Texas Instruments Is Nerfing the Best Part About Graphing Calculators

By Victoria Song on at

In high school, I had an intense love affair with my graphing calculator, a silver transparent TI-83 Plus. Not only did it help me with my maths homework, it was also a handy way to play classic games like Tetris and Snake during class and still look like I was paying attention. Now, it appears that Texas Instruments is removing support for programs written in assembly or C on some of its most popular calculators.

Basically, TI Education has disabled assembly, or ASM, with its latest OS 5.5.1 software update. It also prevents a user from downgrading their OS, meaning once you update, there’s no going back. Among the calculators impacted are the TI-83 Premium CE, the TI-84 Plus CE, and the TI-83 Plus CE-T, according to a customer support email shared on the TI-Planet forum. Initially spotted by Cemetech via the Verge, the news came as a shock to hobbyists, who often use the calculators as a gateway programming device.

To be fair, the change is reportedly an attempt to stop wily students with a bit of programming knowledge from cheating on standardised tests. According to Linus Tech Tips, a viral YouTube video made by a student and teacher showing how to bypass Test Mode restrictions also possibly played into the decision. Though, to be fair, it’s not exactly clear that removing access to native code will do much to prevent cheating, as you can still find workarounds. But while assembly and C support is effectively dead going forward, hobbyists will still be able to program on the calculators with Python and TI-BASIC. (Never mind the fact that both these languages are slower, more power intensive, and therefore not ideal for the medium.)

While I haven’t used a TI-83 in years, loading ASM games onto it was an intrinsic part of high school – and one of my first forays into exploring how programming could take a relatively simple gadget and turn into it something fun. Dodging overzealous teachers during exams was also nerve-wracking. I distinctly remember holding my breath every time a certain calculus teacher would walk down my aisle, asking me to hand over my precious TI-83 for inspection. It wasn’t because I, a perfect paragon of teenage morality, had programmed cheat sheets with various formulas onto my calculator. Pfft. Not me. (Okay, maybe once, but physics was hard.) Mostly, I worried about the collection of games I’d stored there and the effort of getting all of them back on there if a teacher or proctor forced me to wipe my calculator.

It was also a fun icebreaker to make friends with my fellow nerds. You’d walk into class and see a fellow dork playing a new-ish game on their TI-83 or 84. As soon as class was over, you’d go, “Hey, psst. How’d you get that on your calculator?” Boom. New friend, new game, new appreciation for why programming could be a neat thing to get into.

In the grand scheme of things, this might not be a big to-do. Yeah, education and academic honesty are important – and for fun, you can still download TI-BASIC and Python games. That said, I can’t help but feel like it’s also stifling creativity, even if some of that creativity is being used to cheat. While these calculators might not be super expensive for hobbyists, who could buy another device or just never update their calculator firmware, it does curtail students with limited budgets. I could barely afford a new TI-83 in high school, and I definitely wouldn’t have been able to buy a second one just to experiment with programming. And while my programming career was cut short by my utter lack of talent, it was still something that informed my interest in gadgets and an experience I appreciate to this day.

I guess we’ll just have to go back to typing 5318008 and flipping calculators upside down for fun.

Featured image: AP Images