The Parable of the Tablet and the Calculator
Casio released a calculator and Amazon released a tablet within 24 hours of each other this week. That alone is unremarkable. One costs $220, the other costs $50. That, too, wouldn’t raise many eyebrows, until you realize which is which.
The $220 calculator is the Casio S100. Yes, that’s right, 220 bucks for a calculator. It’s not a graphing calculator, or a calculator app in showier hardware, either. It is a sit-on-your-desk, square-rooting, 12-digit calculator, the kind you last saw atop your parents’ conquered tax returns in the early ’90s. The $50 tablet is the latest Amazon Fire, an 7-inch, 8-gig, quad-core, decent-battery-life, watch-movies-and-download-apps, mini, mobile, touchscreen computer. It offers your choice of, among many, many other things, well over 3,000 free calculator apps.
This disparity between the cheap new product and the expensive retro one seems insane, but it is not. Each makes perfect sense, in its way, and reminds us just how wonderful technology can be, in just how many ways.
The Cheap Tablet
We’ll start with the Fire tablet, since that’s easier to swallow. In fact, it’s not even the first $50 tablet. Walmart has sold Android slates from companies with names like Visual Land and Ematic and JLab and RCA (yes, that RCA) for months, if not years. These are only technically tablets, though, in the same way Impractical Jokers is technically a television show. They exist, but you wouldn’t want to spend any time with them. They are the harbingers of total commoditization, the bottom toward which others are racing.
By all accounts, Amazon’s new Fire tablet occupies an entirely different taxonomic ranking. It’s lighter, its battery lasts longer, its display should be improved thanks to in-plane switching (IPS) tech that its cheap rivals often lack. It’s not going to win any awards, and next to the iPad Air 2 or 10-inch Kindle HD, it’s still essentially a brick. A brick, though, that costs literally one-tenth the price. Even less, if you buy it in a six-pack, which you can, because we’ve gotten to the point where good-enough tablets can be bought and sold like Miller Lite.
There’s a straightforward reason Amazon’s able to offer Fire so cheap, aside from the obvious component downgrades versus its more expensive tablets. “Amazon’s hardware is sold at cost to push content sales and Prime membership,” says Current Analysis research director Avi Greengart, “which leads to increased sales through Amazon’s retail operations.” Think of Fire, then, as a gateway gadget. On the other side of that gate lies an Amazon shopping cart.
As far as catches, go, it’s not a particularly cruel one. Amazon may envision Fire tablet owners devoutly shopping its digital aisles, but (other than restricting them to its app store) it doesn’t force them to. If they want to use the Amazon Fire to shop at Target.com, they can. “Unlike Kindle e-readers, the Fire tablets don’t restrict people’s content purchases to their own stores,” says Jackdaw research CEO Jan Dawson. “So it’s much harder for Amazon to guarantee it’ll make the money back through other purchases than with e-readers.”
That it’s not selfless (Amazon is a business!) doesn’t negate the net gain of more, better technology in the hands of more people. That’s a powerful development. Again, the Fire is unlikely to be a great tablet, or even one you personally would want to own. “Many buyers of low-end tablets end up either abandoning them or paying more for a better one next time around,” cautions Dawson. In other words, if you want an iPad, get that.
Not everyone can afford (or wants) an iPad, though. Similarly, entry-level smartphones and computers still cost hundreds of dollars, enough to put them beyond many families’ budgets, especially in any quantity. Even the new iPod touch starts at four times what you’d spend on a 7-inch Fire.
In fact, instead of comparing the Fire tablet to the off-brand Walmart tablets of the world, here’s a different exercise. Less than three years ago, Apple announced the 7.9-inch iPad mini. The new Fire tablet has a display with more pixels per inch than that tablet had. It has a faster processor, and twice the RAM. Its storage is expandable. It can access Amazon Underground, which provides free games that on other platforms rely on in-app purchases. The iPad mini, at launch, started at $330.
Amazon’s new Fire tablet isn’t necessarily better than the first iPad mini, for a variety of reasons, and three years can feel like a lifetime in gadgetland. That they’re even close to comparable, though, is still a remarkable feat. Commoditization can mean cheap, sure. But it also can mean accessible. The Fire’s still part of the race to the bottom, but at least that bottom’s not quite so low.
In fact, it’s pretty close to where the top was (apologies to Nexus 7 enthusiasts) just a few years ago.
The Pricey Calculator
And then there’s the Casio S100.
If your immediate reaction to a $220 calculator is to light the nearest lampshade on fire, that’s valid. After all, you can literally google the word “calculator,” and one appears that’s more capable than the S100 is or ever will be. There are no firmware updates to look forward to here; it doesn’t even connect to the internet.
The gall! And yet, have you seen it? It’s beautiful, as far as calculators go, which turns out to be pretty far. That a aluminum alloy body that would feel at home alongside a high-end humidor, or a Newton’s cradle made of pure titanium.
It manages to eke out some technological calculator innovation, too, though there presumably wasn’t much left to go around. Its display features double-sided anti-reflective coating for easy reading, while its “V-shaped gear link” keys, a first for desk calculators, evoke the innovative “butterfly mechanism” keys in Apple’s new MacBook. The numbers and words on its keys are integrated as part of the molding process, not slapped on afterward, meaning they won’t wear down under the strain of repeated tapping.
That functionality alone still doesn’t justify the price tag. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to. The Casio S100’s value lies in more than the sum of its, well, sums.
Scarcity is one factor. Casio says it will produce just 5,000 this year. Nostalgia is another; the S100 marks the 50th anniversary of the very first electronic desktop calculator. More important than either of those facts alone, though, is the S100’s combination of style, history, best-in-class (albeit an atypically disposable class) appeal. It’s not something you use, it’s something you display. Or at least, it is if you have enough money and enough calculator lust to do so.
Where the Fire tablet was explicitly designed to land in as many hands as possible, the S100 exists for the exclusive sake of a very small niche. It’s a collector’s item, a trophy for calculator aficionados and Casio fans. There aren’t many of those, but there also don’t have to be.
Don’t, though, confuse “collectible” with “antique,” or at least anticipate that the S100 will pay off down the road. “A lot of what the value in any technology is being the first,” explains Gary Piattoni, an antiques appraiser who counts gadgets and technology among his areas of expertise. “You should be making these purchases because they’re something you’re really interested in … Don’t ever think of it in terms of investment potential.”
As eye-candy potential, though, it’s tops.
A $50 tablet that’s probably pretty good. A $220 calculator that can’t do much. In a certain light–and perhaps in any light—both seem slightly insane. It’s the kind of insane, though, that fulfills technology’s gaudiest promises. Overkill for every niche; a window on the future at any budget.