|My First Five Minutes with a TI nSpire|
Message #1 Posted by Howard Owen on 12 Aug 2007, 1:10 a.m.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.