capsule review

PCalc Progresses

Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this in a public forum, but I love calculators. Not the flimsy things you used to get for free at the bank, or those cheap ones you can find at any supermarket or discount store—I’m talking scientific calculators. The kind with sizable screens, beaucoup buttons, and mucho memory. Part of my affinity for these geeky gadgets stems from my science background. (I originally went to college to be a physicist. I changed my mind.) The other part is that I’m a big fan of RPN (Reverse Polish Notation), the preferred entry method of scientific and techie types—once you’ve taken to RPN, traditional equation entry seems limiting, and RPN is a feature found mainly in more advanced calculators.

In recent years, software calculators have become increasingly popular, probably due to the fact that the people most likely to be using scientific calculators are also quite likely to be using computers. On the Mac platform, my favorite software calc has long been James Thomson’s excellent PCalc 2. However, the last update was over four years ago and Mac OS X has come a long way since then: Tiger’s built-in Calculator app now has scientific and RPN modes, and with the advent of Dashboard—which is the perfect environment for calculators in general—I’ve found myself using the Widget-based calculator RPN Calc. But I’ve always hoped to see an updated version of PCalc.

You’ve probably already figured out where this is going: At long last, James has released PCalc 3 (   ; $19, free upgrade for those who purchased PCalc 2, $10 upgrade for those who received PCalc 2 free with their Macs). And what an update it is. If you need a scientific calculator, enjoy RPN, or are just a fan of geeky software, PCalc is once again the cream of the calculator crop. (PCalc also supports standard input, so it’s not just for RPN-lovers.)

Like OS X’s own Calculator, PCalc has a basic mode that provides the most common calculator functions:

PCalc Basic Mode

But enable its various advanced options and you get all the features you’d expect in a full-fledged scientific calculator, along with a “paper” tape, advanced information about the current figure, RPN register display, and quick-access toolbar menus for functions, conversions, and constants:

PCalc Advanced Options

PCalc’s standard scientific functions are likely familiar to anyone who needs them, but its Functions, Conversions, and Constants options—accessible via the PCalc toolbar or their respective menus—are useful additions. The Functions feature provides advanced calculations relating to complex numbers, trigonometry, finance, and much more. The Conversions feature works much like Apple’s own Calculator: You can convert units of angle, area, bytes, energy, length, pressure, speed, temperature, time, volume, and weight. (PCalc is missing Calculator’s currency conversion feature, but that’s available via Apple’s Dashboard widget if you need it.) And the Constants menu lets you quickly enter a number of useful constants such as the speed of light, Avagadro’s number, standard gravitational acceleration, and even the Ultimate Answer, 42. (PCalc even supports third-party plugins for functions and conversions.)

You can also customize PCalc to your taste. Two built-in appearance styles (Aqua and Metal) and support for third-party style plug-ins give you aesthetic options, and fully configurable keyboard shortcuts—for nearly every function—mean you can make PCalc, um, function exactly how you want it to.

Finally, PCalc offers a number of minor but useful features that you rarely find in other calculators. For example, Undo and Redo commands let you retrace (and correct) your steps, and you can copy or paste any number as ASCII, UTF-8, or UTF-16—PCalc does the conversion for you on-the-fly. And PCalc is likely the first calculator provided as a Universal Binary—it’s already able to run on the upcoming Intel-based Macs.

What if you’d rather use PCalc in Dashboard? A widget version is included. It doesn’t provide the fancy drawers and toolbar, and doesn’t include the Functions, Conversions, and Constants features, but it’s still the best widget calculator I’ve seen.

PCalc widget

One more thing... If, like me, you don’t want PCalc’s large window to cover other windows and the Desktop (or other widgets in Dashboard) when it’s not actively being used, you can set it to automatically minimize to just the display when in the background—you can still view the results of your calculation, but everything else is hidden. (However, in an odd quirk, if you enable this option and also enable the tape, info, and/or stack drawers, you actually see the drawers open and close each time you switch to or from PCalc; I’d rather they just appear and disappear, as the animation is distracting.)

PCalc Minimized

Now, I fully admit that not everyone needs such a killer calc. But for those who do—students, teachers, aspiring physicists—or those who just appreciate a great calculator, it doesn’t get much better than PCalc.

PCalc 3 requires Mac OS X 10.4.2 or later due to its use of Tiger-only technologies. PCalc 2, which works with older versions of Mac OS X, is still available (and is still very good)

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