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HP 12C Calculator

A classic for financial analysis.

What is the HP 12C Calculator?

The HP 12C Calculator is a financial calculator produced by Hewlett Packard that uses reverse polish notation. Additionally, the HP 12C is widely known as the gold standard for calculators used in the banking and financial services industry. First released thirty years ago, the HP 12C is highly favored by bankers, stockbrokers, and investment managers alike.

The calculator performs all basic mathematical functions, with the addition of being able to calculate simple financial formulas as well. The HP 12C comes equipped with the ability to calculate net present value (NPV), internal rate of return (IRR), Uneven Cash Flows, Discounted Cash Flows, and other financial metrics.


HP 12C calculator approved for CFA Exam
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HP 12C regular vs platinum edition

The HP 12C comes in two flavors: the regular edition and the platinum edition. Functionally, they are quite similar, although the platinum edition comes with a few extra tricks up its sleeve. HP has also released several limited-edition models of the HP 12C to commemorate milestones in the product’s life. There are, for example, the HP 12C 25th Anniversary Edition and the HP 12C 30th Anniversary Edition. Both models have a limited-edition serial number stamped on the back, and the respective anniversary edition number labeled on the front.

Unlike regular calculators, the HP 12C uses reverse polish notation or RPN. While there is a short learning curve required in learning how to operate an RPN calculator, the benefits of using it are phenomenal, as RPN is significantly more efficient for long-form calculations than a standard calculator that uses infix notation.


What is the alternative to the HP 12C?

When considering calculators for financial analysis, the only other option is the Texas Instrument BAII Plus, also known as the TI BA II plus. This calculator does not use RPN. Instead, it uses the traditional algebraic – infix – notation common to most calculators. It is able to perform the same financial calculations as the 12C, but not as efficiently.

Selecting between the two is largely a matter of personal preference. The TI BA II plus will feel more like operating a regular calculator, as they hold a similar shape and operate in the same fashion. The 12C is, instead, wider than it is tall. Additionally, the RPN calculations are more difficult to learn at first but are quite intuitive once you get the hang of it.


What is RPN?

In reverse polish notation (RPN), the operator in a calculation comes after the numbers. For example, to calculate 3 x 4 in a regular algebraic calculator, the buttons to press are 3 [X] 4 [EQUALS]. In contrast, on an RPN calculator, the buttons to press are 3 [ENTER] 4 [X]. Pressing X runs the multiplication function on the two preceding numbers. The benefits of RPN are not always easily seen in smaller calculations but they become more apparent when handling longer calculations.


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