G has a lousy display, and it shouldn't. Oh, and incidentally, the plastic overlay is molded into the case pretty firmly; it can't be removed, at least not easily and safely. And why the heck is it necessary? The 49G at last includes a hard-plastic case to slide over it when putting it away; there is no longer any danger of the screen getting crunched while the calculator bounces around in a backpack. And yet they chose to protect the screen with an extra layer of plastic, thus ruining visibility. Great move.

The 49G lacks infrared, one of the real spiffy points of the 48 series. Once again, desire for high sales caused HP to ditch those of us who care about a powerful machine: uninformed educators and administrators had banned the 48 series from a large percentage of classrooms in the world. Teachers and administrators feared that the infrared would create a rash of cheating. As anybody who's ever used an HP48 (or a 200LX, for that matter) will tell you, beaming answers around a classroom is not very practical. But, deciding it would be easier to comply than to educate these people, HP ripped the infrared capability out without so much as an "I'm sorry." Ah, well.

The serial port of the 49G transfers data at just about 16Kbps. That's faster than the HP48's max of 9600, but still not very fast, especially since this machine has 1.5MB of user-writeable memory and programs could conceivably get very large.

And the 49G doesn't even seem to run that much faster than the 48. Perhaps twice as fast. Not surprising, considering the only upgrades are to the software, really. The 49G is basically a 48G, repackaged to look like a TI and Casio calculator, with the Metakernel built into the ROM and sold as an innovation. What irritates me is that this is better than what they did with the 200LX and the Jornada sequels, where they took useful, worthwhile technology and turned it into a toy. Why couldn't they have used the HP48-to-HP49 sequence on the 200LX as well? Hire a team of LX experts like Times2 Tech, D&A Software, and the like, and put together a true sequel to the 200LX, hardware and software. Instead, we get monsters like the 320LX. Disappointing as it is, the 49G is better than that!

So, okay, the 49G isn't quite what I'd consider a great sequel to a great calculator, the HP48 series. Still, it's a start, and perhaps HP will come out with a better something decent in the near future. If HP had done even this much with the 200LX, I'd be happy. Which is why I really hope that something comes of the Japanese effort at creating the Morphy One, or any of the potential "modernizing" projects for the 200LX. If HP won't do it, the users will. And they'll do it a darn sight better than HP did with the 49G.

Copyright 1999, Palmtop Information Central
Last Updated 11-Nov-1999