Calculator Precision

Binary or BCD
Calculator Precision
Table of Function Results
Calculator Forensics
Hidden Digits
Quick Test
Good or Bad?

The Algorithm

In general, the precision of a result that is obtained after a number of calculations depends only partly on the precision of the calculator itself. The other important issue is the algorithm that is being used to determine the result.
Notably, during subtraction of values of similar magnitude a large number of valid digits can be cancelled out. On a machine using 6 BCD digits consider:
31416.0 - 10000.0*Pi = 31416.0 - 31415.9 = 0.1
This is nowhere near the true 6-digit-precision result of 0.0734641 because of the cancellation of the leading valid digits.
From a mathematical viewpoint an infinitely precise value X can be written as:
X = Xm + e
where Xm is the limited-precision machine number and e is a small error value that corresponds to the precision of the calculator.

One (or more) of these numbers X are converted by the algorithm A into a result R:

R = A(Xm + e)
and the precision of the result R strongly depends on whether A "amplifies" the inaccuracy introduced by e.

Finding an acceptable algorithm for a specific problem (ie. integration, solving differential equations, matrix operations etc.) is often a complicated issue. This is not our topic. However, it will be our topic to assess the precision of built-in algorithms of calculators.

Binary or BCD

There are two widely used methods to represent floating point numbers on computers: Binary and BCD coding.


Binary numbers consist of a binary integer number that represents the mantissa plus a binary exponent. The number of mantissa bits determines the precision of the number (ie. the standard "double" type provides 52 mantissa bits). The mantissa is "normalized" so that its most significant bit is always 1 and sits just left of the decimal point. The exponent indicates how many bits this mantissa has to be shifted up or down to get the true value. It is therefore a power-of-2 exponent.
Example: Decimal number 10.5. In binary this is 1100.1. Split into mantissa and exponent: 1.1001 E 3dec
So the mantissa would be 11001 and the exponent +3dec.
Since the mantissa is required to always have a leading 1 it is often omitted to gain space for an additional bit of precision. In this case the leading 1 is implicitly assumed to sit to the left of the most significant digit of the mantissa.
Advantage: The big advantage of binary floating point numbers is that most computers have powerful and fast built-in instructions to directly manipulate long integer numbers (usually 16, 32 or 64 bit). For example multiplication and division is often implemented in hardware units. Most computers therefore use binary coding. There are of course computer software packages that perform BCD arithmetic as explained below.

Disadvantage: Whenever a number has to be displayed it must be converted into decimal format. Similarly, decimal input must be converted to binary before calculation can start. This is a quite time consuming process but of course it only occures once before and after a - possibly lengthy - calculation.


BCD (binary coded decimal) numbers are basically identical to decimal numbers. Each decimal digit is coded as a 4-bit binary number. With 4 bits values from 0-15 can be coded but values 10-15 are never used. The BCD number's normalized mantissa consists of a series of those 4-bit values. There is also a power-of-10 exponent which indicates how many decimal digits the mantissa has to be shifted up or down to give the true value.
Example: Decimal number 10.5. The binary representation of the BCD digits is 0001 0000 0101. So the mantissa would be 000100000101 and the exponent +1dec.
Advantage: No complicated conversion between textual and internal representation of a BCD number is needed. This is especially useful for calculators where after each operation the result has to be displayed. In fact, I don't know of any handheld calculator that doesn't use BCD arithmetic!

Disadvantage: BCD arithmetic is slow because it lacks the dedicated hardware support. This usually doesn't matter because handheld calculators don't have high-performance CPUs anyway. Rather, their processors are optimized for low power consumption.
Another disadvantage of BCD numbers is their increased memory requirement. A n-digit decimal number needs n*4 bits in BCD and n*ln(10)/ln(2)=n*3.322 bits in binary mode. So the BCD representation requires 20% more storage.

Using Binary or BCD?

