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I am not a mathematician, though I was reading up on the various technological advancements of calculating technology.

The TI-84Plus was released in 2004. I used it in high school; it cost me around $120.

If you go online now and search for graphing calculators, the TI-84Plus is still one of the first and only results. It costs $150.

Other options seem to either have significantly fewer functions, or are designed nearly exclusively for high-level academics and engineering workers, with price points around $1500.

In an era of rapidly advancing technology and pocket sized computers, why have graphing calculators seemingly stood still?

The “TI” series used to advance every couple of years before suddenly stopping at the TI-84, and in a year where a person can buy a basic smartphone or even a full fledged micro PC for around $100, how and why has no company produced a graphing calculator with similar (or better) capacities but a lower price point than the 2004 TI-84Plus?

Is it the technology?

Does Texas Instruments have some unique hold over the market where some foreign company couldn't sell essentially the same product for $30?

Is this a purely economic issue?

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    Is this a worldwide thing, or a country specific? I get about 50/50 Ti and Casio calculators if I search for "Grafisk miniräknare", which is the swedish translation for "Graphing Calculator". I do not know what you would get in Japan, but more Casio models than TI models is my guess. BTW, even if the TI-84 per se might fit in Retrocomputing, the question seems more to be about current events than retro events.
    – UncleBod
    Nov 5, 2023 at 8:28
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    The xkcd comic has made observations on this topic: xkcd.com/768
    – Kaz
    Nov 5, 2023 at 14:44
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    I used an HP Prime in high school. It has a CAS and a touchscreen and runs a 528MHz ARM Cortex-A7 CPU. For a calculator, that thing is impressively fast. Innovation does happen, just not at TI. Nov 5, 2023 at 16:24
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    There is e.g. NumWorks calculator that seems quite a bit more advanced than the 1990s models.
    – jpa
    Nov 5, 2023 at 16:43
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    I don't envision anyone ever really needing a graphing calculator to be honest. Not even students. Some might like it for exams but it's not very useful. Any task where you work need something handheld, a scientific calculator will do and anyone who actually needs the functionality of a graphing calculator is better served by math software.
    – DKNguyen
    Nov 5, 2023 at 18:45

5 Answers 5

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I'd say there is no single reason but a combination - plus a certain PoV.

There Is Only the TI-84plus

Not really. There are for one multiple models for different use cases from TI as well as other manufacturers, most notably Casio, but also HP (HP-39 GII, HP Prime) and Sharp (EL-9900G). In fact, TI was the new kid on the block with its TI-81, 5 years after Casio's ground breaking fx-7000G and as well years after Sharp and HP.

TI has always been more of a follower than a leader in development of these. The overwhelming rule of TI-84 is a strictly US phenomena, in other places of the world it's rather Casio. Especially when CAS variants are allowed.

TI Did Not Advance Since the 84plus

TI did. They maintained different series and models within all the way from 89 and 92 to Voyager and Nspire models. The latest of them, the Nspire CX II being introduced in 2019. It features actual ARM CPUs, huge memory, touchscreen and modern (*1) languages like Lua and Python.

But Development is Slow, Right?

Kinda. While development is constant, it doesn't run at overdrive at any of he manufacturers. Several reasons may be named:

  • It's a Market Cornered by a Duopoly

    TI and Casio essentially own the market. HP and Sharp have only limited offerings. Like with every market where the overwhelming sales numbers are with two manufacturers, incentives are small to add features - that is past improvements in manufacturing to reduce cost. Even more in the US where Casio is in most states a distant number 2 if allowed at all.

  • It's a Niche Market

    Unlike programmable calculators of the 1970s/80s, these modern calculators are no longer a business tool for engineers or in finance. Back then, those were the only way to get the needed power and flexibility on an engineer's desk - at an affordable price. But since the mid 1980s, maximum 1990, a PC can be considered standard in such positions, offering way more flexibility and capacity and work flow integration than any pocket calculator.

