Can you say "Monopoly", boys and girls?
Written: Apr 23, 2002 (Updated Apr 23, 2002)
a Very Helpful Review
by the Epinions community
- User Rating: OK
Ease of Use:
Pros:Documentation, software, and instruction is EVERYWHERE.
Cons:Expensive, underpowered, apparently designed by a dyslexic monkey.
The Bottom Line: Frankly, other products do better for less. Trouble is, with most courses it's a requirement - TI or die.
You thought you were going to get a review. Silly shopper. You've just treated yourself to one of my famous rants.
Hey, get back here! I'll review the thing at the end. Keep your shirt on.
On a certain level the TI series calculators (the TI-83 in particular) are useful little gadgets. I say this in the same way someone would tell you the automobile is a beneficial invention. Any graphing calculator can be an invaluable tool for a whole host of things. You could, I don't know, graph stuff with it. Any graphing calculator can do this - That's the point. Texas Instruments, however, has firmly planted their 900 pound gorilla posterior squarely on its market share and is happy to keep it that way. Product be damned.
It's a surefire way to make millions, I'll concede that. However, to most people the TI-83 is THE graphing calculator. Thanks to the steadfast efforts of TI the only graphing calculator anyone ever hears about is the TI-8x line (most of the time the TI-83, to boot). You'll be hard pressed to find anyone who knows about let alone OWNS a calculator that isn't made by TI. I would say more power to them, except for the niggling little fact that the TI calculators suck.
I know I'm being harsh. I'm getting to that.
There's still the conspiracy at foot, though. If you look through any vaguely recent math textbook it will no doubt mention graphing calculators. Funny thing is, they always mention TI graphing calculators. Were you fool enough to ignore the propaganda and God forbid buy a Casio or HP calculator? Too bad. Chances are you just failed your math course, since a TI brand (and ONLY a TI brand) calculator is a requirement for a great many of them. Even if it isn't you can bet your earlobes your book will give key-by-key walkthroughs of how to do things, but only for TI calcs. You can put another wager on how much your teacher is likely to know about non-TI calculators - Likely zilch.
So you see my beef, now. It's not that there aren't better products than most of the TI line, it's that you aren't really given a choice in the matter. Got a PC? You get Windows. Got a math course? Fork your cash over to TI.
You want me to top it off? TI's not stupid. They've positioned themselves to their advantage in the marketplace and they know it. In every, count them E-V-E-R-Y retail outlet I've been to the TI calculators were a third to half again the price of all the rest of the calculators, regardless of specification or capability. Not only do they want you to be stuck with the things but they charge you an arm and a leg for them, too. (You think you've got problems? You should see me wax lyrical about Windows XP.)
But enough of that. Objective review time.
For your cash you get a black rectangular thing with a screen on one end, buttons on the other, and a hard cover that slides over it to protect your fragile investment. The keyboard is very calculator like (there's a reason for this, actually - read over some SAT test literature and you'll notice that it specifically prohibits calculators with computer style "qwerty" keyboards), with all of the buttons arranged in a tall rectangle. This makes typing out letters a bit of a pain, since they're arranged in alphabetic order in an uneven grid on the keyboard. That's how it is with any calculator, though, so I can't take many points off for that. There are also directional buttons near the top of the device, and a row of function keys below the screen. Keyboard wise, pretty standard.
The TI packs a monochrome LCD screen, capable of displaying two colors (on or off). It's pretty low rez, outranked by any Palm Pilot and even the lowly Gameboy. Resolution isn't nearly trumped up to be the issue it should be - The higher the resolution on the screen (the more pixels it has) the more detailed of a picture you'll get as a result. There are quite a few calculators that have higher screen resolutions than the TI-83 (the Casio Color comes to mind), and if you place them side-by-side with the 83 you'll see a marked improvement from one calc to the other.