It is relatively easy to determine whether binary or BCD arithmetic is used in a calculator. The crucial fact is that some numbers have an exact representation in BCD mode but not in binary mode.
Consider the decimal number 0.1 which has an exact representation in BCD. However, in binary mode it must be expressed as a sum of powers of 2:
0.1 = 2-4 + 2-5 + 2-8 + 2-9 + 2-12 + 2-13 + 2-16 + 2-17 + ... = 0.000110011001100110... (binary)
It turns out that the binary digits sequence "1100" repeats infinitely. But since every binary representation uses a limited number of bits the value 0.1 cannot be expressed exactly. To distinguish between binary and BCD usage the idea is to "amplify" this inaccuracy so that it can be observed:
Calculate: R = (0.1 * 1024 - 102) * 10 - 4
In theory as well as on a BCD machine this should give 0. However, on a binary machine 0.1 will have some error e that is amplified by a factor of 10240:
((0.1 + e)*1024 - 102)*10 - 4 = (102.4 + 1024*e - 102) * 10 - 4 = (0.4 + 1024*e)*10 - 4 = 4 + 10240*e - 4 = 10240*e
As a result, calculating R on a machine using binary representation will yield a non-zero value.
Side note 1: Although some limited-length BCD numbers have no exact (=no limited length) representation in binary mode the reverse is not true. All limited length binary numbers do have a limited length representation in BCD. The reason is that all powers of 2 have a limited length representation in BCD (ie. 0.5, 0.25, 0.125, 0.0625 etc.) but not all powers of 10 have a limited-length representation in binary mode.

Side note 2: Try calculating R = (0.1+e)*10240 - 1024 = 1024 + 10240*e - 1024 = 10240*e.
Surprisingly, this will yield 0 even on a binary machine! The reason is that due to rounding (0.1+e)*10240 will in fact result in the exact value 1024.

Calculator Precision

As we have seen above in The Algorithm performing a series of operations will in most cases introduce inaccuracies that depend on the nature of the algorithm. The user of a computer or calculator is responsible for taking those inaccuracies into account when using the device for lengthy operations. However, because the user doesn't know the particular algorithms used for built-in functions inside a calculator he cannot know their accuracy.

There are three solutions to this dilemma:

  1. Let the user find out about the accuracy of operations like multiplication, sine, or logarithm. This is of course completely unacceptable.
  2. State the accuracy of the various built-in operations in the manual. That's better than nothing but still not very sattisfactory.
  3. Make sure that all built-in functions are accurate to the number of displayed digits. That's what we want!

Internal Precision

To achieve goal #3 the calculator will usually have to internally use a few more digits than are displayed. How many of those are used depends on the algorithm: Clever algorithms will need fewer hidden digits than less clever ones. Therefore, statements like "internally using 15 digits of precision" are really not very useful! A badly chosen algorithm can still produce unacceptable results even when using lots of digits!

But the ultimate goal is to calculate results that are always  correct to the number of displayed  digits.


In many cases the result cannot be displayed correctly with a limited number of digits, ie. 1/3 = 0.3333....
Naturally, it is desirable that the displayed result is as close to the true value as possible. This is achieved by "correct rounding to the last digit".

The correct rounding scheme examines the digit n+1 following the least significant digit n (and thus needs at least one additional hidden digit). If digit n+1 is in the range 5..9 then digit n is incremented to minimize the difference. Otherwise digit n is left unchanged.

Examples of correct rounding:
Correct value Expanded correct value Rounded value, to 5 digits after decimal point
1/3 0.333333... 0.33333
2/3 0.666666... 0.66667
1/18 0.055555... 0.05556
4/9 0.444444... 0.44444
1/11 0.090909... 0.09091

To determine whether your calculator uses correct rounding simply calculate 1/18 and examine the last digit: It should be 6.

Besides correct rounding there are of course other less desirable methods, ie. cutting off all digits beyond the least significant one.

Argument Ranges

If we want to see whether a calculator sattisfies goal #3 we do not only have to examine all built-in functions but also test them over their entire range of argument values where they are defined! Of course this is not possible so only a representative set of argument values can be checked.

