18 March 2019

Something Different: Gametrak Musical Instrument and reason for hiatus

This was completely unplanned, but I'm taking some time off from writing calculator reviews again. Last week I didn't manage to finish up the reviews I was working on so only one thing was posted. This has been due to a project that was just started that I want to finish before the end of the month.

I am upgrading a musical instrument that I built last year for school. It has turned out to be a lot more work than I expected, but it's coming along nicely. It involves a lot of soldering and wiring, both of which I'm not particularly experienced. I'm trying to fit everything into a toolbox for portability while also trying to make it sturdy and reliable.

It's a very fun project, and I've had a great time working on it.

Not my own picture.
This is the Gametrak, a video game controller from Madcatz for the Playstation 2, Xbox, and PC. You wear gloves that attach to the wires and it's able to track your hands in 3D space. Only two games were released for it, and the Wii came out shortly afterward so it became obsolete pretty quickly.

Some clever musicians realized it could be used to make an instrument. The video below is just one example.

I did the same thing for a class project, but I had a lot of issues with it. The one I bought only works on the Playstation 2, so I had to tear it apart and build my own circuit board to connect it to a Raspberry Pi.
Original instrument was a mess.
Better view of Gametrak.
It looked like crap, but I had very little time to work on it. I really wanted to make something better, but the class had ended and I moved on to other things. 

A week or so ago, I was asked to take some pictures for the professor of the class, and was informed that they wanted to use it for another class. This inspired me to return to it and design the instrument to my liking. I completely disassembled what I had and rebuilt the circuit board to plug directly into an Arduino. After dozens of other revisions, this is what I came up with:
Much cleaner Arduino hat in place of the mess of wires.
Still need to do all of the wiring.
Top. The tiny display isn't mounted yet.
As you can see, there's still a LOT of work to be done. I don't want to neglect my calculators, but I'm very excited about getting this thing completed. I'm trying to spend as little money as possible on it, so it's constructed mostly of things I had stored in boxes and parts from broken electronics I was going to recycle. 

Anyway, I wanted to let my readers know that I'm still alive and that there will be more calculator reviews in the near future. 

11 March 2019

Calculator Collecting: The Calculator Graveyard

In addition (haha) to my reviews, I've been wanting to discuss other aspects of calculator collecting. This is the first in what I hope to be many posts about this amazing hobby that has brought myself and others so much joy. 
In several of my videos and reviews, I've mentioned what happens to the calculators I've covered. I have five different locations to store them. There's the Wall of Fame, where I put the best handheld devices and see them first thing every morning. I have a display case for my most interesting items (not just calculators) and that's where a lot of the truly fascinating devices go. There's also a shelf where I store larger calculators that don't fit on the Wall of Fame but aren't cool enough for the display case. I've also mentioned the "Box of Lame," which is a cube storage thing where all of the terrible calculators go. I like to keep these out of sight for the most part.

But the fifth storage location is today's topic, and that is the Calculator Graveyard. It's more of a bag than a location, actually.
The Calculator Graveyard, posing for a fancy photo.
When purchasing calculators at thrift stores or even Ebay, I occasionally get something that doesn't work. Sometimes they don't survive shipping, other times they have horrific battery corrosion, and many were simply donated to Goodwill in a non-working state. I attempt to fix all of these, but I'm not an expert and I don't really know what I'm doing.

Then there are times when I get a perfectly functioning calculator and take it apart before writing a review. Sometimes I make a mistake and cause irreparable damage. It's devastating.

In any of these situations, I don't just throw the devices away. Instead, they're added to the Calculator Graveyard in the hopes that maybe some day they can be resurrected or stripped of parts for the benefit of another calculator. Ultimately, many of these will probably be taken to an electronics recycling center, but the bag isn't quite full yet so I'm in no rush to part with them.