    Graphics calculators developed right after that turning point and with a special use case: Teaching. They enable students to see the result of certain equations right away without the need of calculating it by hand and plotting it point for point on paper.

    It's much the same as with (seemingly) basic desktop calculators being still manufactured, bought mostly by accounting/trades people with a solemnly need to summing up a series of item price times items sold.

  • It's a Situational Market

    This goes with the niche part, but in time wise. Owners only need those calculators only for a rather limited time with a defined (and hopefully happy) ending. A special short-term phase in life, after which they do not really add above any other programmable. And be of way less usability than any PC software for the same purpose.

    There is no need to buy one outside that phase - that is unless one stays in school as a teacher.

  • It's a Mature Market

    The technology used already fulfills the purpose they are intended for. Neither faster CPUs, more storage or higher display resolution will make much difference. It's a bit like the PC since about 2010, when CPU and GPU speed became more than sufficient for 99% of all business and 90% of all home application. A situation the fast-moving phone market seems to reach soon - if it hasn't already.

  • It's a Regulated Market

    Buyers are not free to choose manufacturer/model for features they like, or consider advanced, but are restricted to a defined feature set, set by authorities like teacher, school board or state regulations. The selection is usually even more restricted to certain models to simplify conformity checks by teachers.

    Casio's Class-Pad series gives a good example. They were, all the way to the most beautiful fx-CP400, not allowed for most US tests (SAT etc.) as they could bring up a virtual QWERTY/Z keyboard. Casio tried to overcome this by special ROM versions disabling features, like they did for other countries, but to no avail. Finally they introduced in 2017 the US-only fx-GC500 disabling all keyboards except for an alphabetical sorted one. Notably it also features a different case colour (grey instead of black) so teachers can see the difference.

    This is BTW not only a US issue, but worldwide. For example the TI-Nspire CX models do feature an interface for an optional wireless module, while European (CX-T) do not.

    Without freedom to choose for features, there isn't much incentive for manufacturers to compete with additional features.

They Do Not Drop in Price

Yes and no. Sure, the nominal prices didn't drop much, but using inflation rate (and that calculator of yours) will show that 120 USD in 2004 is roughly the same as ~195 USD today (2023). So being sold today new at 150 USD means a 25% price reduction. Sounds more ok, doesn't it?

Also, every product (segment) has a low price below which selling will get impossible. We often think of price mostly related to production cost, but that is only true in theory and big numbers. In real-world scenarios every transaction has minimum cost and minimum turn around to be operational and profitable. It's why even at Walmart a cheap-ass 4-function calculator is still around 10 USD and a TI-30 with way more functions about the same price.

Price does not depend on function delivered, but defines functions possible. No matter if low end or higher up. At the 10 USD level it doesn't matter what functions are provided as they all come at the same price of a dirt-cheap mass-produced chip. The 10 USD price point was reached already 30 years ago, and stayed there since then. In fact, it's the same with PCs or tablets. Already since years they rarely go below 300 USD for a usable configuration.

Similar the price point for a graphics calculator made to fit school needs. Unlike that 10 USD TI-30, which didn't change since the mid 1980s, they do need updates and maintenance to stay within changing scope. And they need more support - not to mention the 'marketing' needed to place them at schools.

Why Not Using a PC Or Tablet?

I guess we can agree that a PC on every students desk isn't exactly a good idea. Has been tried, didn't work. Not only for size but as well the issue of making sure all pupils use the same unmodified software. Tablets may solve the size issue, less the software issue. Not every school is able to afford highly trained IT-capable teachers :))

But we'll get there ... slowly but we do, which at some point may make graphic calculators surplus.


*1 - Well, modern in sense of fashionable - as if the good old BASIC wasn't any good for those youngsters?

