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Education Hardware

How the Outdated TI-84 Plus Still Holds a Monopoly On Classrooms 359

Posted by timothy
from the maybe-outdated-is-a-strong-word dept.
theodp (442580) writes Electronics almost universally become cheaper over time, but with essentially a monopoly on graphing calculator usage in classrooms, Texas Instruments still manages to command a premium for its TI-84 Plus. Texas Instruments released the TI-84 Plus graphing calculator in 2004. Ten years later, the base model still has 480 kilobytes of ROM and 24 kilobytes of RAM, its black-and-white screen remains 96×64 pixels, and the MSRP is still $150. "Free graphing calculator apps are available," notes Matt McFarland. "But smartphones can't be used on standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT. Schools are understandably reluctant to let them be used in classrooms, where students may opt to tune out in class and instead text friends or play games. So for now, overpriced hardware and all, the TI-84 family of calculators remains on top and unlikely to go anywhere." So, to paraphrase Prof. Norm Matloff, is it stupid to buy expensive TI-8x milk when the R cow is free?
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How the Outdated TI-84 Plus Still Holds a Monopoly On Classrooms

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  • by mrchaotica (681592) * on Thursday September 04, 2014 @07:48AM (#47824209)

    The TI-8x calculators are not outdated; they do exactly what they need to do -- no more, no less. This is an important fact! If they did much more they wouldn't be allowed to be used; if they did much less they wouldn't be useful.

    However, that's not an excuse for them continuing to cost $100+. There should have been an opportunity for some competitor (e.g. Casio or HP) to use 2014 technology to deliver the same capabilities with less manufacturing complexity and thus a cheaper price. Apparently, Casio is trying this, but they're not being aggressive enough: if Casio beat teachers and parents over the head with how cheap calculators should be by selling theirs for $25 or so, then IMO they'd be more successful.

    IMO, a worthy "update" to a TI graphing calculator would not be more RAM or a faster CPU, it would be power envelope improvements so it could run on solar (like a 4-function calculator can) and a slimmer, lighter body. (Of course, these days I just use a TI-89 emulator on my Android cellphone instead, so I'm not the target market...)

    Incidentally, the other thing I don't understand about this is why anybody picks a TI-84 when they could have a TI-86. TI-89s are prohibited for standardized tests (because they have a Computer Algebra System), but TI-86s aren't and are better than TI-84s in every other way as far as I can tell...

    • by zippo01 (688802)
      The problem with different venders is they would have a different procedure to do different things. They want everyone to have the same one so they only have to explain it once. I agree with you that it does what it does and why and that the price is out of control. Not that they need something more. I still have my ti-82 on the shelf... hah
      • by msauve (701917) on Thursday September 04, 2014 @07:58AM (#47824287)
        "They want everyone to have the same one so they only have to explain it once."

        Then the schools can damn well buy the calculators for their students.
        • by Scootin159 (557129) on Thursday September 04, 2014 @08:16AM (#47824411) Homepage

          Or if a competitor made such a hypothetical $25 replacement for the TI-84/86, schools could just standardize on the new model. The argument for not switching to Casio, etc. right now is that younger siblings typically get their older siblings hand-me-downs, but if the replacement model was only $25, that argument would loose a lot of weight.

          Although with the Ti's current tenure, they're now getting into the range where there's likely students using their grandfather's hand-me-down calculator in class. I know students were using their parent's hand-me-down Ti calculators when I was in school.... and I'm old enough now to have kids of my own in school

          • Since HP basically got out of the calculator business, the HP 50G, which in my opinion is a better calculator anyway, has been available to the public in software form for free. It uses the actual ROM code from the 50G, which HP donated to the public domain.

            You have to look around a bit, but versions are available for Mac, PC, and Linux.

            Unlike the TI models, straight math can be entered in algebraic or RPN mode, and formulas can also use the "formula writer".

            I've always like TI, and I have nothing
        • by swb (14022)

          Then the schools can damn well buy the calculators for their students.

