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Rebooting the Graphing Calculator

A small, handheld, color-screen computer. That’s not your smartphone.
February 21, 2013

Back in November, we learned that Texas Instruments was refreshing its TI-84 graphing calculator line with a color screen. That seemed to me to partially be a response to the ubiquity of small, colorful handheld computing devices all around us (I think you know what I’m referring to), and prompted me to wonder whether the TI-84 was even a necessity anymore, given the plethora of graphing calculator apps available for connected mobile devices (see “Whither the Graphing Calculator?”)

Now, with the TI-84 Plus C Silver Edition (I’m just going to call it the “color TI-84” for short) hitting the hands of the first lines of reviewers, I see that it was probably pretty wrong to suggest that a mass market commercial device like the iPhone would be likely to overtake the specialized functions of a graphing calculator any time soon.

That’s at least my judgment after reading Cemetch administrator Christopher Mitchell’s feelings about the device. “I have spent hours engrossed in trying out its many new math and programming features,” as he sums it up, “and my first impressions as a fourteen-year user of TI’s graphing calculators is overwhelmingly positive.” The device, he says, with all the enthusiasm we more typically here doled out to iOS and Android offerings, “is sleek, colorful, and takes good advantage of its new hardware.”

It’s worth clicking over for the full review, which delves especially into the topic of its math features and programming features, but since this is a hardware blog, I’ll jump to Mitchell’s findings from his tear-down. The device uses a 4 MB (32Mb) Macronix Flash chip, a custom TI z80 CPU/ASIC, and an LCD driver, the ILI9325. Really, this makes it pretty similar to the TI-84 that came before it, reportedly. The main new feature here is the color screen.

Nonetheless, Mitchell’s convinced that the device is a “huge step forward,” as he puts it, “in a world where students are increasingly distracted by complex, flashy smartphones that are indistinguishable from tiny computers, and where TI’s black-and-white calculators have been increasingly noted as antiquated.” At the end of the day, he explains, it’s “an effective math tool” in a way that a smartphone is not. The color LCD seems to be a necessary device to draw students’ attention to the calculator’s deeper features: beauty may be skin deep, but if it causes students to look twice at what lies within, then it does its job. The display is easier to read, “more expressive,” writes Mitchell.

This may be one of the iPhone’s most lasting effects on the culture Other computing devices used to get away with less flashy ways of presenting themselves, instead coasting on the mere strength of their hardware innards. Now they need to prettify themselves too, if they are to retain a place in our lives at all.

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