In the December 2014 issue of AccessWorld, we took a look at the Orion TI-84 Plus Talking Graphing Calculator from the American Printing House for the Blind, an accessible version of the standard TI-84 calculator used in many high schools and colleges. Now, the American Printing House for the Blind (APH), Orbit Research, and Texas Instruments have teamed up again to produce a second accessible handheld calculator, the Orion TI-30XS MultiView Talking Scientific Calculator for elementary and middle school students. Recently, I had the opportunity to put this calculator through its paces. Full disclosure: The last time I opened a trigonometry textbook handheld calculators weren't commercially available. It wasn't until 1980 (ten years after that trig class), that I got my first talking calculator, a Sharp EL-620, which did addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and—impressive at the time--even square roots.

The Orion TI-30XS MultiView Talking Scientific Calculator

The new Orion TI-30XS costs $399 (the older Orion TI-84 Plus costs $599), and closely resembles the standard, non-accessible version of the same calculator. In fact, the only two visible differences between the accessible and standard TI-30XS are a slightly thicker back cover, and where the standard model has a solar charger, the Orion version has a row of three access keys (described later in this article).

The Orion TI-30XS comes with the standard clip-on front cover, along with a slide cover that more completely protects the calculator from backpack jostling and other potential damage. A USB charging cable and wall adapter are also provided in the box, along with a pair of ear buds, quick-start documentation in large print and braille, and complete digital documentation on an included thumb drive.

Using the TI-30XS: A Hands-On Tour

As mentioned, the Orion TI-30XS includes a row of three accessibility keys instead of a solar panel. Other than this replacement, the unit is identical to the standard model on the keypad face, sides, and bottom edges. The middle of the back face extends about a half inch, and there is an audio jack to the left and a USB port to the right along the top edge,. The USB port charges both the calculator and the accessibility functions. The battery, replaceable with the help of a screwdriver, is rated to last four to five years.

The Orion TI-30XS includes a 4-line, 13-character display, versus the 8-line, 14-character display of the TI-84 Plus. This is not a significant limitation, however, as you can use the review keys to scroll in any direction. The Orion TI-30XS also lacks graphic capabilities and haptic feedback, but it does offer table mode calculations and the ability to accessibly review them. The calculator can display in both Classic and Math Print views, but only the Classic view is speech accessible. The Orion TI-30XS does not offer braille display output.

Speech Functionality

The three accessibility buttons run horizontally across the top of the unit. From left to right they are the Access (labeled "A") key, the Silence/Learn ("S/L") key, and the Repeat ("R") key. To me this layout represents the epitome of simplicity and elegance. No bypass keys need to be used to make the unit accessible. Consequently, a teacher of students with visual impairments can teach a blind student how to make her calculator talk, then get out of the way and let the math teacher do her job without the student needing to know about special adaptive commands that might get in the way of hands-on instruction.

The Repeat Key

This key repeats the calculator's last utterance. Press it once to repeat the last spoken feedback. Press and hold the Repeat key to voice the entire screen. Press the Access key followed by the Repeat key to voice the screen character by character. Unfortunately even the word "Blank," which denotes a blank line, is voiced one character at a time.

The Silence/Learn Key

Tap this key at any time to temporarily silence the calculator's spoken feedback. Speech returns with the next key press, the same as after using a CTRL key on a computer with a screen reader.

Press the Access key followed by the S/L key to turn off speech completely. This is a useful feature when the student wishes to share her calculator with a teacher, parent, or fellow student. Press the S/L key again to turn accessibility back on.

The Orion offers a Learn mode, which is toggled on and off by pressing and holding the S/L key. With Learn mode enabled, pressing any key prompts the calculator to announce that key's label. Here, APH distinguishes between the function of a key and its label. For example, the Orion voices "N over D" instead of "fraction," and "H Y P" instead of "hyperbolic function." This may take a little extra learning in the beginning, but this holds true for sighted users as well, and, once learned, the blind student will likely feel more at home using the same labels as their classmates.