          Because school districts taxing property owners and buying calculators is so much more efficient than students obtaining their own calculators with that same money.

          IMHO, one of the big problems with "$technology_items for every student" is that parents incorrectly look at this as a windfall entitlement -- free stuff for their kids that they don't have to buy themselves, when that's more or less exactly what's happening -- the district tax

          • Because school districts taxing property owners and buying calculators is so much more efficient than students obtaining their own calculators with that same money.

            Who said the students would keep the calculators? The only situation where you MUST HAVE THIS SPECIFIC CALCULATOR is in the classroom. Keep the calculator there! The special calculator stays where people find it worthwhile, everywhere else the rest of us can use a computer like a normal person.

            If you're actually going in to a field where having a fancy calculator is useful versus a smartphone you can buy it yourself then. Most of us have absolutely no need for these things beyond the few tests for which they're required.

            • by Junta (36770)

              That also addresses another concern, about people bringing in unapproved data preprogrammed in the calculators. If the calculators are provided, this isn't an issue.

              Note that when I was in school, this is precisely how graphing calculators were handled. The school had a box of TI-81s shared amongst a few classrooms.

            • My calculus teachers didn't allow us to use calculators when I was in college. I felt like I understood the math better this way. He picked problems that were not hard to do without calculators. Unless the goal is to teach kids to use the calculators themselves, why are they needed?

          • by msauve (701917)
            If it's a school requirement, the school is responsible for paying for it. And yes, it is more efficient for a school to buy calculators in bulk than to expect each student to buy their own.

            That's exactly what school taxes are for. Else, why not simply pro-rate the facility, staff, etc. costs, charge the parents for that directly, and eliminate all school taxes?
            • You obviously don'y have kids in school. My school district is sending down all kinds of these ridiculous edicts for purchases. We are having to buy all kinds of shit to be collected by the teachers and provided to the classroom at their discretion. On my kids' 8th grade school supply list this year, besides the TI calculator:

              A home computer
              A Printer
              Computer paper
              Internet Access
              Microsoft Office
      • by hairyfeet (841228)
        Then what we need is a group of mathematicians to get together and come up with a standard, just as we have the IEEE give us so many IT standards.
      • by PRMan (959735)
        My daughter is using my old Casio FX-4000P that I used in high school. Her teacher said, "I won't be able to explain how to use that." My daughter replied, "I don't need you to because it's so easy."
    • by afidel (530433) on Thursday September 04, 2014 @07:58AM (#47824277)

      Forget the 86, the NSPIRE is allowed on all major standardized tests and it's worlds better than any of the 8x calcs, and the CAS model is allowed on everything but the IB and ACT (and honestly unless you can't get a decent score on the SAT or live in a state that requires the ACT for instate scholarships there's not a ton of reason to take it). It's what I bought my son, I figured why waste $150 on an ancient platform that won't help him much in his last 2 years of high school math when I could spend $125 on the black and white NSPIRE CAS and he'd be set for his entire academic career.

      • by dywolf (2673597)

        Not "all" standardized tests. Definitely not on the major engineering exams where only nonprogrammable calcs are allowed, and eevn then they have a specific (and short) list of the calculators allowed.

        • by MightyYar (622222)

          Did something change? I took the EIT back in the 90s and the very programmable HP-48G was allowed.

          • by NotDrWho (3543773)

            Did something change? I took the EIT back in the 90s and the very programmable HP-48G was allowed.

            Yeah, the dinosaurs finally caught on to the fact that students were using them to cheat.

    • And I am sure competitors exist, but schools only allow the TI's. It is the same for old standard calculators, the university/college will only approve the use of that one TI calculator. In my university, you have one allowed calculator, and you still had to pay to get a sticker to let the exam procs know that "yes, this calculator is allowed"
      • by AthanasiusKircher (1333179) on Thursday September 04, 2014 @08:49AM (#47824735)

        In my university, you have one allowed calculator, and you still had to pay to get a sticker to let the exam procs know that "yes, this calculator is allowed"

        I guess I understand this stuff for standardized tests somewhat, but what sort of crap is this for university exams? If your exam can be thwarted by just having a slightly more powerful graphing or programmable calculator, your exam is probably not testing very much.

