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, wellover 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.
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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.
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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.
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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.