Monday, November 12, 2007

Ode upon a calculator

Okay, no poetry. But I've had for a few weeks now a TI-30XS and I would like to make a few comments -- on the calculator itself in this post, and then later some thoughts I have on the dominance of TI gear in the educational calculator market.


As calculators go, I'm decently impressed with it. The appearance shows TI's usual flair for design, with a white and slate-blue case with neon green accents, making it stylish but not childish like, say, the TI-108. The interface is almost identical to the one that TI has been using for years in its low to mid-range graphing calculators going back at least to the TI-81 -- you turn it on, you get a cursor instead of a simple number display. If you wish to use it as such, it's quite easy to do so, but the new thing the XS brings to the party is the MathView mode, in which you can, with a bit of practice, enter the problem exactly as it appears on the page. Fractional and exponential notation both come out quite nice without being crammed into the space of a single fixed line.

I'm not quite sure what I think of this -- certainly by the time you get to a class where you might want to use a scientific calculator, you'll probably need one. In that regard, it's quite functional, though it does lack hex and octal modes and a couple of other things that a calculator being used in the Real World might want. (For that, we'll have to wait until they bring MathView to the TI-34 series next year.) But I'm torn -- is doing this a way of reducing copying errors, or just dumbing down the students by removing one more opportunity to check over their work? I really don't know. I do know that for overall usability, it's a significant improvement over the awkward two-line display used in the TI-30IIX, and a damn sight better than the old-school one-line TI-30Xa.

Another issue I have with this is that it's a TI, which automatically implies a premium price. The peculiar thing about Texas Instruments' calculator marketing is that it comes explicitly through their educational division. If you buy a graphing calculator for a math class, the software your teacher hands out will be TI software (most likely for an 82/83/84 series). I'm a little unsure what's going on here -- one could argue that TI is merely responding to a market, but given that CVS, one of the big three drugstore chains, doesn't carry TI product at all, and that Rite Aid rebrands gear from Chinese OEM builder Karce for much cheaper than TI gear, I'm very curious how TI still manages to command the prices they do for equipment that's not the absolute top of the line for its category. (Hell, HP's HP-50g costs exactly the same as the TI-89Ti and TI-Nspire and includes infrared and an SD slot. The Nspire gives you swappable keyboards, true, but that seems almost as self-defeating as Commodore's 3-system-in-1 architecture for the C128 proved to be.)

So, it's a nice calculator. I may try to replace it with something a little more advanced when the TI-34 gets the new display, and honestly I'll still have my comparatively ancient TI-83 around for games anyway. But the 30XS is a pretty nice calculator for general use, and it looks like the future of scientific calculators, especially since Casio is now shipping a very similar model.

11 comments:

Phyliss said...

Well written article.

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