        When I was an undergrad, most exams in advanced science and engineering classes allowed you to bring ANYTHING as long as it didn't involve communication with people outside the room. Forget about just calculators (ANY calculator), some people would be STACKS of textbooks, and I even remember some laptops (though those were less common back then -- largescale wireless also didn't quite exist yet).

        When I first had a test like this, I packed a pile of books too, along with whatever calculator I had (I think a TI-85), etc. But I quickly realized that most of this was useless. In the limited time we had, if I didn't already know the stuff, I'm not going to have time to learn it from a book.

        And the tests always had complex questions designed to test your ability to confront new types of problems (and to often present symbolic answers with your work, not just some final numerical output from a calculator, nor even some symbolic answer spit out by Mathematica, even if you had a laptop), so even if you had somehow programmed your calculator to output a numerical answer and handle every problem you had encountered in the class so far, you'd still have to have some pretty serious critical thinking skills to do well.

        If the only thing standing between you and an A on exams is having a "non-stickered" slightly more "advanced" piece of crap calculator built on 20-year-old technology to do your exams with, that course is probably not asking very much of its students.

        • back then -- largescale wireless also didn't quite exist yet.

          It is not because other calculators might be more powerful. Primarily, it is because TI has paid or schmoozed the right people. Officially, the word is that they cannot verify that any other calculators do not include internet or phone network access, and maybe a handful of other features. But at the same time, I have never taken a test that allowed you to bring anything you wanted; Tests are too much about memorizing the material for it to be feasible to allow text books. And when they do, it is only becau

        • by MattskEE (925706)

          When I was an undergrad, most exams in advanced science and engineering classes allowed you to bring ANYTHING as long as it didn't involve communication with people outside the room. Forget about just calculators (ANY calculator), some people would be STACKS of textbooks, and I even remember some laptops (though those were less common back then -- largescale wireless also didn't quite exist yet).

          When I first had a test like this, I packed a pile of books too, along with whatever calculator I had (I think a

    • by Nimey (114278)

      Spot on, except the TI-86 has been out of production for a number of years. Presumably their market niche was too small.

      From what I've read, Casios /are/ a lot cheaper than equivalent TIs, but they are different enough to need retraining and there are many more textbooks that assume a student has a TI.

      • As strange as it sounds, the TI-84 is a newer model than the TI-86.

        Basically, the lines went like this:

        TI-82 -> TI-83 -> TI-84 Plus -> TI-84 Plus Color

        TI-85 -> TI-86

        Since it's not obvious on that list, the 82 and 85 came out around the same time, as did the 83 and 86.

        Incidentally, it's important to note that the stats listed in the summary are for the black and white version and not the newer color version and yet it's the color version's MSRP they're listing.

    • The TI-8x calculators are not outdated; they do exactly what they need to do -- no more, no less.

      That doesn't mean they do it in the best possible way. I could do calculations on an Apple ][ back in the 1980s but that doesn't mean the state of the art stopped there. Sure they get the job done but that doesn't mean they couldn't make further improvements. I have a hard time believing that the perfect calculator was developed back when I was still in school 25+ years ago.

      I disagree that they are not outdated. Are you seriously going to argue that they couldn't have made any improvements to the interf

      • I disagree that they are not outdated. Are you seriously going to argue that they couldn't have made any improvements to the interface, power, screen quality, cost, functionality, or performance in the last 20 years? They don't necessarily have to add more functions but there are plenty of improvements that could be made.

