Sunday, June 16, 2024


Apple's macOS 14 calculator

With Apple’s grafting of artificial intelligence onto the next updates of their devices’ operating systems, I found it hilarious that the addition of a calculator app to the iPad received so much anticipation. 

“Apple Intelligence” will only be available on certain devices with the necessary processors and RAM to undertake tasks inside the device - my iPhone 14 Pro, bought in late 2022, is not set up for it, but it does have a built-in calculator.

My owning many purpose-built calculators, filled with tangible, clicking buttons, has made Apple’s calculator app an afterthought for me for years, whether its face was inspired by the design philosophy of Braun and Dieter Rams or not. Turning your phone sideways to access scientific functions requires me to unlock the screen’s “portrait orientation” first, and when I do, there are no time calculation functions available. Screenshots of the replacement app appear to change the orientation issue at the very least. The calculation app I do use is Free42, recreating the advanced Hewlett-Packard HP42S, letting me use Reverse Polish Notation (RPN) as well.

Apple has a perfectly capable calculator app, available on its desktop and laptop computers, and it appears to be this which has formed the base of the new calculator for iOS and iPad OS. My reason for thinking this is recall of previous calculations, known under the skeuomorphic name of “Paper Tape” on macOS, and the addition of unit conversions, locating time functions there, and including currency conversions using data provided by Yahoo – I have never used this, as while this conversion rate may be of use to people working in finance, more useful to many more would be tourist rates, or even the rates that PayPal are currently using.

“Math Notes” is the major innovation on the new calculator app, supporting the handwriting of calculations and equations, which the app will then immediately solve, and re-solve if variables are changed – this was used by Apple as a further selling point for Apple Pencil, but using a finger will suffice. 

This feature feels like the endpoint of the various school calculator input methods like Sharp’s DAL (Direct Algebraic Logic) and Casio’s VPAM (Visually Perfect Algebraic Method) and Natural Textbook Display, all touted as innovations that help you input calculations like they are listed on the page. I have never got on with these, partly because this was not how I was taught maths at A-Level, which was to use the calculator to answer pieces of an equation, but use paper for the rest, and so I have always believed that just copying up the problem won’t help you understand it – you use these if you only need the answer, not an explanation of how you got there. At least Casio’s new scientific calculators rearranged themselves to make them more enticing to explore, something not required of Apple’s app.

Will I use the new app when my phone is updated? Probably not – while it is currently in beta mode, to be released later in 2024, I do not see the RPN option I use on Free42. With other apps having for years met the needs that Apple had not supplied with their own app, more features and customisation is required to match those offerings – either that, or add Math Notes to the desktop app, and put that on my phone.

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