My First Five Minutes with a TI nSpire



#14

I have a non-retail CAS version, sans desktop software. The user interface is striking. I haven't decided whether it's useful or not, yet.

The Keyboard


The keyboard is guaranteed to repel a classic HP calculator enthusiast on first sight. There are two "banks" of keys. The primary bank contains the numeric keys, arithmetic, logarithmic trigonometric functions and exponential functions, plus a few others. These keys are oddly shaped, but arranged in a reasonable grid. They have a small amount of tactile feedback, or click, though nothing like what I would consider adequate. The keys are dark gray with the primary functions in white, and shifted (ctrl) functions in light gray. The latter legends have poor contrast, the former very good contrast. The keys are low-profile, rising from the surrounding case by about 1/8".

The secondary bank lives on the interstices of the grid formed by the primary bank's keys. The keys are small, round, and raised above the primary bank by about 1/8". All these keys have only one function labeled on them. Most of the keys are alphabetic characters from A-Z. These are colored green with white labels. The contrast is adequate. The keys that are not alphabetic are arranged outside the primary grid, and a re colored very light gray with black labels. The contrast is again adequate in my opinion. These keys contain a grab-bag of functions such as single and double quotes, punctuation marks and some functions of mathematical significance such as =, <, >, EE, theta, pi and i. The tactile feedback of these keys is somewhat stiffer than the primary keys.

Above the two banks of keys are six "function" keys and a five-way navigation disk. The "function" keys have fixed functions, hence the quotes. The primary functions are esc, tab, ctrl, home, menu and <-.

Together, the two banks of keys are remarkably functional. The shape of the primary bank keys becomes clear when you consider that they fill out the space between the secondary bank keys. The result is that you can key the primary keys, or the secondary ones, with your eyes closed. The secondary keys serve as guides for the primary ones when using the latter. When keying the secondary bank, staying on the higher plane is easy using touch alone. I still don't know how well this arrangement will work in actual use, but I'm impressed that a new approach to a hand held calculator keyboard has been demonstrated on this new machine.

The Display

Wow!

I think others have mentioned the original Macintosh when discussing this display. The comparison is apt. This grayscale LCD panel looks great. It's about one half inch taller and about the same width as the display on the 50G. And while the dark font on the 50g makes for better contrast, the grayscale screen and anti-aliased graphical elements on the nSpire are spectacular. This display will no doubt be the benchmark for devices of this type going forward.

The Interface

This machine is targeted squarely at the educational market, and its user interface reflects that fact. The basic abstraction is the "document." This is a collection of applications, problems and notes that you access via a directory browser. Selecting a file with the five way navigation disk is intuitive if you are used to PC operating systems. Considering that students in the US and Europe are guaranteed to be familiar with this metaphor makes the choice seem logical. The similarities to PC interfaces extend to shortcuts for copy/paste and undo/redo. These are the same as the standard keystrokes in Windows, Gnome and KDE.

The document is presented in a series of tabs across the top. each tab is a "page" and each page can contain an application, a problem or a note. The applications are things like "Calculator," "Lists and Spreadsheets" and "Graphs and Geometry." Switching between pages is accomplished with ctrl-right and ctrl-left on the navigation disk. Paging is ctrl-down and ctrl-up on the same disk. Without ctrl, these functions scroll one character or line as the case may be.

My quick read on the interface is that it is limited enough to not suffer from clutter and confusion, but powerful enough to get the job done. The collection metaphor isn't new, but its application on this machine seems like a good choice.

Programming

What programming? The user guide doesn't mention the word. The reference manual documents control structures and logic functions very similar to a structured BASIC, but I saw no applications of these in a quick browse of the user guide. There is quite a bit of discussion of automation, but all in the context of specific applications, such as the graphing slate. I can't tell yet if this is an effective pushing of programming into the background behind the real work the calculator is designed to do, or if it's just a gap in the docs. Time, and more effort on my part, will tell.

Using the Applications

I haven't done much of this so far. As is typical for me, I'm more interested in the system aspects than the applications. But these apps look interesting enough to hold my attention for a while, so I'll probably have more to say on the topic later. The integration between applications and between the hand held and the PC desktop is supposed to be a prominent strength of the nSpire, so that will also spur me to look at that area.

Sync Software

Nothing special here. There's a nice screen shot facility, and the usual backup/restore functions. One interesting thing is that the link software is bundled with a Java runtime. It's possible that this app could run on OSen other than Windows. As I say, I don't have the desktop CAS software. But if it too is in Java, there might be a hope of it being cross platform as well.

Preliminary Conclusions

This machine is for real. None of the features I tried appear to be merely "gimmicks" to draw a buyer in. Stuff that looks gimmicky, like the keyboard, actually turns out to be well thought out and functional. There are a couple of new elements in the machine, and more existing features that haven't been applied to calculators before. I can't say for sure without getting up to speed on all the apps, but this machine may represent a genuine breakthrough in hand held calculation, at least for the educational market. At the very least, it is food for thought about what such a device can be.

Regards,
Howard


#15

Howard, great review. Let me add a few points based on my experience with this calculator (the non-CAS version) about a month ago.