        Interface and functionality? No, they couldn't improve that. Even if something else is theoretically "better" (like RPN), there's too much inertia behind the status quo. Screen quality? May

    • by NotDrWho (3543773) on Thursday September 04, 2014 @08:38AM (#47824615)

      There should have been an opportunity for some competitor (e.g. Casio or HP) to use 2014 technology to deliver the same capabilities

      It should be noted that this is very difficult to do, because many modern math textbooks are actually built around the assumption that students are using TI-84's. I took an algebra course a couple of years ago at a local college and every example in the text actually used illustrations and instructions on how to do the graphing on a TI-84 specifically. So unless the competitor could copy the look, functionality, and layout of a TI-84 exactly (and I'm sure that would get them sued), profs and instructors would be inundated with "But how do I do that on my Casio?" questions that they aren't going to want to deal with. And so they would probably still make the TI-84 a requirement for the course, just to avoid that hassle.

    • The technology in them is probably dirt cheap (and may have been at the time of release) a low res grayscale ~2" screen plus enough processing power to solve relatively simple math probably all of $5 cost. The rest is usability and brand recognition. That said there is something to being able to visualize things in your head. Perhaps not everyone is wired the same way but I managed my way through an honours physics degree with nothing better than a $10 basic scientific calculator: graphs, intersections, roo

  • Technically, the Ti-84 is a beefed up Ti-82, which has been around since 93.

    Hell it's outlasted even Ti's more capable Calculators like the Ti-85/6 and the Ti-92/89 (The 89ti is being sold for now, but it's days are numbered.)

    • I really wish the TI-85/86 line was the standard; it's a much better calculator from most standpoints. Sadly, we'll never see a TI-87.
      • Andi Graph is the bomb... you can switch between any TI-8x ROMs. The only thing I miss about it is the tactile keys.

        I own a TI-85. Therefore, I have no remorse about using the TI-85 ROM on my Android devices, as I'm not letting anyone use my calculator at the same time. I paid for the software.

        In conjunction with BlueStacks on my Samsung ATIV Pro 900T, I can even project and take screenshots of the whole calculator without any special TI hardware.

        https://play.google.com/store/... [google.com]

    • It goes back even further for me. I had to buy a TI-81 in 1990 for freshman year in college. Then I had to take a class (Math 148), that despite its description, was really just to teach you how to use the TI-81. In the two subsequent classes (Math 150 and 151), we barely used the TI-81 for much more than basic calculator functions that I recall, although that was a long time ago. Of course, I never used the calculator again after that. I came away from the whole experience feeling like it was scheme cooked

      • While the Ti-82 is based on the 81, they have some sizable differences:

        2k vs 28k Ram
        no PC link vs PC link.
        Much More Programming commands and functions on the Ti-82 vs the 81.

        The Ti-82, 83 and 84 series however, are virtually identical other than a few added features and flash memory.

      • by NotDrWho (3543773)

        You would find things very different today. I went to school for my first undergrad degree about the same time as you. My experience was similar. We barely used calculators at all in the classroom, and when we did it was for just basic calculations. But I recently went back and took some math courses at a local college and was shocked at how much the TI-84 and algebraic graphing is integrated into *everything* now. No more point-plotting by hand--now EVERYTHING is done as a graph on a TI-84. Every textbook

  • Teaching kids R (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Slashdot Parent (995749) on Thursday September 04, 2014 @07:57AM (#47824273)

    So, to paraphrase Prof. Norm Matloff, is it stupid to buy expensive TI-8x milk when the R cow is free?

    I don't know much about cows or milk, but if we could figure out a way to teach our kids R instead of how to use a TI-8x that they'll never touch again after graduation, we would be doing them a huge service.

  • The only use for a standalone calculator is testing. The reluctance to allow students to use a phone for a calculator in class is threefold. One is that they need to learn to use the standalone calculator for the test. As easy as the TI is use, it still requires a lot of training. The second is that most students, even in college, lack a degree of self discipline. It is hard for them not to go to facebook. This is not an insult, I often wonder how much coding I would have gotten done if I had the interne
    • The *only* use? I completely disagree as an engineer. I have all kinds of "big boy" computational tools at my disposal, but at least once I day I turn on my TI-89 and use it for something. It might just be multiplying a couple numbers, or a square root, or whatever, but it works faster than starting up MATLAB or R to do it or trying to use the terrible windows calculator.

