The year was 1999. I was pondering all too carefully what kind of threads I'd be wearing come the new school year. But all I could really
think about was exactly how much of my styling budget would be blown on some antediluvian piece of technology that -- in my mind -- was no longer necessary due to the invention of the internet. That hunk was Texas Instruments' TI-83 Plus. So far as I could understand it, the "Plus" meant that it had a few extra megabytes of RAM; why you needed loads of RAM in a graphing calculator, I had no idea. At $119.99, it was the most expensive purchase I made leaving middle school, and now that I've had well over a decade to toy with it, it's about time I sat down and gave it a proper review. Join me after the break, won't you?
Texas Instruments TI-83 Plus gallery
See all photos
It's a TI-83. But with "Plus" written in the top right corner. TI hasn't even attempted to modify the design of this here machine since the early part of the 1500s, so I expected no different when unwrapping the "mandated" device that wrecked my savings and promised to usher me through untold lessons in mathematics that I couldn't care less about. In an effort to give it a fair shake, I will say that by being obnoxiously large, it's pretty much impossible to lose. Think of it this way -- I've relocated eight times in the past 13 years, blown through four schools and managed to lose a Crock Pot
, but somehow, I've clung tightly to my TI-83 Plus. The exterior, while plasticky through and through, is decidedly rugged. In the decade plus review period, I managed to let it slip at least a few dozen times, and I've never once had to send it in for repair. My wife's iPhone, however... well, let's just say I'm glad the latter is secured in a case. The button selection is perfectly decent, but I've noticed a few issues over the years. For one, each key is entirely too mushy, and two, there's just not enough tactility. I'm a touch typist, and I've screwed up way, way
too many geometric proofs by simply not looking at what keys I'm hitting. You'd think the engineers that built this thing would've realized it, but given that it hasn't been redesigned in the better part of a millennium, perhaps I'm asking for a bit much.
A note on the case. I dig the fact that it slides off easily (and protects the screen when in place), but I have to question TI's method of quality assurance testing. After ten years, my lid barely stays on, and a stiff shake towards the ground will send it flying. I should also mention that there are practically no expandability or connectivity options here. There's a lone port at the bottom of the unit, which requires -- surprise, surprise -- a proprietary Graph Link cable. Worse still, the $19 (give or take a few bucks) accessory does little more than allow you to suck data from another TI-83. It's 2012, and the TI-83 Plus doesn't have Bluetooth. Or USB. Shameful -- just shameful. The Dot Matrix-esque display gets the job done -- I mean, it has to display numbers and marginally visible graphs, which ain't too tough, right? It's no Retina display
, but it manages to show figures in crisp fashion. My main gripe here is the graphing function. And the resolution. Seriously TI -- it's 2012. The TI-83 Plus has a 96 x 64 resolution LCD. Are you kidding me?
You're selling a "graphing" calculator in the year 2012 with about as many pixels as I have fingers? It's amazing you're still in business.
You turn it on. It's ready to rock practically instantaneously. You can add, subtract, multiply and divide, and whiz-kids can even throw formulas in here to concoct 8-bit graphs. It'll get you through geometry, a few years of high-school algebra and the better part of your adult life; assuming, of course, that you aren't a part of "that crowd" who goes on to master in something like "math."
Without question, the lone bright spot when talking about the TI-83 Plus are the things that you aren't actually supposed to be able to do with it. Somehow or another, a coder managed to design a version of Tetris
!) for the TI-83, and I was able to get it from one of my friends via that absurdly overpriced Graph Link cable. Hands-down, playing Tetris on a calculator
is the coolest thing a human could ever do. Skydiving, winning the lottery, whatever -- it ain't got nothing on Tetris
on a freaking calc. Yeah, I said "calc." Deal.
There's also a pretty nifty way to store formulas for cheating on exams. Just surf over to the "Y=" screen, and punch in equations, formulas or tips / tricks that you'll need come test time. Unlike most everything else in this thing, text inputted there won't delete itself when you turn it off the next time. (The author of this review, nor Engadget as an entity, take responsibility for your attempts to cheat on examinations.
After ten solid years of use, my TI-83 Plus is still doing math with as much poise as it did on day one. The protective lid is as good as useless, but outside of that, it has held up exceptionally well. There aren't too many gadgets -- a $100,000 supercar included -- that hold up well after 11, 12, 13+ years of use. And to be perfectly honest, including Tetris
from the factory would go a long way to convincing more ninth graders to sacrifice their summer savings on one. But beyond all that -- and the woefully pitiful 96 x 64 resolution LCD -- there's one major reason that I just can't give the TI-83 Plus the ringing endorsement Texas Instruments is likely looking for: the price. People, listen. I paid $119 for a TI-83 Plus in 1999. It's 2012, and the exact same calculator still costs $85!
For those envious of Apple's profit margins, you're casting your gaze in the wrong direction. There's about forty cents worth of technology in this thing, and somehow, TI gets away with charging $85 for it. It's 2012. Google exists. There's simply no need to force every incoming high schooler in America to buy one of these, but it still happens. It's like TI has some sort of underground agreement with America's school systems to push this thing; I'd actually be shocked if the government wasn't getting a kickback.
Half of this review is an obvious tongue-in-cheek approach to dealing with April Fool's Day, but I'm dead serious when I say that the continued "necessity" for the TI-83 in America's education system is as glaring an example as any of just how behind we are. Why aren't we pushing internet-connected tablets instead of a calculator that was probably never ahead of the curve? Why isn't anyone in our school system reaching out to alternative devices that cost a great deal less? Is anyone motivated enough to rethink a curriculum, or are we going to keep teaching lessons that were built a century ago just because they're already written, and we already know what calculator to tell the poor schmucks coming in to buy? Think about it.