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    @Smith That's part of the cost defining the base price as mentioned - but it's for most parts exactly the same cost as for software, as those functions are just software as all graphic calculators are based on of the shelf processors - Z80, 68k, SH, ARM, etc. Also, even though it's a nice market, we still talk about millions per model, so deep into a region where using a ASIC results in optimal savings.
    – Raffzahn
    Nov 5, 2023 at 15:35
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    40 years ago my HP-15 was an indispensable tool for engineering. Now? Not so much…
    – Jon Custer
    Nov 5, 2023 at 15:51
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    On a related note, I wonder why the kind of color LCDs found in Casio calculators don't seem to appear anywhere else even though they can produce a far nicer "idle" display (with a current draw suitable for continuous operation even when nobody is looking at it) for use in an at-least-moderately-lit environment than other technologies.
    – supercat
    Nov 5, 2023 at 18:17
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    I'd suggest also that it's extremely difficult to do meaningful programming on a handheld device. Far easier to use a full-sized PC with unrestricted screen size etc., if necessary transferring the result to something proprietary and probably expensive. Nov 6, 2023 at 7:41
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    While this was almost 30 years ago, I remember that graphing calculators in my high school actually had limits on how powerful they could be essentially because the teachers wanted the students to be able to graph out functions, but not write programs that could solve them and/or play Nibbler, Pac-Man, Doom, etc. And, of course, there was another market for limiting calculator power in competitions like the Academic Team Math tests. Nov 6, 2023 at 15:36
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I looked into this a bit when each of my kids needed a calculator for various standardized tests. Essentially TI has a near-monopoly on the market, at least in the United States. The market for graphing calculators is actually not really all that large, with one exception - standardized tests. After all, in many places Chromebooks or others are supplied by school systems to students of all ages, and these computers can do far more than a graphing calculator can do. This transition from small handheld devices to full computers accelerated dramatically with COVID-19 lockdowns - a graphing calculator may be able to do lots of things, but it doesn't have a video camera for remote/virtual classes.

Standardized tests (PSAT, SAT, ACT, etc.) have some good reasons to allow calculators. The tests are supposed to be about mathematical concepts, ability to interpret word problems, etc. and not about simple calculations. However, they also have a huge problem with cheating. A high score on a standardized exam can translate into scholarships and admission to schools that a student might not otherwise receive. With newer calculators really being very advanced computers - but with small screens - there are serious concerns that WiFi network connections, stored programs with test details or other things hidden in an advanced calculator could allow a student to cheat. So the tests only allow very specific calculator models. TI has taken advantage of that as they were one of the pioneers in reasonably advanced, reasonably priced graphic calculators, with just enough power to get the job done for these tests, but without adding advanced features that are incompatible with testing constraints. My understanding is that while patent protection has long since expired, TI is able to prevent legal direct clones of its products through copyright protection of the firmware (software on ROM or flash memory in the devices).

If you are a math teacher (or a math department in a school system) and you know your students will have to have these calculators anyway, and you don't want them to spend extra on another calculator (even if it is better and cheaper) then you either work within the constraints of the "test calculators" or you move to online systems (since the students all have computers anyway). Effectively limiting the market for improved calculators.

In theory, a new company could build graphing calculators comparable to the TI calculators, get them authorized for standardized tests and sell millions of them by pricing them at 1/2 the price of TI's calculators. However:

