why is HP still selling calculators anyway?



#12

A word of frustration here. My HP 35s seems to start behaving according to what it really is: a cheap chinese reimplementation of the 32SII with an HP label. It looks very ok and the case is of solid manufacture but that 's basically it. The bugs have been discussed extensively in other threads so I will not readdress them here. My main concern from the beginning however were mechanical aspects of the keyboard and that concern seems not to be without reason. The C (on/off) key of my unit is becoming mush. The click is very weak now and the key itself seems loose somehow (probably because the contact-dome underneath is not pushing it firmly upwards anymore when the key is not pressed. To put it bluntly: the construction of the keyboard from photographs on this forum reminded me of my first calc, a TI 35 (what's in a name or number?). It was the breakdown of this calc's keyboard that made me turn to HP's and I have never had any regrets about this decision (The 34C was my first HP). Now the keyboard of the latest HP scientific shows the same problems as the worst keyboards that TI ever produced. With all the quality problems in relation to the 33s and the 49g in mind I really wonder if there is still a role for HP in the calculator business. If they think so than quality should be a major issue again since their present performance is below reasonable standards. If they do not improve they may as well quit their line of calculators in my opinion since this is not going to work.


#13

According to Egan's post below: HP is selling calcs because enough people buy them. For whatever reason - most probably because these people still connect HP and quality in their minds.


#14

I buy them for RPN/L and programmability. Or at least I did. Quality only became a concern for me when I decided in early 2006 to get a new calculator. My 1985 15C and my 1993 48GX were (and are) still going strong, but I wanted to see what was new. So, in 2006 I went shopping for the first time since 1993 for a new calculator. I ignorantly assumed that I could just pick up an improved 15C or 48GX. The only RPN/Ls I could find were the 33s and the 49g+. I did not need to physically examine them to tell from the low res pictures that quality suffered.

I was unhappy, so I Googled and found this community of like minded individuals and started collecting 80s models. E.g., I obtained a 2nd 15C NIB for 5x what I paid for my 35s. And IMHO it's 5x the machine.

Of the post-48GX machines I only use the 50g. I like the speed, the larger screen, and I can program it in C. However, if I had to rebuild civilization I'd probably stick with my 15C and its 20 year battery life.

It's amazing how high your expectations can be when your first calculator was a 15C. Quality was taken for granted.

#15

Because HP calculators are still better than Casios and TIs, in my humble opinion.

#16

Quote:
Now the keyboard of the latest HP scientific shows the same problems as the worst keyboards that TI ever produced.

Hardly! There were many TI keyboards that were mushy and had horrible bounce problems immediately on purchase, not some time later.

The question to be asked isn't whether the 35s keyboard is as good as that of an HP calculator from the "good old days", but rather whether the 35s keyboard is worse than comparably priced (or less expensive) calculators from other vendors. In my (admittedly limited) experience, it is not.

The 34C you mention had a list price of US$ 149 in 1979. Using the official US CPI, that's equivalent to $468 today. Many people believe the CPI significantly underreports inflation, so the equivalent may actually be much higher. If HP could sell a calculator for $468 today, I'm sure it would have an incredibly high quality keyboard. The actual price of the 35s is only 11% of the CPI-adjusted price of the 34C. While it is true that some electronics costs have gone down, many of the other materials costs have gone up. Expecting 34C quality at 11% of the 34C price is unfortunately not very realistic.

This phenomenon is not limited to calculators. When the IBM PC was introduced, it had a very high quality keyboard. Today PCs have keyboards that are much less expensive, but are also very low quality. If you want a keyboard with comparable quality to the original PC keyboard, it will cost you roughly $150 to $300, vs. the common $10 to $20 keyboards.

Unsurprisingly, then, many of those cheap (in both senses of the word) keyboards have key legends that wear off, miss keystrokes, have keys that get mushy over time, etc. Since the same basic technologies are used for calculator keyboards, it would be foolish to expect that calculator keyboards wouldn't succumb to the same kinds of problems. That said, it appears to me that the 35s and 49g+/50g+ keyboards are actually quite good relative to their price points.


