On the second day of this calculator roundup, I went for something a little different. The HP pocket calculator emulators I discussed yesterday are very charming and efficient, but like I said, they do have a steep learning curve. Besides, I wasn’t really that happy with how they display data on the screen. Although I decided I liked the 12C better than the others because of the functions and put the 10C in the second place, I had a hard time letting go of the 10B because I liked the way it displayed the entire expression in one data display line. I guess I wanted that then. Well, the good news is that most of the other available calculators for the Blackberry do exactly that. The first one in that category that I tried was BizMathica.
BizMathica will greet you with a very blank stare. Not impressive at first. But then you just need to feed it some data. There is no need to press Alt or Shift keys. All numbers and symbols are recognized correctly. And why wouldn’t they? That’s the only logic and sane thing to do. Granted, you may want to type letters into an expression, like x or y, but that certainly is not the most common case. If you press the 8/x key into a calculator display, chances are you want “8″, not “x”. If you really want “x”, then you press the Alt key to type an “x”. Excellent. Then you press the Enter key to see the result of the expression. I didn’t like using the Enter key. I always think the Space key is a lot more comfortable and convenient for that. The thing is, you can actually insert spaces in the expressions although I don’t see why you would want to do that.
Symbols are typed immediately as long as they are available in the keyboard. If they’re not, you can also resort to the Blackberry’s own Symbol key and get more symbols. And another very good thing about expression input in BizMathica is that correct operation precedence is applied. I mentioned this problem when I reviewed the HP 10B pocket calculator emulator: you key in 22*16+4*2 into the HP 10B and the result is 712 when you probably expect 360. In BizMathica, the result of that expression is 360. You may want to enclose certain operations in parentheses like this: (22*16)+(4*2). But it’s not necessary. The result is 360 either way.
BizMathica doesn’t look very good at first sight, but there is something very clever about this type of calculator that no one can deny: the phone already has keys with numbers and math symbols. Why clutter the screen with fake keys? Why not use the entire screen space to display more data? What is this? An iPhone? Certainly not, so there is plenty of screen real state for data display. So all you have to do is press Enter and there is your result, and not only that, you can always refer to many if not all of the previous operations. They’re all sent to the “history” area above the current expression and you can have a pretty long history. The length of the history is configurable and the default is 150 lines. I wonder if there is too much of a performance impact if I raise it to, say, 500. It is possible. I changed mine to 1,500 and there was no error message regarding any limits. You can scroll all that you want through that operation history and, of course, copy the whole of it so as to paste it elsewhere. Remember: not an iPhone.
Note that the result is displayed twice: immediately below the last expression and at the bottom of the screen. No matter what you do, the bottom of the screen always displays the result of the last expression. That’s probably a reminder because you can always use that last result in your next operation. All you have to do is type the “@” symbol into your expression and it will be calculated as the value obtained from the last calculation. Look at these screnshots:
The “@” symbol is a “global parameter”, which happens to be variable. Other “global parameters” are fixed. You can add your own and edit the existing ones in the configuration section:
If you look closely, you should see ExchgRateToHome and ExchgRateToOther. That is supposed to be used in currency exchange rate conversions, but I don’t see how that can be really useful since there is no currency update mechanism. The only value it has is the ability to be edited and used in whatever way you may come up with and apply conversions.
IF YOU MEAN BUSINESS
Scientific and financial calculators die-hards may be wondering about how to perform all those specific functions with BizMathica, but they probably have seen the screenshots and noticed those two Functions and Formulas lines. Those are menus. They contain many formulas and functions that you can use and edit/customize if you want. I am not sure how well and to what extent those formulas can be customized. In fact, I found that option very confusing. Still, even if you can’t change it just the way you want, by all means check this neverending list of formulas and functions at ShrunkenHead’s site. There are both scientific and financial functions in that list, and there is a lot of them.
You will probably have to check the manuals in PDF to master these more advanced features. I didn’t. But I bet that should be a lot less reading than the typical 200-page manuals of the HP calculators – if you can find them. The HP calculators are complex all-around unless you’re already very familiar with them whereas BizMathica has only a few arcane features that are likely to require some reading.
OK, enough with the nice words. Let’s now see what is very, very wrong with this calculator. By far, the absolutely worst thing about this calculator is the whole interface beyond the basics.
First off, how come there are two menus, one for formulas and one for functions? Whenever I want to use one of them, I’m never sure whether it is a formula or a function and often waste time looking for it in the wrong menu. It’s confusing!
Then suppose you have the right menu. How do you use it? Pay attention: if you click the trackball in the big expression area, you get a certain generic menu. If you click the Formulas or Functions menu with the trackball, you don’t get a list of formulas/functions, you get that same generic menu. Awful! In order to select a formula/function, you’ll have to scroll down to “Change option” in the generic menu and click “Change option”. Then you’re shown the formula or function menu. Really awful! And when you find the item you want, you don’t just click it. After you click it, you still have to press the Enter key or the trackball and select “Copy To” from the menu that ensues. Unbelievably awful!
There is a shortcut. Highlight one of those Formulas or Functions menus and press the first letter of the formula/function you want. That will be faster… if you’re smarter than I am and never have any doubts whether what you want is a formula or function and never pick the wrong menu.
And sometimes the formula/function is quite dumb and requires way too much clicking and scrolling. Let’s see one example: how many kilograms are there in 200 pounds? Look at the screenshots before I explain:
The screenshots above demonstrate “the wrong way”: you don’t know how many kilograms it’s going to be, but you can’t leave it empty. Why not? What else could someone ever type in there? Heck if I know. You just can’t leave it empty. But typing anything there doesn’t make any sense, does it?
Of course it doesn’t! But just look at how many things are wrong with it:
- I can’t leave the result field empty.
- What is the deal with the OK and Cancel buttons? If I press Enter, I should get the result immediately so it is faster. I can always cancel the operation with the phone’s Escape key. I’ve lost count of how many times I pressed that Cancel button by mistake!
- Instead of getting the result right away, I have to press the OK button.
- Even after I press the OK button, I still don’t get the result! I get an expression and have to press Enter.
- Only after I press Enter, I am told in a rather obscure way that I made a mistake several steps ago that the application would rather point out now and not then.
What is the right way, then?
All that trouble because of a “?” symbol! OK, I’ve learned it, no more error messages. But I am still forced to fill in an unnecessary field and the correct filling of this field will not prevent all the rest of the remarkably convoluted process.
In fewer words: accessing and using formulas and functions (like measurement conversions) with BizMathica is a major pain. This is one excellent example of the many situations that make me wonder what in the blue blazes goes on the minds of the developers that come up with these awful interfaces and incredible procedures. Oh, well. Not an iPhone, I guess. All these years and Apple has taught nothing to these people.
Pros and cons: I find it too difficult to sum them up. Don’t be so lazy, read the article. Instead, I’ll just apply the single comparison method I chose for all of this week’s calculators:
Look and feel: 6 (look is just OK, feel not so much)
Ease of use: 7 (the interface is not intuitive in several details, too many design blunders)
Math functions: 9 (or 10, maybe? It certainly can do a lot)
Data display: 10 (full expressions and ticker tape)
Measurement conversion: 7 (it’s there, but lacks useability and there are not that many measurement units)
Average: (6+7+9+10+7=39) / 5 = 7.8