By Jerry A. DiColo
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Facing competition from iPhones and other devices that have caught on with the high school set, Texas Instruments /zigman2/quotes/202237907/composite TXN -0.51% Inc. is trying to inject some new life into its popular line of graphing calculators.
But its latest entry, the $135 TI-Nspire, has gotten off to a slow start since hitting stores last year. One of the company's biggest challenges: convincing users the revamped model is better than existing ones, which generally cost about $100.
Some math teachers say the Nspire, which has more computer-like features, is unnecessarily complex. And calculator enthusiasts complain the new model limits what kind of tinkering they can do.
"TI-Nspire is a bit of a different model. It is taking us more time to have the market understand that," said Melendy Lovett, head of TI's education technology unit. The company's best-selling calculator remains the five-year-old TI-84 Plus, she added.
The Nspire is part of the Dallas-based company's strategy to defend its dominance in the sleepy but profitable calculator business as students head back to school. TI, whose scientists invented the portable calculator in 1967, accounts for about 80% of the U.S. market for graphing calculators in terms of units, according to research firm NPD Group.
Traditional graphing calculators, which are required for certain math classes and are used for college entrance exams, plot algebra and trigonometry on small screens and do a bit of programming. The Nspire has an operating system that makes the device run more like a PC, allowing students and teachers to run spreadsheets and take notes.
For some users the Nspire is too high-tech. "It sings, it dances, it does the dishes for you," said math tutor and retired teacher Lucinda MacKinnon, who owns an Nspire. "I can't imagine getting teachers to use that thing in the classroom. There is way too much going on."
Some calculator fans say they prefer the older models because the Nspire's operating system and other features limit users from creating the types of programs they have designed and shared in the past.
"In all the other calculators they have always encouraged programming," said Michael Vincent, a law student and calculator enthusiast who helps run the Web site ticalc.org . The site offers free downloadable programs and games students can put on their TI devices, a popular time-waster in high schools.
Mr. Vincent, who at one point owned 14 TI calculators, said the Nspire offers new interactive ways of solving math problems, but limits the computer languages that can be used to write programs.
Last year, 29-year-old programmer Gabor Nagy released a graphing calculator app for Apple /zigman2/quotes/202934861/composite AAPL +0.48% Inc.'s iPhone and iPod touch. In the first five months, a free version was downloaded by 1.2 million users, he said, and a version that costs 99 cents has sold more than 45,000 copies.