A personal guide to collecting HP calculators

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I am a "newbie" in the HP collectors' arena. This is a small guide to the calculators I have taken to heart.

Being a newbie doesn't mean that I don't know about HP - I had my first HP calculator, an HP-41CV, in the early eighties - but it simply hadn't occurred to me that I could (or would) collect them. A small trip down memory lane is necessary at this point: my introduction to programmable calculators was in 1979, when I was offered a TI-57. It was marvellous! It had so few program steps that one had to think hard to squeeze the maximum out of it, but it was very rewarding. It was an education in itself, planting habits that I have kept to this day. In 1981 I managed to acquire an HP-41CV (I really don't remember how, which means that it must have been traumatic :-). I was studying mathematics and physics, and loved all the things I could do with it; also, synthetic programming was a blast. Then, in 1983 or '84 in engineering school I sold my HP-41CV and bought a Casio PB-700. I always regretted it; but not because the Casio wasn't good - it was very good; I wanted a "computer" and for the price of the HP I bought a machine that I could program in BASIC, had a graphic screen of 160x32 pixels (4 lines of 20 characters), had 4KB RAM, with which I included a four-colour plotter and a mini-cassette drive. No, I regretted selling the HP-41CV simply because it was, well, unique, wonderful, so full of potential...but too expensive.

...forward 24 years, and it suddenly dawned on me that surely I had enough money now to buy another HP-41 and equip it. "I wonder if they still exist?" - do they? You must be kidding! The world is full of them, and HP-41 enthusiasts are all over the web! Right, let's get an HP-41CV-uh...oh, wait, what's that? A CX? That looks good. Let's get one.

And so it started. That was back in February 2008, and now (Dec/2008) it feels like a long time ago. I quickly thought that I should get accessories for my "new" calculator: "I need a card reader, surely. A spare CX? What's HP-IL? Ah, let's get that too. Blimey, I had forgotten all that stuff. Hang on, what are all these other models? Oh-oh, this looks interesting..."

I worked forward in time from the HP-41 up to the present, not having taken a great interest (yet) in previous models. You could argue that getting an HP-35S (the latest HP calculator) is not really collecting, but hey, they might become collectable one day. So here is my list (in order of first acquisition), and for each entry a brief explanation and description:

Note before you dive in that I'm certainly not an expert, yet - I'm hoping to get better; and this guide is "work in progress" - take it as such, and enjoy ;-)

