When Calculators Can Be A Real Plus

Click on the right icon when using Windows or a Mac, and a familiar image will appear on the screen: a calculator, ready to solve your math problems at the click of a mouse.

Why is this bit of retro-technology kept readily at hand in leading-edge software? Because for many everyday math chores, a calculator is a much better tool than a computer--and a real calculator is easier to use than an on-screen simulation. You probably use a calculator to balance your checkbook or tote up your expense report. For many financial computations, a specialized business calculator is just the thing.

Say you're thinking about buying a 10-year bond that's callable in five years, meaning the issuer can pay the bond off even if you'd just as soon keep getting the interest until it matures. The security carries a 63/4% coupon and is priced at 981/4. How does the yield to maturity compare with the yield to call? Working this out with a pad and pencil would give most people a headache. Using a spreadsheet such as Lotus 1-2-3 is only a bit easier. But on a financial calculator, such as the Hewlett-Packard 19B II Business Consultant, you just follow the menus.

Computers are ideal for repetitive tasks. If you trade bonds or do cash-flow analysis regularly, you can use a spreadsheet template setup for the job. But the calculator is the king of the one-shot job. As long as your computation fits one of the many programs built into the device, all the difficult setup work has already been done for you.

HP offers the cream of the crop in business calculators. Its top-of-the-line 19B II (list price $175) and the $110 17B II can handle a wide range of financial and statistical challenges. While the two units have similar capabilities and can send a hard copy of their work to a printer ($135) over a wireless link, a bigger display, full alphabetic keypad, and better key layout make the more expensive and slightly larger 19B II worth the extra cost.

The feature that can quickly make you an expert user of advanced features is a row of six "soft keys" across the top of the keypad. The labels that appear above these keys change as you go through the menus. For example, when you first turn the unit on, the rightmost soft key is labeled "FIN" for "financial." Press it, and the label changes to "TVM" for time value of money, then "N" for the number of periods.

You can also program the calculators to handle virtually any financial or statistical computation with one touch. But unless you need the por-

tability of a calculator you can slip into your pocket, you'll probably find it easier and faster to save your specialized calculations for a spreadsheet on your computer.

PROBLEM SOLVER. The HP calculators have been around since 1990, but they only show their age in a few insignificant ways. For example, the list of available depreciation methods includes the accelerated cost recovery system, which was chucked out of the tax code in 1986. But the units can handle all depreciation methods allowed by current tax law and accounting practices. The instruction books are also a bit dated, with examples featuring prodigious interest rates that will bring back memories of the bad old days.

If you want a financial calculator but don't need the power of the HPs, consider Texas Instruments' Business Analyst line. The $39 BA II Plus can handle most of the functions of the HP, though it's nowhere near as easy to use. For $10 more, you can get a version that specializes in real estate calculations.

Calculators may lack the high-tech appeal of the latest Pentium computer. But turning to your computer for basic tasks is like using a chainsaw to prune roses. The right tool for the job isn't always the most powerful.

      Maker/Model                  List price
      Business Consultant 19B II      $175
      17B II Financial                $110
      Business Analyst BA II Plus     $39
      BA Real Estate                  $49
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