Meet NumWorks, the modern graphing calculator
In some ways, NumWorks is a typical hardware startup. The company took a little-noticed product category where there wasn’t a lot of competition and tried to reinvent it. But the company sets itself apart from many tech companies large and small by offering schematics, firmware source code, and even 3D files for you to print out replacement keys and other components.
In contrast, people who buy everything from smartphones to cars to tractors often find it difficult to repair or modify their products as manufacturers limit access to spare parts and schematics. It can be frustrating; it can also send more broken devices to early retirement as electronic waste.
âIf a consumer buys a product, they own it and should be able to fully exercise their ownership rights, including the right to repair it,â says Maureen Mahoney, senior policy analyst at Consumer Reports. âToo many companies are preventing consumers from making their own repair choices, and we applaud companies like NumWorks for making this repair information available. “
Members of Congress, the Federal Trade Commission, and state lawmakers are all looking for ways to address the right to redress issue.
NumWorks’ open approach has helped them build a following beyond the classroom, in the manufacturer community. âHanding out the NumWorks calculator diagram makes devices much more repairable, and it’s a wonderful reminder of the days of the first personal computers, when almost all electronic devices included a diagram for fixing faults as well as for DIY enthusiasts. modify systems, âsays Trammell Hudson, a dedicated security researcher and handyman.
Hudson never had to repair his NumWorks calculator (he repaired devices from other brands), but he is one of many users who replaced the firmware that came with the calculator – an operating system called Epsilon – with a user-created version called Omega. . It came up with geeky goodies that included a periodic table of the elements and a mathematical notation called RPN, or Reverse Polish Notation, where users enter numbers before the operations they want to use. (Instead of adding two plus two by entering “2 + 2”, you enter “2 2 +” to get the same answer.) This reduces the number of buttons you can press to calculate complex expressions.
Previously, it was easy to download Omega, the third-party operating system, by connecting your calculator via a USB cable. You can just as easily go back to the main operating system, Epsilon, by simply clicking on the reset button. But when I tried to charge Omega, I got a warning that I couldn’t do it.
Goyet says the new version of NumWorks software includes some changes in response to regulations and requirements for testing by academic examination boards, which are different in each country. For example, European test boards require exam modes for calculators with a flashing LED light, and don’t want unofficial software to be able to work with this exam mode. Another test card required the reset button on the back of the calculator to reset it to factory settings. And the latest version of the calculator has strict copyright law, which Goyet says was added to prevent the distribution of cheat programs.
Goyet says it’s still possible for people to build alternate operating systems on the older, less restrictive version of NumWorks code, as long as it doesn’t run in exam mode. And the new version of NumWorks software enables custom applications, which the company plans to improve support. But any modified operating system will show a pop-up stating that the calculator is not using the official NumWorks operating system and that a calculator crash or reset will force users to reinstall it.
Hudson says extending or replacing the device’s firmware is also an important part of repairability and extending the usability lifespan. âIt is unfortunate, although understandable, that NumWorks had to lock down the ability of users to do this in order to preserve their certifications,â he says. And he hopes that in the future, NumWorks will be able to make some hardware changes that balance the needs of different countries for exams while preserving the user’s freedom to hack their own devices.
Even with the new restrictions, users can still tinker with their NumWorks calculator. Publishing diagrams and 3D files means they can not only fix broken calculators, but also customize them. You can use a 3D printer to make new calculator covers that are thinner, more colorful, or have a unique design. Goyet says hobbyists have created custom keyboard keys and custom circuit boards.
You can also take your calculator apart. Someone made the calculator power a small robotic car it was connected to. âBecause we had all the diagrams, he was able to solder them onto our PCB,â explains Goyet. A PCB, or printed circuit board, is a rigid structure with electrical circuits made up of metal wires and other components.
Goyet also pointed me to a GitHub page where someone was using a Raspberry Pi – a tiny, affordable computer often used to learn programming – as their desktop computer and the calculator as their screen and keyboard. âThere are all kinds of fun experiments you can do specifically because we post all the schematics. ”