  • HP-41CX (Coconut series)
    That goes without saying. The HP-41 has cult status amongst HP anoraks (NB: "anorak" is a British term - look it up), and if you plug in the HP-IL module, an HP-41 ADVANTAGE module, some extra X-MEMORY, maybe a card reader, and connect it to a floppy disk drive (no card reader needed then) and a printer, you have an awesome system. Forget about numbers and maths and get the I/O development tools and some hardware instead, and you could run your house (slowly though)!
  • HP-16C (Voyager series)
    This is the programmers' calculator. That quickly came to my attention as I found the Museum of HP Calculators and started reading. Being a software engineer, I obviously had to get one...or two (you never know). I've got one at work, being used everyday, and it's still unbeatable and so simple to use for binary calculations and operations (and still up to date - 64 bit words).
  • HP-15C (Voyager series)
    That was my next interest - the so-called "Cadillac" of the scientific calculators. So powerful then (1982-89), and still powerful now. Any collector should have one, if not to use, then to look at (you know what collectors are like...).
  • HP-50g (latest graphic)
    I strayed a bit, there. I think I went to have a look at HP's website and the HP-50g did to me what a piece of broken glass does to a magpie. It is a beautiful machine though, and it looks to me like it is a worthy successor to the HP-48 series - if everything I read about it is true, from people more knowledgeable than me.
  • HP-48GX (Charlemagne series)
    By reverse chronology, the HP-50g led me to the HP-48GX, the engineer's favourite during the '90s. That's a calculator for engineers. A bit slow by modern standards when graphing (ok - a bit slow altogether; shush, don't compare with the HP-41), but with such a large library of user-written applications that you could spend your lifetime finding new things to do with it - apart from controlling your house (although, having said that, I'm sure someone managed it using the IR port).
  • HP-35S (latest scientific)
    The HP-50g was way too powerful for me, so a "simple" scientific had a lot of attraction. The HP-35S had very good reviews, with indications of a return to "HP quality" - or at least some of it - so I got one. It's good, in my opinion, and powerful, but logic and binary operations are a pain to use. Besides that, I think it has one big flaw: the LCD pixels, and annunciators, cast crisp shadows at the back of the LCD screen, and it can make the display look fuzzy, out of focus, and hard to read unless you've got the light exactly right. I haven't found this on any other HP calculator (*) - some cast a slight diffuse shadow that's hardly noticeable, others are simply perfect (the Voyager series, the HP-41 series). If Kinpo (the actual manufacturer) can get the display sorted out (and the binary stuff), then they might have a potential worthy successor to the HP-32SII.
    (*) The LCD of the HP-12C Platinum 25th Anniversary also has the issue, but it doesn't impact the readability (I don't have an HP-12C Platinum to comment on).
  • HP-11C (Voyager series)
    Having got an HP-15C, it seems logical to get its more approachable sibling. I'm not sure that having got an HP-15C you would ever want to use an HP-11C, but as a collector it makes sense.
  • HP-42S (Pioneer series)
    The high-end of the Pioneer series that can run HP-41 programs. It unfortunately lacks all the I/O capabilities of the HP-41. It is actually very friendly, and with two display lines, interactive menus, (132x16) graphic capabilities, IR output, the very nice form factor of the Pioneers, and more functions than you can use, it is a very powerful calculator. However, the lack of I/Os (meaning amongst other things that you cannot store away program and data), and the lack of some functions (e.g. the TIME functions) means that it was never going to take the place of the HP-41. If you can, get the 32KB version, as this would give more space to store your favourite programs.
  • HP-28S (Champion series)
    The RPL language (Reverse Polish Lisp) on the HP-48GX led me to the first calculator that actually offered it - the HP-28C, but there was little point in getting that one when the HP-28S (with 32KB instead of 2KB) replaced it a year later in 1988. The HP-28S is good, but its clamshell design is rather unusual and may not please everybody. I don't personally like it that much, although I must admit that the second keyboard, mainly alphabetic, de-clutters the main keyboard and makes data entry much easier. What I really hate is the very poor design of the battery compartment and especially of the battery door - it's incredibly fragile and often broken on second-hand calculators (and you will easily break it yourself if it's not). The calculator's construction techniques also means that it's not realistically fixable if anything breaks down.
  • HP-32SII (Pioneer series)
    The HP-32SII is the successor of the HP-32S. It is a brilliant scientific calculator, very easy to use, with a single display line yet an accessible menu system and many functions. According to some it's a candidate for the "best calculator ever", the other candidate being the HP-15C. It was manufactured from 1991 to 2002, a testament to its success.
  • HP-32S
    The HP-32S brought most of what the HP-15C offered to the Pioneer series. The HP-32SII is more complete, but only because it came afterward and was its replacement.
  • HP-71B
    At the time I got my Casio PB-700, what I really would have liked would have been an HP-71B - if it had been out at the time. But yet again, I would have been foiled by the expense. Never mind; I've got one now, and I'll possibly write some more about it later - I really haven't played with it yet. That's not really a calculator, although it can calculate; it's a handheld computer. It's significantly bigger than the HP-41, but can do more things faster; and it has I/Os, and HP-IL (as a 'controller' as well as a 'listener'). As a system controller it was probably perfect, but wouldn't have taken the place of the HP-41 as a calculator.
  • HP-48SX
    Having got an HP-48GX, I got curious about the previous model, the HP-48SX, but I haven't had the chance to use it yet.
  • HP-27S
    I wasn't sure if I would ever get one of these. I mean, it wasn't RPN (Reverse Polish Notation), was it? In fact, it's not even programmable. However I got one, and I was pleasantly surprised. It is a very good calculator, possibly the best algebraic HP out there (ok, so the HP-35S, which supports Algebraic and RPN, may beat it, now).
  • HP-12C
    I'm cheating here, since this is not the last calculator type I've acquired - I've had an HP-12C since 1995, picked up cheap from a car boot sale. Unfortunately I never had a manual for it and didn't look for one until recently, so couldn't use the rather interesting financial functions (I have now...). However I have been using it almost every day since 1995 for "basic" calculations (still on the same set of batteries), and it's solid, reliable, accurate, and very pleasant to use (the fabled HP sloped keys). If you don't know about RPN, get yourself one to do your household calculations.

If I had a shortlist to make, I would say get the HP-41CX, HP-15C, HP-32SII, HP-42S, and HP-48GX. Extras would be the HP-16C, HP-11C, HP-71B, HP-27S, and HP-28S if you must. For the modernist, get the HP-35S and HP-50g of course. Finally, get yourself half a dozen HP-12C (the "old" ones especially) and give them to your friends - they are the best ambassadors of RPN you could find, and are nearly indestructible.

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