#17

Eric --

Those were informative thoughts and information regarding the role and cost of quality keyboards.

I'm not in the "gadget-design" business, but am still finding it difficult to believe that the extra cost of quality materials and design in a calculator keyboard is prohibitive. Quite frankly, an unreliable keyboard ruins the value of a calculator, rendering it essentially unusable.

The mechanical design of a keyboard need not be original, as the tried-and-true might be reusable. Printed legends instead of inlaid are not particularly important, as long as they are well-done and durable. Even mushiness can be OK, as long as the keys work properly.

I'd also think that much of the high price of the 1970's and 1980's models was not only due to the higher cost of electronics and well-engineered keyboards. Much value was attributable to the large teams of high-skilled, well-paid, expert US labor -- e.g., mathematicians, programmers, engineers, and technical writers. Algorithms and microcode were often original and continually improved; testing was rigorous; manuals were excellent in form and content, translated with care by humans into many different languages.

Today's low retail prices don't really justify the kind of investment to develop a "budget" advanced model from scratch. The HP-33s and HP-35s were largely derivatives of the HP-32SII, with most functionality and the manuals already developed.

-- KS


#18

The two most significant things that distinguish the keyboards of the "old school" (roughly pre-1985) HP calculators from the current crop are the use of double-shot injection molding for the primary key legends, and metal snap disks for tactile feedback.

My research suggests that the double-shot molding adds a lot to the NRE costs, but probably well under $1 to calculator manufacturing cost.

On the other hand, the metal snap disks have little NRE cost, but could add anywhere from $3 to $10 to the manufacturing cost, depending somewhat on whether the disks and PCB have gold plating. If I'm not mistaken, HP normally used non-gold-plated snap disks with gold-plated PCBs.

Quote:
The HP-33s and HP-35s were largely derivatives of the HP-32SII, with most functionality and the manuals already developed.

I obviously wasn't involved in the 33s development, but as I understand it, the firmware had to be written from scratch. The 32SII firmware source code was probably useful in some cases as a reference, but none of that code is actual running in the 33s.


#19

Quote:
The two most significant things that distinguish the keyboards of the "old school" (roughly pre-1985) HP calculators from the current crop are the use of double-shot injection molding for the primary key legends, and metal snap disks for tactile feedback.
Classics and Woodstocks had something like "metal arcs", which-to me-made up for an unparalleled haptics. I wonder whether HP devised this technique themself or if this was a standard at that time? I suppose it isn't used anymore in any device?

Edited: 19 June 2008, 6:16 a.m.


#20

HP invented and patented it. However, it was less reliable than the metal snap-discs they switched to later, as well as being more expensive. I've never previously heard anyone claim that the strips had better feel than the metal snap-discs.


#21

At least, I like the 35, 45 and 25 keyboards most.

One of my meomories: Once I messed up the 45 keyboard. I cleaned it as it is to not have to open it. Obviously I didn't gave it enough time to dry out (approx two days), so the 1/x key went bad after hours of using it again. This time, I had to open it. Very much to my surprise, I could easily turn a wooden toothpick into a tool to successfully remove corrosion under the metal strip. Since then, I'm using this 45 nearly daily and never again had any problems with it. I think I'm a big fan of this kind of accessible contacts and maybe my tactile preference is somehow psychosomatic ;-).


#22

The 25 uses metal snap disks.


#23

FWIW, I've never seen a 20 series keyboard with metal discs.

Early units had a modified classic strip design, later production used a plastic dome sheet, similar to that used in the original Spice machines. If the keyboard has holes under each key, it's a strip with the square contact orientation being evident through the board if it is translucent (some boards were black FR4). No holes is a plastic dome sheet model.

Individual discs appeared originally in the 41 and then in later 30 series machines once it was redesigned with the soldered construction.

The original 30 series keyboard was a known premature failure item to HP, adding fuel to the fire to redesign it. Most units sent in for service in the early eighties simply got the inards swapped out for the new design with discs. I suspect they knew about the 30 series problems when designing the 41... hence the discs and with them one of the most reliable keyboards ever made.


Edited: 20 June 2008, 3:27 p.m.