The TI-1000 was purchased in the early days of my calculator collecting, before I even dreamed of the idea of writing reviews. I found it at Goodwill for $4 but saw that it wasn't working quite right. Still, I took this piece of history home with me hoping to fix it. Sadly, the internal components were so worn and damaged that I ended up discarding them. I kept the shell because it still looked cool and maybe I could use it for a project of some sort.
Fortunately, I found another on Ebay for a reasonable price and it's one of my website's earlier reviews. Check it out here.

Unisonic LC588
In the case of the Unisonic LC588, I didn't give it a thorough testing before purchasing it at Goodwill for a few bucks. I turned it on and saw a zero, and that was good enough for me. It wasn't until I got home that I discovered the display had some serious problems showing digits.

Unknown Curved Calculator
This calculator was working fine when I got it, but when I disassembled it for the review, the ribbon connecting to the display broke and I was unable to repair it. I did end up finding a similar device and wrote a review for it. Check it out here.

Brookstone Touch Screen Control Clock Calculator
Another calculator that was in perfect shape when I got it. Like the curved calculator, I disassembled it and broke the extremely thin ribbon connecting to the display. I was very upset with this because it seemed like a really cool device and I was excited about sharing it on my website. I hope I can find another some day.

Casio FX-115W
I love Casio calculators, so finding this one for 95 cents at a book store was big for me. Unfortunately, the display doesn't show numbers so it's impossible to use. The good news is that this device is similar to the Casio FX-300ES Plus, which I previously reviewed.

TI-83 Plus
I have not reviewed or discussed graphing calculators on my site yet for a number of reasons, but I found this TI-83 Plus at Goodwill for a few bucks in very bad shape. I recorded a video of me attempting to clean and repair it, but I couldn't get it to work. I might post that video in the future since it does show a few techniques I use to clean electronics.

Unknown Clear Calculator
I ordered this from Canada on Ebay and it arrived broken. I won't even attempt to fix this device because I cannot fix broken glass. The number 7 works on it though.

Aurora D5

The very first calculator review I ever wrote was for the Aurora DC-10. It's not the first review I wrote for this site, but it was on Facebook first. When I found the D5 on Ebay for a few dollars, I didn't hesitate to order it. Sadly, it's very old and the keys only barely work. Of all the devices in the graveyard, I do think this one has the best chance of being fully repaired and restored.

Elektronika MK 36
Here it is, the truly devastating loss in my collection. This calculator comes from the Ukraine, but was sold in the Soviet Union back in the late 70s or early 80s. I did manage to get it working for a moment, so that was quite glorious. I can't be too upset because clearly this calculator has been through a lot.
I do hope that some day it can be revived because it's a beautiful device that deserves another chance.

08 March 2019

Review: A+ Homework Scientific 240 Function Calculator

A+ Homework Scientific
240 Function Calculator...
Or is it?
Today's review is more of an investigation than a review, but I'm still calling it a review. From the moment I first laid eyes on the A+ Homework Scientific 240 Function Calculator, something didn't sit quite right with me. The instincts I've developed since starting this review series triggered something in my brain: I don't know anything about the A+ Homework company, but I knew there was no way this calculator was designed or manufactured by them.

My first thought was to get the package open and look for any clues to support my hypothesis. Inside, I found a manual that didn't mention anything about A+ Homework or Uchi, or any other thing on the exterior packaging. So far, I was feeling good that I was correct in my assumption.

I did play around with the calculator a little bit before taking it apart. What I found was that the device is fairly sturdy, and the buttons and LCD display work just fine. For $4, it's not bad. There's no false advertising since there's no solar panel, and it seems like the 240 would be great for a math student. That's pretty much it for the review because there's not a whole lot to say.

Anyway, I removed the six screws on the back and exposed the interior. Inside I found cheap Chinese components held in place with masking tape. It's not as bad as I make it sound, but I was more interested in finding clues to who actually made this calculator. There weren't any logos or company names to be found, and if I wanted to dig further, I'd have to break the plastic tabs holding the keypad in place and risk everything falling apart. I didn't think it was worth the risk because it was unlikely I'd find any additional information this way.