  • This is a limited market. Yes, a couple of million students a year take one or more of these tests. But the actual market is far smaller than that on a yearly basis as families pass them down from one child to the next, schools keep them for several years and lend them to students who need them, etc.
  • If the calculators are too much like TI calculators then the manufacturer will run into intellectual property issues (lawsuits can drain a lot of money and affect sales, even if the manufacturer prevails in the end). If the calculators are too different from TI calculators then they won't sell well because of the learning curve for students.
  • I think it is reasonably safe to say that TI has a very high profit margin on these calculators, so they could drop the price significantly if a new competitor came along, which severely limits the selling price for the competitor. If TI charges $120 and the competitor charges $60, that's great. But if TI then drops the price to $80, how many people will just say "for $20 extra I'll get the TI we're used to"?
  • At some point (1 year? 10 years?) the standardized tests may change their rules, either allowing no calculators at all or some standardized "app" or some particular new type of calculator. So research & development for an entirely new calculator by a new company may have a very limited time to recoup the costs.
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    I have to wonder, though: does it even make any sense to call that "cheating" anymore? The ability to look up what you don't know is one of the most relevant skills in the modern age; why discourage students from gaining mastery of it? Nov 5, 2023 at 21:07
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    @MasonWheeler It all depends on what you are testing. Arguably that could be the case for an essay test where organization and style are being tested. But for Math, skills still matter. Nov 5, 2023 at 21:26
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    On the two calculators issue, it's not just cost but skill and practise. On a standardised test, the last thing you want is for students to have to think about how to translate what they are doing to the 'test calculator'. You want to ensure they are practised and know how to do things on the test calculator, ideally instinctively. And the best way to achieve that is continual practice, so any use of a different calculator takes away from that. Nov 6, 2023 at 5:38
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    @MichaelGraf And that's the point. Calculators with standard keyboards aren't allowed. It all comes down to the AP Exam's Calculator policy, which used to just give qualities of an approved calculator but now just lists models. You can't even use a slide rule on the test if you want to, or a 4 function calculator on the AP Calculus test. apstudents.collegeboard.org/exam-policies-guidelines/… Nov 6, 2023 at 11:15
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    There is also probably a degree of wanting to ensure that richer students don't buy higher scores through more expensive and sophisticated calculators (especially given they often already have the edge of private tutors, practice tests, etc). Nov 6, 2023 at 15:38
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Basically it is the demand - if there is no demand then nobody is going to make them. In UK, the graphing calculators range from £30 to £150. I haven't seen TI calculators recently: they are mainly Casio (Japanese brand). Outside school, graphing calculators are only used in specialized fields.

Once the kids have left school, they either don't use their calculators or they only use the simple arithmetic operations and possibly hex to decimal conversion if they in the technical side. Everything else, they use computers, tablets or mobile phones. Even a fancy calculator like the Casio FX-CG50 with colours and 216x384 screen resolution can't compete with phones, tablets and computers for graphing.

I work in engineering and don't know anyone at work who uses the graphing facility of their graphing calculator if they have one. Many are still using the calculators from their school/uni days. They just use the calculators for hex conversion. The ones who are in business just use a calculator with big buttons, a 14-digit display and an audit trail.

You could put out a survey at work to see how many people use the graphing facility of their graphing calculator, if they have one. Wouldn't be surprised if the answer is 0.

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    This is definitely the main reason, imho. My mobile phone can do everything that the most expensive graphing calculator can do. And it can do it better, on a multiplicity of free apps, on a clearer screen.
    – Valorum
    Nov 5, 2023 at 13:17
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    In France, Casio graphing calculators were (as of 5 years ago) required for my stepsons' BAC-S. When they went on to university to study chemistry and biology, all graphs were created in Excel and their calculators were hardly used.
    – grahamj42
    Nov 5, 2023 at 13:24
  • "... if they in the technical side." I believe there's something missing in this sentence.
    – Sep Roland
    Nov 5, 2023 at 13:52
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    I run an HP calculator emulator on my phone 'cause it's just the same as when I was at uni.
    – D Duck
    Nov 5, 2023 at 21:18
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    A case in point: I've still got a graphing Casio at home. It was my ex's in school and at uni. I got rid of mine when we decided we didn't need 2. I don't think I've turned it on in a decade. As a scientific calculator there are phone apps or the PC, and for graphing, there's always a PC not far away, which is far clearer and more versatile.
    – Chris H
    Nov 6, 2023 at 12:00
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As per the other answers, these devices are largely used in schools. When I was that age, there was a lot of innovation, things like the Sharp EL-9300 had graphical equations. Then out came the TI92 (and soon after TI89) with symbolic integration. A couple of years after this, the examination rules in my country (the UK) for calculators went from use anything that calls itself a calculator, to highly regulated in the functionality that you are allowed, and I think this is what stifled the innovation you talk about. It certainly stopped soon after. There is are all sorts of features that I was able to use in examinations that would never be allowed today. I still like my TI92+ though. And learning it functionality was highly educational in itself.

