Are graphical calculators pointless?

April 11th, 2011 | Categories: general math, math software, walking randomly | Tags:

I love mathematics and I also love gadgets so you’d think that I’d be overjoyed to learn that there are a couple of new graphical calculators on the block.  You’d be wrong!

Late last year, Casio released the Prizm colour graphical calculator.  It costs $130 and its spec is pitiful:

  • 216*384 pixel display with 65,536 colours
  • 16Mb memory
  • The CPU is a SuperH 3 running at 58Mhz (according to this site)

Casio Prizm.

More recently, Texas Instruments countered with its color offering, the TI-NSpire CX CAS.  This one costs $162 (source) and its specs are also a bit on the weak side but quite a bit higher than the Casio.

  • 320*240 pixels with 65,536 colours
  • 100Mb memory
  • CPU? I have no idea.  Can anyone help?

If you are into retro-computing then those specs might appeal to you but they leave me cold. They are slow with limited memory and the ‘high-resolution’ display is no such thing. For $100 dollars more than the NSpire CX CAS I could buy a netbook and fill it with cutting edge mathematical software such as Octave, Scilab, SAGE and so on.  I could also use it for web browsing,email and a thousand other things.

I (and many students) also have  mobile phones with hardware that leave these calculators in the dust.  Combined with software such as Spacetime or online services such as Wolfram Alpha, a mobile phone is infinitely more capable than these top of the line graphical calculators.

They also only ever seem to be used in schools and colleges.  I spend a lot of time working with engineers, scientists and mathematicians and I hardly ever see a calculator such as the Casio Prizm or TI NSpire on their desks.  They tend to have simple calculators for everyday use and will turn to a computer for anything more complicated such as plotting a graph or solving equations.

One argument I hear for using these calculators is ‘They are limited enough to use in exams.‘  Sounds sensible but then I get to thinking ‘Why are we teaching a generation of students to use crippled technology?‘ Why not go the whole hog and ban ALL technology in exams?  Alternatively, supply locked down computers for exams that limit the software used by students.  Surely we need experts in useful technology, not crippled technology?

So, I don’t get it.  Why do so many people advocate the use of these calculators?  They seem pointless!  Am I missing something?  Comments welcomed.

Update 1: I’ve been slashdotted!  Check out the slashdot article for more comments.

Update 2: My favourite web-comic, xkcd, covered this subject a while ago.

Other posts you may find useful / interesting

  1. Giulio Finestrali
    April 14th, 2011 at 21:15
    Reply | Quote | #1

    I agree with Mike, for most exams a $10 scientific calculator is more than enough. To tell the truth, for most exams there’s no need for calculators at all.

  2. April 16th, 2011 at 16:06
    Reply | Quote | #2

    Graphic calculator are clearly too expensive. That’s why some of my friends and I have created – it is completely free.
    There is no need to buy an expensive calculator when there are so many great tools available online.

  3. Joplin
    April 29th, 2011 at 16:36
    Reply | Quote | #3

    Lot’s of years ago when I was in high school, in my country, calculators were banned. That time I was annoyed by this but now, as I look back, I think it was good for my brain. I could do much better with general calculations then than I do now. So I believe you’re right, calculators should be banned from schools.

    Nowdays I still find calculators useful and I have one. It opens instanteneously and I can do calculations much faster than in any computer. Ofcourse I don’t have a graphicalculator, I have one that costs 8 bucks and it has almost all the functions of the expensive ones except of the useless graphical capabilities.

  4. MySchizoBuddy
    May 6th, 2011 at 22:13
    Reply | Quote | #4

    In my case after getting an engineering degree i can no longer do even a simple integration. I do however, know how to do it in mathcad and maple.
    I don’t think this is progress.

  5. Al
    February 21st, 2012 at 19:45
    Reply | Quote | #5


    Hey Dave, I recently picked up my hp 48 for the first time in awhile and can’t remember the keystrokes to open minesweeper or tetris. Can you share them. Please and thank you, Al.

  6. TBeers
    December 19th, 2012 at 21:40
    Reply | Quote | #6

    I do a lot of field work in Africa. My Ti-89 is light does the math I need and I can neglect it for 3 months and still expect the batteries to work. Also nobody wants to steal it. As soon as I can figure out how to hack it in to an Arduino serial monitor and data acquisition device I doubt I will put it down in the field. Graphing acceleration and flow data on the quick would be sweet. And seriously at $60 an hour field work time I only have to save my self 2 hours, one dead laptop battery to pay for itself.

  7. hank
    May 13th, 2013 at 23:34
    Reply | Quote | #7

    Sure, phones can do a lot…But can you vouch for their algorithms? Short answer: no, you can’t.

    For instance, Android relies on Java, and Java is not reliable for numerics. In this respect, the iPhone is better.

    However, the HP calculators are notoriously robust algorithm-wise. A calculator such as the HP 50g, is a mini-specialized computer.

    Is it pointless? That depends on what you use it for. Can your desktop do more? That also depends. It depends on the software you’re using. For instance, Excel is notoriously buggy for number-crunching. So, your desktop machine is bigger, faster, but your algorithms might suck. We know that HP machines do not suck, and some are deemed bug-free, for eons now (e.g., the 12C).

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