Text and Images Copyright (C) 2006 Mike Sebastian

Dollar Calculators

Why a review of calculators costing a dollar? Throughout the evolution of calculators, various technical milestones have been reached: portability, battery power, small size, single-chip implementation, liquid crystal display, solar power, etc. Along with the technical milestones, cost milestones have been reached: $100, $50, $10, etc. In late 1996, for the first time, I saw a new calculator selling in a store for one dollar. That dollar calculator wasn't much of a calculator to look at, but it cost only one dollar and it did work.

The receipt shows the purchase of two one-dollar calculators, one of which is pictured at the left, on November 29, 1996. With sales tax, the total cost for two calculators was $2.17.

Since that time, one-dollar calculators have become more prevalent. During that time, I have randomly purchased these calculators, played with them, and disassembled them to see how well they were made. Some were really pretty decent calculators, others were quite junky, and a few required repair before they would function.

So, I decided it was time to do a semi-formal evaluation of one-dollar calculators. All of the calculators in the evaluation below were purchased over a long holiday weekend - so, this evaluation really just represents a snapshot in time. All calculators were new. All calculators were purchased at retail - most at stores, one at a flea market. With two exceptions, all calculators cost exactly one dollar. One calculator cost $0.99. The other exception cost $1.29 at a small independent store, but since I had seen near-identical models selling for one dollar, I considered it to be close enough for purposes of this evaluation.

Evaluation Criteria

Remember that the evaluation of various features is subjective. There are things I consider good in the design of a calculator, things I consider bad in the design of a calculator, and things I am ambivalent about in the design of low cost calculators.

Display. All LCD displays are pretty good now. All calculator LCD displays are now reasonably large. But, some displays will have tall skinny digits, which I dislike. So, the display will be evaluated not only on character height, but also on the aspect ratio of the individual digits.

Keyboard. The gold standard in keyboards is the keyboard of the Hewlett-Packard "pocket" calculators manufactured in the 70s and 80s. Obviously, a one-dollar calculator is not going to have such a nice keyboard. But, there are still features that distinguish one calculator keyboard from another. Touch - some keys require a lot of pressure to depress, while some require virtually no pressure. Key travel, or how far the key has to be pressed can be important - primarily if it feels like the top of the key has to be pressed below the keyboard bezel for the key depression to register.

External Quality. This relates to how well the calculator fits together, how precise the fit of the parts seems to be, and the general surface appearance (globs of glue or excessive scuffing detract from the rating).

Internal quality. Internal quality plays a major role in the calculator's reliability. The quality of the electronic assembly is important: heat seal alignment, quality of solder joints, etc. The internal physical assembly is also important: internal fit of the case pieces, how components are affixed to the plastic case, how the circuit board is supported, how the display is supported or held in place, etc.

Overall rating. The overall rating is very subjective on my part, so you may not see a direct correlation between how I rated individual features and the overall rating I gave the calculator.


The quality of one dollar pocket calculators is getting uniformly better - I'm saw less variation in quality that I have seen in the past. However, the desktop variety of dollar calculator remains uniformly poor in quality.

Some suggestions on purchasing one dollar calculators, or any calculator for that matter: Examine the calculator for physical damage, including a broken display or a broken solar cell if one is present. Shake the calculator and listen for the rattle of loose pieces. Through the packaging, try to turn the calculator on and then punch in all eights - look for missing segments in the display. Also, look at display contrast, a dim display suggests a weak battery.

Brand Name & Model Overall Rating Display Keyboard External Quality Internal Quality Purchase Comments
Base 8 DG35 very good fair 12 mm narrow good, rubber keys very good good 7/1/06 Dollar General fake solar cell, cover folds over front
ExecTech C3614-8B good good 7mm fair, rubber keys good good 7/3/06 Big!Lots PCB held with 4 screws - good
Fourstar Group "Big Display" fair good 12 mm poor, hard plastic keys good fair 7/3/06 Target very heavy keyboard touch causes missed keystrokes
Gavado GA-256 very good good 7 mm good, rubber keys very good good 7/1/06 Dallas First-Saturday Flea Market display cover rotates to become stand - nice feature
Jot "Big Display" poor good 15mm fair, hard plastic keys poor fair 6/30/06 Dollar Tree battery almost dead; solar cell cannot power calculator under normal office lighting conditions
Jot "Pocket Calculator" good good 7 mm good, hard plastic keys good good 6/30/06 Dollar Tree fake solar cell
LeWORLD 239 good fair 11.5 mm narrow good, hard plastic keys good good 6/30/06 Walmart (also found at Family Dollar) dramatically improved quality over prior versions of this model
LeWORLD 983 fair fair 11.5 mm narrow poor, hard plastic keys good fair 6/30/06 Walmart piece of cardboard supports keyboard membrane - very bad
LeWORLD 2079 fair fair 14 mm very narrow good, hard plastic keys good fair 6/30/06 Walmart display supported by scrap piece of foam
LeWORLD 2600D fair good 12 mm fair, hard plastic keys good fair 6/30/06 Walmart battery starting to leak
Sana "Big Display" fair good 15 mm fair, hard plastic keys good fair 7/1/06 fake solar cell; uses no heat seals


Last updated July 8, 2006