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  • When I took my maths A level in the 1990s, I wrote a program on my Casio which simulated performing a full reset. I didn't want to cheat (my poor final grade reflects that) but didn't want to lose all my data: I had my agenda and people's phone numbers in there, as well as the programs I had written. I didn't know that they later clamped down on calculator use.
    – Aaron F
    Nov 6, 2023 at 11:31
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    @AaronF it was a few years after your time (and mine). In uni we could use them but had to clear them. I tended to enter the constants from the formula book into mine at the start of each exam (physics). My A levels in '96 were one of the last years to be unrestricted; from what I recall at uni, by '97 some exam boards were cracking down (no programming, no multiline displays, because the latter made problems with formulae much easier)
    – Chris H
    Nov 6, 2023 at 12:04
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    When I was sitting a third year electronics exam back in the 1980s a programmable calculator like a HP41 was allowed if you could show there wasn't an answer in memory. The thinking was that writing a program took so long that preventing the use of programmable calculators was a waste of time. Needless to say I wrote a program during the exam that provided the solution to an exam question that would have been difficult and error prone. About a year later the calculator was banned.
    – PDP11
    Nov 7, 2023 at 1:17
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    Interestingly, at one point (at least in 95) you were allowed (for calculus) to keep your programs [IIRC mainly because the TI-81 needed a program to do the integration that the TI-82 could do as a built-in and the AP folks didn't want to totally disadvantage the former (on the other hand, Chem AP in 94 did want a wipe; someone did comment about writing a erase-simulator program but my AP professor claimed proctors were warned about this (which I really think was him BS'ing)
    – Foon
    Nov 7, 2023 at 15:23
  • When I was in school, we were still on log tables and slide rules. The programmable calculators (except for the Sinclair Scientific programmable which cost £35) were really pricy.
    – cup
    Nov 7, 2023 at 19:24
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Your problem isn't just with graphics calculators but all calculators.

Calculators were the mainstay for quick calculations from February 1972 when Hewlett Packard released the first handheld scientific calculator, the HP 35, until sometime around 2000.

Prior to that, people had to use slide rules, tables (such as logarithmic) and mechanical calculators to do most calculations. Using computers in the 1970s was difficult due to availability and cost. It wasn't until IBM introduced the HP XT (5160) person computer and the availability of spreadsheets that personal computers were seriously being used. Spreadsheets were the killer application that propelled personal computer usage.

From then things only got better for person computers and less so for calculators. I have a preference for HP calculators. It could be argued that peak design for non graphics calculators was in the mid 1980s with the introduction of the HP 15C or the HP 42S. A revamped version of the HP 15C, The Limited Edition was introduced in 2008 and the Collector's Edition in 2023 is even faster and has different batteries, but essentially it's the same as the 1980s version. It is even possible to get an official HP version of a HP 15C for a smart phone or tablet device for approximately USD 25.

People don't need calculators to do fancy calculations anymore. These days they can use whatever software they want on either a desktop computer or a laptop and get all the fancy graphs they want. Because of this, manufacturers, and this includes Texas Instruments, see no reason to further develop their calculators, whether graphical or non graphical. Hewlett Packard closed its calculator division in 2001. The HP 33S, HP 35S and HP Prime were new calculators that were released after 2001, but they were designed by other companies under license.

I can recall in 1998, my boss at the time told me he didn't use calculators. Whenever he needed to do a calculation he "opened up a spreadsheet".

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