#24

Let's see:

;-)


#25

That's an early one. Later ones use domes, but my recollection that they were metal was apparently wrong.

#26

To emphasize another aspect:

The 34C was an *asset* at its time, and was built accordingly. You went to the office shop, collected brochures, asked, compared with your needs, tested and decided where to put your $$$. Often, a considerable saving period was necessary. In a way, you bought a calculating or computing *machine*, and you expected some ROI in the following years. I doubt anybody is looking to the 35S the same way.

BTW, these CPI calculations are always impressive. On the other hand, they don't take into account the progress of technology, the "training level" with repecct to particular production methods, the decreasing "coolness" of certain products, rising competition, changing customer expectations, etc. E.g. extrapolating the price of a Ford T to todays $$$ would be of very limited value for quality discussion.


#27

If you believe that the improved technology is really enough to counter the inflation, and HP isn't building the best calculators they can for the retail price, it's not something to complain about. Rather, it's an opportunity for you to get into the calculator business and show HP (and us) how much better it can be done.


#28

Quote:
If you believe that the improved technology is really enough to counter the inflation, and HP isn't building the best calculators they can for the retail price, it's not something to complain about.

<SURPRISE> Eric, assume you responded to the last paragraph of my post, though I don't see the link. For sake of clarification: what I wanted to tell in my post was it may be slightly too simple to just multiply old prices and CPI, divided by todays prices, to get the factor of quality reduction. Take one of the first mobile phones and do that calculation: do you really claim todays cell phones are 10^-3 the quality of the old one? I don't think so. Thus, other factors play a role, too. That's all. No flame intended.
#29

There is only a tiny amount of profit to be made on each calculator manufactured today. There is no market for a calculator that is priced to make it profitable with the materials that were used 25-30 years ago.

Back then a calculator was the height of computing power that most consumers owned, and they were considered long-term assets. Now they are just a niche product that perform some selected subset of the functions that many other consumer-owned computing machines can perform.


#30

Quote:
There is no market for a calculator that is priced to make it profitable with the materials that were used 25-30 years ago.

No market? Then how does one explain the willingness of buyers to pay $150 for a used 27s or $400 for a used 42s? Who buys programmable scientific calculators anyways? Scientists and engineers, and university students studying to be same. In other words, the kind of folks who belong to this forum and complain about current HP quality. The high school students buy TI, let TI keep that market.

I think the problem is that, because of the general downward trend in electronics prices, HP, like many commenters here, just ASSUMES that no one is willing to pay for a quality-built calculator.

I myself tried a 35s, and later got rid of it and bought a couple more used Pioneers. I am a user, not a collector, and because nothing lasts forever, I keep extras around.


#31

Quote:
No market? Then how does one explain the willingness of buyers to pay $150 for a used 27s or $400 for a used 42s?

I think that is a unique situation that represent a minority. If any created a $400 calculator I do not believe that the sales would justify the cost to develop and manufacture such a machine. For most (even adults) what is presently available is "good enough". And when it comes to "good enough" what is cheaper and easily available, wins.

#32

Quote:
I think that is a unique situation that represent a minority.

If that's true, then the question remains, who buys HP scientific programmable calculators? I have given my answer, what's yours?

Quote:
If any created a $400 calculator I do not believe that the sales would justify the cost to develop and manufacture such a machine.

A $400 calculator is one thing. What about a $100 calculator that has the bugs fixed and has a decent keyboard? Several experts on this forum have explained to us how a few cents in production costs are a big deal to a manufacturer of a mass-produced item. So in the case of the 35s, how far would an additional $40 go?

I remember when I first heard about the 35s, I thought "can it be any good for $60?" I would have easily parted with $100 for it, and think most of you would, too, if it lived up to our expectations of HP quality.

Am I making any sense here?


#33

Quote:
If that's true, then the question remains, who buys HP scientific programmable calculators? I have given my answer, what's yours?

The minority I reference are collector-users (or user-collectors), i.e., those for various reasons that purchase legacy calculators for $400.

