US$9.99 / AU$14
You would think that computers would have destroyed both the
market for and sense of nostalgia behind handheld calculators.
Though dial telephones and typewriters have been left behind in the dust, kids
taking math classes at all ages are often required to own a
physical calculator. It might be a cheap and simple model for
younger kids or an expensive graphing calculator for
high-school and college math classes.
The calculator app PCalc benefits from this constant churn of kids
learning a classic manually operated device. You don't have to
explain a calculator's workings to today's children, despite the
device having origins in the 1800s.
PCalc has built its interface around the memory of buttons you
can press. But that's just its facade. Hiding underneath are many
calculator layouts and styles, themes, a button and layout editor,
and bananasâ€”lots of bananas, but I'll get to that at the end. For
almost exactly 29 years at this writing (171 hours shy, I
calculated), PCalc has kept the dream alive of one of history's
most banal and important technological inventions while continually
extending it to meet present needs.
PCalc offers the
familiarity of a physical calculator with the sophistication of a
highly customizable app.
You can use PCalc like the plainest of basic calculators, but
Apple already provides its own minimal Calculator app for that
purpose. Where PCalc shines is in how it lets you select among a
wide variety of preset options and customize those to the
Start by picking a layout from View Layout or
using the one called Default. Type in the keyboard number row for
entry, though a keyboard with a number pad will serve you better.
You have access to several layouts designed for the Mac, but can
also pull up ones for mobile devices if you like those better or
use PCalc on other devices. (PCalc is also available for iOS, iPadOS,
and watchOS, and for tvOS. Some user data, like custom layouts, syncs
via iCloud if that option is enabled.)
Dig in via the View menu to customize the way in which numbers
are shown, how the calculator accepts or parses input, and how it
presents its parts. Want the display to show more lines? Choose
View Lines and a number or Smart Resize. If you're
more comfortable with an accounting-style entry, in which numbers
entered are assumed to include tenths and hundredths without
requiring including a period, you can opt for it all the time or
whenever you want.
PCalc starts you off with a number of themes. Themes have unique
color palettes, but they also control the roundedness of buttons.
You can tweak themes to your heart's delight and save new ones.
That's true of layouts, too: if regular, engineering, programming,
and other formats don't fit you to a T, choose Edit Layout
Edit Layout and rewire where buttons are, their sizes,
and what they do.
The way a PCalc layout
looks isn't limited to its developer's imagination. Display
preferences offers many controls.
Along with the calculator options, you can view the Tape window,
which shows a running series of all actions performed, both entries
and results. PCalc can also reveal a Registers window, showing the
values held in various temporary locations and displaying
conversions across common bases (like hex and octal) and as ASCII
text and Unicode.
PCalc comes with constants and conversions across a wide swath
of human endeavor and needs. You can pull up the Classical Electron
Radius to insert into a calculation, or convert U.S. gallons to
cubic centimeters. It also includes a handful of formulas. Currency
conversions use exchange rates that are updated automatically.
I've already described the degree (or radian) to which PCalc is
customizable, but it goes far, far, further. The Preferences dialog
lets you change the provided keyboard shortcuts, which are
extensive; choose among accessibility options; and define your own
constants, conversions, and formulas.
Clicking the Advanced button in Preferences may require some
preparation for its journey, like a light lunch and a pack mule.
TLA Systems wants you to make PCalc as much your own custom
calculator hub as it is theirs, and it rewards an investment in
understanding the options.
Settle in a while
before tackling Advanced preferences, which provide settings that
let you tweak PCalc to reckon the way you want.
The latest major release, version 4.9, shipped in February 2021
with a complete layout editor (formerly, some features were
reserved for iOS/iPadOS) and a new menu bar widget. This widget can
show a basic, advanced, or currency-oriented layout, or you can
roll your own. A more modest update, version 4.10, appeared in
October 2021 with Monterey compatibility, including for Shortcuts
and Quick Notes.
About the bananas I mentioned earlier. When Apple started adding
powerful animation, physics modeling, and other frameworks into iOS
and then macOS, developer James Thomson created some amusing
experimentations that have, over time, turned into a fleshed-out
environment in PCalc's About screen. Click the PCalc logo on a
calculator or choose PCalc About PCalc
(Command-Shift-A) to open it. You can throw bananas at a
3D-rendered version of the logo, drive a car around a track and try
to perform loop-de-loops, and drop hundreds of realistically
rendered dice that bounce and roll as gravity intended. It's a
charming playground that inevitably led to TLA Systems's Dice by PCalc app
($1.99 for iOS/iPadOS/tvOS/watchOS and $1.99 for macOS).
When you need a break
from pumping numbers, the About screen offers endless arrays of
rendered nonsense, and a driving game.
PCalc is also bananas about inflation, which the developer can't
seem to calculate: the app cost $19.99 through 2008; when the iOS
version shipped that year, PCalc for macOS dropped to $9.99, and
it's remained there since. The current version works with Mac OS X
10.11 El Capitan or later; it's fully updated for Monterey.
It's testament to humanity's need to enter numbers one at a time
and transform them that PCalc persists. Not only persists, but
finds new features to add to an app that could have matured decades
ago. PCalc offers one of the best calculators for macOS out of the
virtual box, while also providing the greatest versatility and
Macworld last reviewed PCalc for version 3 in 2014, when
the then-editor of Mac Gems wrote, TLA Systems has designed the
ultimate scientific calculator: one that's fantastic today, but
that's also regularly updated with new features, functions, and
faces. That remains true.
With the strong resurgence of the Mac in recent years, we
want to celebrate the tools we use and that readers recommend to
make the most of your macOS experience. Mac Gems highlights great
nuggets of Mac software, apps that have a high utility, have a
sharp focus on a limited set of problems to solve, and are
generally developed by an individual or small company. Stay tuned
for weekly updates, and send your suggestions to the Mac Gems
Twitter feed (@macgems).