      I don't know that I would buy one if I didn't already have it from school years and years ago, but it still works and it's my first instin

      • The *only* use? I completely disagree as an engineer. I have all kinds of "big boy" computational tools at my disposal, but at least once I day I turn on my TI-89 and use it for something.

        I'm an engineer and also an accountant (yes I do both) in my day job. I have all sorts of fancy calculators including some TI-8X series and I can't remember the last time I used any of them. I sit in front of a desk where I have a spreadsheet and a basic calculator. If the job is complicated enough that I would need a TI-8X or involves calculating with lots of numbers then I'm just going to use the spreadsheet or some other analytical software. If it is just a basic quick addition or similar then I'm go

        • by geekoid (135745)

          So you don't do advanced math? That's fine, but that doesn't invalidate the use of the Ti.

  • It's simple. They are allowed on tests. Teachers stock them because they can be used on the tests their students need to take. And then every parent wants to get whatever the teacher is using so that their child can get the most help from the teacher.
  • The TI-8x line uses all Z80 derived CPU's. So they're very hackable.

    But the other thing about the TI-8x line is if you take a short amount of time you realize you can program the hell out of it. So if for example you're required to memorize formulas, just program them in.

    That said - a simple solution to breaking the monopoly would be a rule that during tests all cell phones are in airplane mode. Problem solved.
    • That said - a simple solution to breaking the monopoly would be a rule that during tests all cell phones are in airplane mode. Problem solved.

      Um, how would that help prevent someone from bringing in copious notes, or pictures of textbook pages, stored on their phone?

  • R? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by StripedCow (776465)

    when the R cow is free?

    Why use a convoluted language like R when you can use Python?

  • At one point, there really was no powerful analog for a graphic calculator on Linux, I mean one with the same user interface with all of the easy to access buttons that such a calculator has through the GUI. That may be the case still. Anyone have any recommendations on a Linux application that could completely replace all of the functionality of the TI-84, in functionality and user interface?

    • by MightyYar (622222)

      Pyzo on Linux, Mac, or Windows should have you covered - and then some.

      • by MightyYar (622222)

        My apologies, I didn't see the GUI requirement. For those who like trying to enter algebraic equations on a small keypad, I don't have anything.

      • Pyzo is interesting nonetheless. Having a mathematical programming language is important, there is no doubt.

      • The point I think i would make is, that its good to have a programming language mathematical system and library of functions from a programming environment, but it also can be useful to have as well a more GUI environment, for instance, it makes things faster to be able to just hit Sqrt key on the GUI rather than to have to type in sqrt(number). Both the programmatic way and the key based way are importand and have their uses, so I do not want to be misconstrued as downplaying the need for a rich mathematic

    • by i.r.id10t (595143)

      tilem is a linux based TI emulator ... of course, you still need to get the appropriate ROM file(s) for hte calculator you want to emulate, but it is there.

  • by asylumx (881307) on Thursday September 04, 2014 @08:18AM (#47824459)
    "How the outdated hammer still holds a monopoly on garages" What makes it outdated? It does everything it needs to do without being bloated. Not everything has to have a touch screen and wi-fi, you know.
  • by geogob (569250) on Thursday September 04, 2014 @08:19AM (#47824461)

    I never understood why a graphical calculator is needed in school. We had them too in 10th and 11th class. It brought me pretty much nothing. Plus I was already used to RPN at the time, so I hate the TI calculators. It would have been a fail investment had I bought one. It was our luck that the things were part of the school material and not our own.

    In my opinion, graphical calculators do not belongs in school classes any more than smartphones. It's really not the way to go to promote understanding of concepts, which is as important as learning concepts. The understanding part seems to be systematically ignored by the school system... and its getting worse with every modernisation of schools (at least from what I saw in two different countries where I lived).

    But I doubt I'm the right person to ask; I have a rather odd view of this on this topic. I would go as far as to suggest to ban calculators from engineering schools and re-establish the use of slide rule. At least students would perhaps regain some notions of order of magnitude and intuition for it.