The Access Key

The Access key is the leftmost key on the top row. Holding it down summons the Orion's voice settings. The Up and Down keys now set the speech volume—there are ten settings—while the Left and Right keys adjust the speed to one of five levels. The Orion TI-30XS uses a studio recorded female voice, the same voice used in APH's Book Port Plus, which I found extremely clear and easy to understand.

One last voice setting, pressing the 0 (zero) key, toggles the voicing of the apostrophe. With this feature enabled, the calculator is supposed to voice a tic between rows and columns of a table as the user scrolls up and down, left and right. This sound refused to play on the unit I tested, even after I reset the calculator several times by holding down the Power and Clear buttons at the same time.

Another minor voice issue I experienced was the Delete key. The letter to the left of the calculator is supposed to be announced when the Delete key is pressed. The unit I tested almost always voiced simply "delete." This and the apostrophe voicing glitch both seem like simple software bugs that can be addressed in a future firmware update.

Finally, giving the Access key a quick press puts the user into Access mode. The Left and Right keys now review one character at a time; the Up and Down keys one line at a time. The 4 and 6 keys move you to the beginning and end of a line respectively, while the 8 and 2 keys move to the top and bottom of the display. Access mode uses a review cursor that does not move your actual calculator cursor. However pressing the 5 key will route your calculator cursor to the review cursor, at which time you can turn off review mode with another press of the Access key and edit your formula.

The Access key also offers additional information. Starting from the Power button on the lower left of the unit and working up, this includes battery charge percentage, available modes (including scientific, degrees, and floating point), firmware version, serial number, and charging status-on/off.

Performing Calculations

Between the key announcement and the review features, I found the Orion TI-30XS completely accessible, save the Delete key issue I mentioned above. The documentation is thorough, and presents several word problems the user can practice on. Needless to say, I am not smarter than a fourth-grader: I could only solve the easiest of these problems. Happily, the documentation follows each problem with a keystroke-by-keystroke solution, which I was able to mimic, making frequent use of the Orion's Learn mode and display review. I do wish APH would add a second Learn mode that offered a more complete description. Perhaps with Learn mode enabled, a single press of a key could voice its name, a second press could offer a brief description. After all, "X Y Z T A B C" and "S T O right arrowhead" could use a bit of explaining, especially to a blind student who doesn't have a quickly accessible printed key function cheat sheet available.

That said, I do commend Orbit Research and APH for creating an accessible solution that only marginally differs in size and appearance from the standard model. This benefits not only the sight-impaired math scholar herself but also the educator, who won't have to learn too many extra keys or worry about special shortcuts that are sometimes too easy to invoke.

Summing Up

Many visually impaired individuals find that various standard computer and mobile calculators do everything they need. Unfortunately, students do not always have the opportunity to use these types of calculators, especially when being tested. After all, how easy would it be to "stray off the straight and narrow" if the mobile device on your desk had access to text messaging, Google, or WolframAlpha?

Even some basic handheld calculators can perform extremely complex calculations. Consequently, most school districts not only prohibit mobile devices during tests, they also set limits on which handheld calculators can be used, or require the device have a special "test mode" that disables certain types of calculations.

The Orion TI-30XS may be approved as an accessible accommodation for students taking the SAT, ACT, and AP classes. (Parents and teachers: you will need to have this calculator approved as an accommodation for use on assessments. Ask the assessment or test coordinator for assistance with this process.)

The Orion TI-30XS is aimed at upper elementary and middle school students. Likely as not, these students have not yet decided if they might wish to pursue a STEM career. However, having access to the same handheld calculators as their classmates can only help to broaden a sight-impaired student's horizons, options, and opportunities.

Product Information

Product: Orion TI-30XS MultiView Talking Scientific Calculator
Available from: Orbit Research,888-606-7248, and American Printing House for the Blind, 800-223-1839
Price: $399

Comment on this article.

Related articles:

More from this author:

Bill Holton
Article Topic
Product Evaluations and Guides