The keyboard. Yes, it's a piece of work all right. It is nice to not have to press a shift key to use alpha characters, but the keys are pretty tiny, and with my stubby fingers I often miskeyed entries. I think it just takes some getting used to. The intended market (high school kids) will probably find it easier than I did.

The display. I agree, it is very good. I had (and still have) trouble with the resolution. You really have to position it at just the right angle in order to see things, and it works best when you have a strong light source. At the conference I attended, I could barely see my screen because they turned the lights down in the classroom to use the viewscreen on the overhead projector, and in that dim light situation the unit was almost unusable. I hope TI comes up with a better version.

The interface. If you remember the website TI setup it shows a teenage girl dragging images around a *screen* by pointing with her finger. If they had actually built it that way, I agree that this would be some kind of revolutionary product. But the pointing and dragging is done with keys, not your finger, and my experience in doing this was that it kind of takes the fun out of it. It's going to be a really steep learning curve for kids to learn how to do that effectively, without getting frustrated because the click just didn't take. And kids don't have a lot of patience anyhow. A touchscreen would turn this into a revolutionary product. A TI rep at the conference mentioned that some research is occurring regarding using a mouse with the calculator. Short of a touchscreen, that would be a tremendous help.

Programming. Programming on this calculator is functions only. You don't *run* a program; you write a function, then invoke the function with the desired input parameters. You normally do this on the calculator page, using the menu command Function Logic in the Tools menu. You can include BASIC-like things like if..then and loops. Once defined, the user function can be invoked on the other types of pages (spreadsheet, geometry/graphing) as well. I think TI did programming this way because functions is something that high school students should learn, and this lets them quickly build their own functions and try them out. Pretty cool.

The NSpire is an interesting product. The integration of the four basic *pages* (calculator, geometry/graphing, spreadsheet, and notes) is great, and I think this calculator will be a terrific tool to help kids learn math.


#16

As I read your comments, I imagined a blue tooth style mouse that may be used with the device. But the additional desk space, and carring around another battery powered widget, made me think re-think things.

Imagine this, put an optical mouse sensor under the n-Spire itself. Then, as you use it, you can slide it on the desk, like a mouse, to make changes on screen.

I wonder how well that would work,

Very repspectfully,

David


#17

David, the NSpire is not a voyager-sized thing. It is a bit larger and heavier than the normal TI graphing calculators (83, 84, titanium, etc.), so I think using it as a mouse would tend to get tiring. It also would probably be difficult to look at the screen as it is moving!

Much better would be a stylus, to select an object on the screen and manipulate it, drag it, etc. The human finger would probably be too big to use this way, but a stylus would be great.

#18

Forgive me for being ignorant, but why do we spend so much time talking about TI unit on an HP website?


#19

Quote:
Forgive me for being ignorant, but why do we spend so much time talking about TI unit on an HP website?

I suppose doing such things is not in the true spirit of the forum. It states at the top of this page-

"This forum is for discussion of HP calculators including usage, repairs, sources of replacement parts, general information etc."

but lets face it, there are a lot of calculator enthusiasts reading this forum. At one time if you wanted to keep abreast of the best in calculator innovations then you only needed to discuss HP products. Currently TI and Casio are competing fiercely in the market place and are beginning to innovate themselves.

I am always curious about the other forum members experience with these devices. They tend to cut through the "hype" and share some good information. Unless Dave thinks this is an abuse, I hope it continues.


#20

Oh, I not say it an abuse, it just puzzle me why such find discussion group about HP talk about TI. I agree that it good to know about competition, and I think that keep manufacturer honest, it just strange how much time this TI unit get on HP site. Maybe this my Hungarian practicality showing.


#21

Hello!

Quote:
... it just strange how much time this TI unit get on HP site.

If HP had come out with such a thing, I'm sure it would get 100 times as much attention and feedback here (just look at the hundreds of postings about the 33s, that is a Mickey-Mouse-gimmick compared to this nSpire machine!).
So lets hope that hp gets some nSpiration from it so that we can get some serious chatting started :-) (but no RPL please, or the whole effort will be lost!)

Greetings, Max

#22

Quote:
.. it just puzzle me why such find discussion group about HP talk about TI.

This machine strikes me as the first really new approach to portable mathematics in years. If the nSpire has staying power, then it will be part of the world view HP will have when they bring out their next innovation in calculators. Having recently seen the fruits of the current HP calculator group's efforts at recapturing some of their legacy in calculators, I have little doubt that they will try to innovate in the space. When they do, the results will inevitably be compared against the nSpire.

Besides, I'm a gadget head, and this is a cool gadget! 8)

Regards
Howard


#23

Didn't HP already develop, and then ultimately reject, an innovative new handheld, the HP Xpander ?

How does the nSpire compare to the Xpander ? Both appear to lack initial vowels, but there must be other points of comparison as well.

Edited: 14 Aug 2007, 1:52 p.m.


#24

I've heard people compare the nSpire to the Xpander, but I don't know if the similarities are deeper than just being more PDA-like. The Xpander was aimed at the educational market, though.

Regards,
Howard

#25

Howard, where did you purchase the nSpire? Is it available at larger retailers as I would like to see one in person.


#26

SchoolMart

These are non-retail versions that come in very basic packaging, and manuals on CDR disks.

Regards,
Howard


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