    • by sjbe (173966)

      But I doubt I'm the right person to ask; I have a rather odd view of this on this topic.

      Not odd at all and quite a few people agree with you. I agree that there is little need for graphing calculators before college at the earliest. They tend to become an overpriced crutch that does more to prevent learning than to enable it. There is no point in having a graphing calculator before you have mastered the concepts that you are using it to calculate.

  • Couldn't schools keep a supply of TIs on-hand and rent/lend them to students for the school year? I'd be surprised if this wasn't already being done somewhere.

    .
  • by jtwiegand (3533989) on Thursday September 04, 2014 @08:25AM (#47824497)
    Never in high school was a calculator allowed on any math tests. All problems were written to be solvable without a calculator, and they were plenty challenging. And this way, the students were pretty confident when they were going astray on an answer, since most everything wound up being a whole number, basic fraction, or one of the more common irrationals. I graduated High School is 2001 from a public school as well.

    Whats more important is that they taught is math, not how to use a calculator. How to use a calculator changes with the calculator, and isn't a particularly valuable skill to learn compared to the fundamentals of calculus and the other higher math. Yes, I almost never do math anymore by hand, I write a program for it, but learning all those fundamental rules about the quadratic equation, even those weird trig substitution formulas come in handy once in a while when solving a weird problem.

    Calculators aren't necessary in high school mathematics, and should not be used.

    Now for chemistry and physics I can't see no calculator simply because the numbers are so unwieldy most of the time, but I think there is a way to write a test that does not require a calculator.
  • There are plenty of used 83, 82, and 81 calculators out there. I made it through algebra and calculus just fine with an 81 (thank you very much) and they are dirt cheap on the used market. Unless there is something specific that a class needs from the 84, I would look to the earlier models.
  • I conquered school (and university) without having a graphical calculator. And yes, I'm one of those who still knows how to calculate stuff in their head and work with fractions, integrals,.. on a normal piece of paper.

    + I too agree 150 $ for a school calculator is way too high, but I don't really see the point why a graphic calculator is really needed to begin with.

  • What is stupid is citing "Prof. Norm Matloff"; the man plays fast and loose with the truth based on his agenda-du-jour.

  • Why are teachers teaching how to use a specific calculator? Why isn't it simply a homework assignment? Teach the problem and then tell them to go home and figure it out for their calculator. Have students gotten that spoiled by technology that they cannot read and comprehend a manual on how to use a calculator to solve a class of problems? I used an HP-48G for those classes that required it (still have it 20 years later) and used a cheap scientific calculator for those tests where the HP wasn't allowed.
  • by kelemvor4 (1980226) on Thursday September 04, 2014 @08:42AM (#47824653)
    A calculator became popular because of what it could do. It remained popular because of what it couldn't.

    Sounds kind of like the Apple business model, really.

    I still have the HP 48G I used in college. Now my son brings it to middle school and uses it to pick up chicks.
  • by VGPowerlord (621254) on Thursday September 04, 2014 @09:17AM (#47825017)

    Ten years later, the base model still has 480 kilobytes of ROM and 24 kilobytes of RAM, its black-and-white screen remains 96x64 pixels, and the MSRP is still $150

    I really hate it when people pass off misinformation.

    As tempting as it is to call the black and white version the base model, it doesn't appear to be manufactured any longer.

    Which means that the current base model is the version that has with 3.5 megabytes ROM and 21 kilobytes RAM, with a color screen that is 320x240 screen. The calculator also has a rechargeable battery (type unknown) and an MSRP of $140.

    You can find this information (except the MSRP) on this chart. [ti.com]

    Incidentally, Amazon US currently sells the color LCD model (black) [amazon.com] for $104. Other colors seems to cost more.

  • Glad we don't have this issue over in the UK... we've got several alternative calculators that students can use - I still have my Casio but to be honest, after university, I have never used it since. They just end up as hand-me-downs and looking at calculators now, nothing has really changed and as long as AAA batteries exist, I can't see mine not being passed down for generations!

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