Cheap interior components. A clue?
So far, no conclusive proof was to be found, so I took to the Internet to find answers. First I did a Google search of the calculator and found that it could be purchased wholesale from a number of sites. Then I went to the A+ Homework official website, APlusHomework.net. There I found that they sold a variety of school supplies including calculators. But this device didn't appear in the calculator section.

Back of packaging. Something's fishy here.
Scrolling further down the main products page, I found a link to discontinued products. Page after page showed nothing resembling the 240. This was suspicious to say the least. Why pretend it never existed in the first place? What were they trying to hide about this calculator?

Then I remembered the manual. While it didn't have any logos, I remembered a strange series of letters and numbers printed at the top: 82MS and 350MS. What did it mean? I suspected at first maybe these were response times for the processor, but why would that be the first thing the manual discussed? Also, those don't seem like times worth bragging about.

What does it mean?
For hours I pondered the meaning, plugging the numbers into the calculator in a number of ways to see if maybe there was something hidden within the software. I even read a few paragraphs of the manual to see if there were more clues, but that got boring so I continued adding, subtracting, multiplying, diving, and square rooting numbers to see if I could find some hidden message.

I knew I was reaching a dead end, but I didn't know where else to turn. I tossed and turned all night in bed between dreams of A+ Homework tracking me down and stopping me before I could expose them. The people of the world would be left forever clueless, and continuing to buy cheap, unreliable calculators. Then, in a cold sweat, I sat up violently, throwing the sheets off my chest.
Were the answers hiding within?
How could I have been so foolish? The realization hit me like an egg splattering against a brick wall.

I raced back to my computer, briefly thankful to see the calculator still sitting on my desk where I had left it. A+ Homework hadn't infiltrated my home yet, so I knew there was still time. I might have worried they could have snuck in at night and swapped the device out for something else, but the manual was still there, still showing those until now enigmatic numbers and letters.

82MS. 350MS. How did I miss it? It was staring me in the face the whole time. In all my attempts to solve the problem with math, I had forgotten to use Google.

So it turns out 82MS and 350MS are the model numbers of Casio calculators that are identical to this one. This 240 is just a knockoff.
Turns out I have one just like it.
Same calculator, different colors. Casio's is probably made with better materials too.
Back of calculator with protective cover.
back of calculator, battery cover removed.
Another interior shot.

06 March 2019

Review: Mattel Barbie Calculator

If you've been alive, you've probably noticed that things have changed. One thing that I've noticed that has changed is Mattel just isn't really a big deal anymore. I grew up on Hot Wheels while girls had Barbie I guess. These things still exist, but they haven't been in the spotlight like I remember.

Mattel Barbie Calculator.
Anyway, I found this Mattel Barbie Calculator for $9 on Ebay. It was originally sold in 1980 and I think it was attempting to resemble a purse for young girls to carry around. Most of the inside is empty space, but the only way in is by taking out four screws to open the device. It's a peculiar design, but it definitely has a charming quality to it.

As a calculator, this one is fantastic. Seriously. The buttons are clicky and loud thanks to the device being so hollow. It sounds and feels great. It also uses red LEDs for its display, which is always a plus for me. The calculator doesn't have any particularly unique features, but it handles simplicity with aplomb.

So much empty space inside.
I really like the hot pink exterior and the bright, vibrant drawing of the 1980s Barbie. It's such a colorful calculator that really should look gaudy, but it somehow manages to look quaint as well. The Barbie calculator has aged gracefully, unlike Barbie herself. I don't know, I haven't followed the brand in ages.

The Barbie calculator runs on a single 9 volt battery. It's a cool addition to my collection.

Back of calculator.
Front portion of calculator, all electrical and key components removed.
Back side of electrical board.
Front side of electrical board and LED display.

04 March 2019

Review: Chinese Suanpan Abacus

A while back I reviewed the Japanese Soroban Abacus and it remains one of my favorite manual calculators. But it's not the only abacus in my collection, and in fact there are many variations of the abacus that have existed throughout history. The first abacus is believed to have been created thousands of years ago by the Sumerians, but the type most people are familiar with is the Chinese Suanpan Abacus, originally created around 190 CE.