My primary quarrel with the TI-83, though, is its asinine interface. I'll grant that any graphing calculator isn't going to be a miracle of ergonomics or intuitive nature because of its color, screen size, and keyboard limitations. If you ask me, though, TI went out of their way to make the TI-83 as fiendishly bum-backwards as they could. I can't begin to imagine why, but that's the way it is. There is no onscreen menu per se, just an array of buttons that in conjunction with the SHIFT or ALPHA modifier keys will take you to your intended destination. There are quite a few "screens" to the TI-83's system in which you can enter equation data, edit programs, perform basic mathematical functions, &c. The trouble is none of the screens seem to have any common standards (a cursor here means one thing, a cursor there means another), usually have no labels or captions (Statistics mode? Matrix mode? Too bad you forgot) and will likely fail to make any sort of sense whatsoever to the unenlightened newbie. The TI-83 comes with a pretty hefty manual, but I find that most concepts aren't clearly explained in it, leaving you in the dark past the cheesy examples they give you.
That's the other problem I have with math books and TI calculators. They tell you how to press the buttons, but they never teach you how to use the thing. Once again, I digress.
So once you figure it out the TI-83 has its points. Like I said, it's an invaluable tool for a great many things. It makes a killer checkbook balance, since with its multiline screen you can view the last few calculations you've done. It's got a recall function in case you want to do a calculation over again or change something on it. You can assign letter variables, too, which is something I find myself doing a lot. The system for assigning values to variables is rather unintuitive, though. You would think (expression) = (variable), but TI wants us all to do it (variable) = (expression). (The TI-83 uses a little arrow instead of an equal sign for variable assignments. Epinions won't let me post an ASCII equivalent so an equal sign you shall get. I don't know why the TI insists on doing this, so is just another hurdle between you and mathematical bliss. I suggest you get used to it. Odd quirks a certainly a-plenty with this calculator.)
All of these nifty features, though, are old hat for any graphing calculator. It's certainly nothing unique to the TI, and if you ask me there are quite a few contenders out there that can do the same things better.
Moving along to more advanced functions, you can enter equations for the calculator to draw with the old Y=MX+B formula. If you want polar or X= graphs, too bad. There's also a matrix mode, in which values can be entered in just about any sized matrix you want (you are limited in size, but it's something ridiculous like 1024 rows by 1024 columns). Entering values into a matrix is a very fiddly affair, and there are no move, copy, or undo functions to help you out. The calculator will helpfully graph any matrix in two dimensions only, but not more. You can also perform basic statistical functions with it, but the process is very confusing. Once again, nifty stuff, but other calculators do it better.
Now down to the part that you'll actually care about: Programming and games.
It's no secret that you can use a graphing calculator for a makeshift Gameboy. Towards that end the TI-83 is probably the best of the lot, since it's been popular for a very long time. Enterprising programmers have had lots of time to pioneer and perfect methods of making the calculator do things it really isn't designed to do. There are freely available, on the internet, a truly staggering array of games for the thing. All of the good games are programmed in "assembler", which is more or less the machine language that the calculator itself uses. To program in assembler you will need to use a PC, since the calculator itself has no support for it. You can program basic things on the calculator proper, though, through its built in little programming tool. The language functions more or less like the BASIC we know and love, though instead of typing commands out by hand you have to select them from a list. The internal programming language is pretty limited compared to anything you'll find on a PC, but once you get it down you'll be able to hammer out little programs to figure out formulas and do random automated things for you in no time. You'll never make a good game with the built in programming language because it's interpereted code and thus very, very slow. For mathematical and useless graphical things, though, it's just fine.
There's one caveat, here: If you want to get games on your toy you'll need a link cable. There are two kinds, one for connecting two calculators together and one for connecting to your PC. Both are hideously expensive (and you can thank TI's previously noted price inflation for it), which is to me nothing but a big, fat insult. I've already parked a hundred bucks of my cash on the calculator, but now I need to pay another forty for what is (quite literally) a mini-jack headphone cable. Pfeh. The Calculator-to-PC cable is even worse. Last I checked the things were ringing up for 70 dollars or more. You can, if you're an enterprising geek like myself, make your own cables for cheap. Directions are all over the place on the internet. All you need is the right parts and a soldering iron.
That's about the size of it. It's a calculator, it does nifty things, it's no better than its peers, it can be a bear to use at times, and it costs more than the competition. If you have a choice, I wouldn't recommend one. If you don't, well, join the club.
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