As for who buys "HP scientific programmable calculators". I cannot say. I work with a lot of scientists and engineers worldwide as part of my job. I haven't seen any of them use anything other than a laptop. But, I work in scientific and technical computing. Perhaps I am working with the wrong scientists and engineers. However, I still speculate that most have moved beyond hand held scientific programmable calculators.

Quote:
What about a $100 calculator that has the bugs fixed and has a decent keyboard? Several experts on this forum have explained to us how a few cents in production costs are a big deal to a manufacturer of a mass-produced item. So in the case of the 35s, how far would an additional $40 go?

If you double the price, does your user base remain the same? It is 1/2, or a 1/4, or actually increase? Do you lose sales of more profitable items at $100? Or do you lose or win sales from a competitor?

All questions that "experts" have not answered. Business questions that need to also be addressed.


#34

I have never seen an engineer without a calculator. It is true that most do not use HP's. However, despite the fact that every engineer that I work with has access to powerful software, there is still the need for a calculator. They are great for roughing out quick solutions, for checking computer output, and for design of relatively small new designs. I also see that most of the engineers that have recently graduated use the higher end TI graphing calculators, so there is a market for something other than a basic calculator. The problem is that TI "out-compteted" HP.


#35

Quote:
I have never seen an engineer without a calculator. It is true that most do not use HP's.

Very sad. For many years, HP calculators were THE standard calculators for engineers, and other brands were very much in the minority.


#36

Quote:
Very sad. For many years, HP calculators were THE standard calculators for engineers, and other brands were very much in the minority.

As I've mentioned on here before, I very rarely ever see an engineer use a HP calculator. But more interestingly (I think) is that I very rarely see them use a programmable or graphic calculator either, it's always a basic non-programmable Casio/TI/Sharp/No-Name scientific, or even just a 4 banger.

I'm talking Australia here (if it makes a difference), and electrical/electronics, mechanical, production, and other specialised engineers I have been involved with over the years. No matter what company I go to it's always the same, that's what's on the desk.

I like to quiz people on this, and the answer is always the same - something along the lines of "oh, I used to have a graphic/programmable calculator when I was studying (often a HP), but it's useless for everyday work, I just want to add a few numbers most of the time."

And by "very rarely" I mean like one in every few hundred.

Dave.

#37

Quote:
No market? Then how does one explain the willingness of buyers to pay $150 for a used 27s or $400 for a used 42s? Who buys programmable scientific calculators anyways? Scientists and engineers, and university students studying to be same. In other words, the kind of folks who belong to this forum and complain about current HP quality. The high school students buy TI, let TI keep that market.

I don't think one can over-emphasize how atypical the reader of hpmuseum.org is, or especially how atypical the buyers of $400 used HP 42's are. In a recent discussion with an IT professional, I found he was astounded to learn that people actually 'collect calculators'. This is an informed professional in every other respect.

I plugged into hpmuseum.org several years ago when i took an MBA (for personal development reasons not for career reasons unfortunately at my age), and was unhappy with the Sharp EL-733A included in our tuition and distributed to all. Having used an HP 29C in engineering school, and an HP 41C when I graduated, I knew how a good calculator felt and performed -- and the EL-733A didn't measure up. Unfortunately the HP 17BII was no longer sold by HP, and the HP 17BII+ hadn't yet been released (small loss). In desperation I snapped up a couple of used HP 17BII's on ebay for use in my MBA. Even today, I know of no retail shop in my city of 1M where one can even buy an HP. Well OK, HP 10BII's are available but nothing else! I go to the trouble of mail-ordering in order to buy an HP 35s, an HP 12c anniversary, an HP 17BII+ silver, and soon I hope an HP 20B. But I have no peers who would even consider mail-ordering an HP -- they just use el-cheapo, commodity calculators when away from their PCs and spreadsheets.

...bt


Edited: 18 June 2008, 7:32 p.m.

#38

At $50-$60 for a new HP35S, considering the low mfr. costs and pretty stiff price for what you get, they could afford a good keyboard. HP sure thinks they've got a great keyboard in the interviews I've read with an HP product development person. In the two 35S's I've had so far the keyboard quality is so-so but not that good.

I still think the 33S, with it's stiffer keyboard feel, has a better keyboard. It's never given me the problems the 35S has.


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