Chinese Suanpan Abacus.
Originally, the Suanpan was constructed of wood, but the device I have is made of a sturdy plastic that has yellowed over the decades since it was manufactured. I don't know for sure when this one in particular was sold, but there is a logo and vague information stamped on the back. If anyone happens to recognize the logo, please let me know because I'd love to learn more about the company.

Please let me know if you recognize this logo.
It's hard to make a device that works by simply sliding beads function poorly, and thankfully this device works just fine. Aside from the material used to make it, this abacus isn't any different than the original design. It was a tool that proved useful for many generations and some people swear they're still the best calculator available.

Personally, I prefer electronic calculators. But no self-respecting calculator enthusiast should have and maintain a collection without an abacus or five. They're an important part of a very rich history of mathematics.

So would I recommend a Suanpan Abacus? Honestly, no, not for any practical use. The Soroban is the superior device. But if you want to appreciate this piece of history and learn to calculate the way people did long before electronic calculators, it's definitely worth playing around with.

I found this particular Suanpan at Goodwill for 50 cents. It's easy to miss these at thrift shops because they're never assigned to any particular category and are often buried under other things.

Back view.

Can also be operated sideways, like this.

01 March 2019

Review: Scholastic Electronic Organizer with Dictionary and Radio

I'm wondering what I'll do with my life when I've run out of calculators to review. I enjoy making this type of content, and the feedback has been amazing so far. As I've stated before, I have been working on some additional (haha) content that doesn't quite count as calculators, and today I have another not-very-calculator thing to review.
Scholastic Electronic Organizer with Dictionary and Radio.
It's the Scholastic Electronic Organizer with Dictionary and Radio, from here on out referred to simply as "organizer." At first glance, the organizer could easily be mistaken for a Nintendo DSi, but a closer inspection reveals that this thing is garbage.
The organizer is a bit too bulky to be fashionable, but it comes with two skins for personalization. Mine came only with the hearts so I don't know what the other is supposed to be. Probably something stereo-typically male like dinosaurs, or, I don't know, guns? It's probably blue, too. I actually like the hearts. The red, pink, and black color motif suits the device well from a purely aesthetic standpoint.

I don't have a Nintendo DSi, but my original Nintendo DS looks similar too.
Like the Nintendo DS, the organizer comes with a stylus. This stylus is very small and hard to hold comfortably, and its only purpose is to make it a bit easier to press the awful buttons. Several of these buttons don't even work and those that do have to be pressed extra hard. With the cheap plastic used for the construction of the device, every action feels like it's bringing it closer to destruction. Considering this is clearly made for children, I can't imagine these lasted long.

As far as the software goes, it's also terrible. The games aren't fun and the other applications are pretty much useless. The dictionary boasts 30,000 words, but finding definitions is a chore. After painstakingly typing in the word, you're presented with slowly scrolling text that defines the word.

Not even worth it for the calculator. Shame on you, Scholastic.
The calculator is equally awful, with the numbers oddly placed and the mathematical operations in an annoying circle that also serves as the directional pad. Side note: you'd think that the directional pad on the left of the device would work like a directional pad, but no, that's for the built-in FM radio. Nothing about this organizer is intuitive.

I hated every moment I was using this device, and it shows in the video review. I've had an easier time browsing the Internet with my Commodore 64 than doing literally anything with the organizer. I never bothered to mess with the radio function because who cares. This is one of the worst devices in my collection and I absolutely do not recommend it.

This was found at Goodwill for $3. Based on later organizers released on Scholastic, my guess is this thing cost $30 when it was available. I can't speak for other devices released by Scholastic, but as far as this one goes, it's not worth buying at any price.
Organizer with box, manual, and stylus.
Back of the box, showing the features.
Back of device. Stylus inserted.
Batteries removed.
Disassembled. Didn't want to go any further because everything felt so fragile.