Table of Functions Results

sin(0.01 rad) 
sin(1 rad) 
sin(1.5608 rad) 
sin(800 rad) 
tan(0.01 rad) 
tan(1 rad) 
tan(1.5708 rad) 
tan(800 rad) 
sin(0.01 deg) 
sin(50 deg) 
sin(89.9 deg) 
sin(5000 deg) 
tan(0.01 deg) 
tan(50 deg) 
tan(89.99 deg) 
tan(5000 deg) 
asin(0.01 deg) 
asin(0.5 deg) 
asin(0.999 deg) 
asin(0.99999 deg)
atan(0.01 deg) 
atan(0.9999 deg) 
atan(1.0001 deg) 
atan(1E4 deg) 

Important Notes

Calculator Forensics

Victor T. Thoth & Mike Sebastian use the following formula in the Calculator Forensics of the "Museum of R/S Key Programmable Calculators" to assess the precision of a calculator (using degrees):
R = asin( acos( atan( tan( cos( sin(9) ) ) ) ) )
Of course the correct result is 9. At the various steps the intermediate results are:

sin(9) 0.156 434 465 040 230 869 010...
cos(x) 0.999 996 272 742 885 024 117...
tan(x) 0.017 454 999 855 488 660 791...
atan(x) 0.999 996 272 742 885 024 117...
acos(x) 0.156 434 465 040 230 869 010...
atan(x) 9.000 000 000 000 000 000 000...

Now consider a calculator that uses built-in algorithms that are correct up to the 12th digit. And of course the 12-digit precision result of one step is taken as the input for the next step of the calculation:

X rounded to 12 digits
sin(9) 0.156 434 465 040
cos(x) 0.999 996 272 743
tan(x) 0.174 549 998 555 E -1
atan(x) 0.999 996 272 744
acos(x) 0.156 434 441 642
atan(x) 0.899 999 864 267 E 1

This is a perfect example of a badly chosen algorithm because it amplifies the inaccuracies of the 12-th digit to a considerable error. Compared to the table with precise results the first noticable deviation occurs when the arcus tangent is calculated. The resulting small error of 1.12E-12 (absolute) is then tremendously amplified by more than 104 by the arcus cosine to 2.34E-8 (absolute).

By looking at the derivative of the arcus cosine near the value of 1 it is immediately clear why this amplification occurs:
d/dx acos(x) = -1/sqrt(1-x) and for x -> 1 the derivative reaches infinity.
It must be strongly emphasised that the above result of 8.99999864267 is the correct  result for a calculator using 12 digits of precision and perfect  built-in algorithms for trigonometric functions! Naturally, similar arguments apply for calculators of different precision.

But even though the Calculator Forensics' formula is not suitable to judge the accuracy of a calculator it is extremely useful to determine whether two calculators use the same integrated circuitry. See Mike Sebastian's page which lists calculators by their Calculator Forensics Result.

Hidden Digits

What Are Hidden Digits?

Internally, the calculator may store results with more digits of precision than are ever presented to the user. This has two important consequences:

What Is The Advantage?

In general, using hidden digits will yield more accurate results in chain calculations compared to not using hidden digits. But the problem is that it cannot be determined how much more accurate the result will be! In worst case all hidden digits are wrong and nothing is gained. So the only reliable statement about the calculator is that the precision corresponds to the number of displayed digits.
If those hidden digits are in fact always correct then why not present them to the user? The display may not be able to show all the digits. But usually one can safely suspect that the hidden digits are sometimes correct and sometimes not.
Together with the above mentioned confusion that arises from hidden digits in conjunction with manually entered vs. calculated values it is obvious that storing results with hidden digits is a not a good idea.

Detecting Hidden Digits

Simply repeat the following: get rid of integer part & multiply by 10.

This "pulls out" the hidden digits. There may be none, one or more, depending on the calculator.

Good or Bad?

Taking everything into account that we have learned so far what are the criterias for a good calculator - or using better wording: A precise calculator? There's not much to it: Needless to say that only very few calculators meet these criterias.