Understanding HP’s New Flagship, the HP Prime
I feel like I need to start this review with a big of explanation. In my experience trolling message boards, HP seems to have a very loyal (is rabid too strong a word?) fan base for their calculators, possibly the most loyal fans among the “big 3″ calculator makers of HP, Casio, and TI. HP fans are very knowledgeable consumers and a highly technical crew. I’m probably overgeneralizing, but it seems like a large percentage of them are engineers, financial types, and others who posses a very strong understanding of mathematics. And as a rule, they love, love, love HP’s implementation of RPN (Reverse Polish Notation).
As a high school educator, I come at graphing calculators from a slightly different angle. I am obviously interested in a using a graphing calculator that will provide power for the future engineers and wizards of Wall Street. After all, I’ve taught numerous honors classes and AP classes, and I love coaching my school’s math team. But as important to me as reaching those top students is, I also need a device that will connect well with the larger masses of students whose future plans involve substantially less mathematics. When HP let me know they were going to provide me a review unit so I could do an HP Prime review, I knew that’s the direction I wanted to come at it. Would this new touch screen calculator have an accessible user interface for all students while providing the kinds of features that I know I’d want to have available to teach with in my classroom?
Designed for Students and Teachers
After spending a couple of weeks with the Prime for this review, the answer is clearly yes. Before I dive into the details of what I liked about the HP Prime, let me just point out a few of the features that HP has included on the Prime that are clearly targeted at teachers and students.
- Numerous included educational apps such as dynamic geometry, quadratic and trigonometric equation solvers, a triangle solver, and many others. I experimented with the app system quite a bit and found it to be very intuitive to use as a teaching and learning tool. The touch screen interface definitely enhanced it.
- An optional add-on wireless system for distributing quizzes and polls, performing screen captures, putting student calculators into exam mode, and so student calculators can be used on the class Smart Board.
- DataStreamer, an app which allows the HP Prime to interact with over 50 Fourier sensors for data collection.
I didn’t get a chance to try out the wireless system or DataStreamer but was excited to learn about them. These are the kinds of features that HP needed to offer to make the Prime a real alternative to the TI-Nspire, since Texas Instruments has been great about making these kinds of important “extras” available to educators in recent years.
What I Like About the HP Prime
There is so much to say here. First, there is the hardware itself. The HP Prime is a thin, sturdy device. It features a brushed metal plate covering the bottom half of the front of the calculator, while the top half is black. It’s a striking design; even the cover that protects the Prime looks great. The Prime uses a rechargeable battery which charges via a micro-usb cable. I found that I needed to recharge it at about one week intervals, with moderate use.
Of course, the number one question most people will have is about the touch interface. Obviously, this is one of the main selling points for this device, what sets it apart from the current Texas Instruments and Casio models. I loved it. I found that there was a little bit of a learning curve that went along with it at first because I had to get comfortable with when to use the touch screen and when to use physical buttons. The Prime often displays a row of “soft buttons” along the bottom of the screen to access features relevant to whatever application you are working with. I am so used to the TI-84 Plus that I found myself thinking I needed to press the hard button just below those soft buttons, like the 84′s F1-F5 keys. Once I stopped being so dense and started using the Prime’s interface the way it was designed, though, it worked splendidly.
It’s often the little things that the touch interface makes easier. The soft buttons that I already mentioned are great. The touch screen makes using drop down menus so much easier than a keypad when you are changing settings. Navigating cells on a spreadsheet is faster. I also really liked being able to quickly make subtle adjustments to the viewing window by dragging it horizontally or vertically to see more of a function that would otherwise be off screen.
Speaking of graphing, the HP Prime excels at it. The Prime is capable of graphing just about any type of equation written in terms of x and y you can dream up without the need for any special templates. Many other handheld calculators require workarounds to handle vertical lines, circles, conic sections, and equations written in terms of y. The Prime handles these and far more complicated equations with ease.
The Prime is a CAS (Computer Algebra System) calculator, meaning it can perform operations on variables, not just numbers. In other words, it knows that x+x is 2x. Of course, this is just the beginning as it can factor, solve equations, find integrals, and do much more with its CAS features. The Prime OS handles the CAS a little differently from most calculators, though. Pressing the home button takes you to a calculator interface that doesn’t have access to the CAS features. Pressing the CAS button takes you to a nearly identical looking calculator interface that does have those features. In addition to CAS features, when in the CAS interface, by default, the Prime returns exact values for fractions and radicals, something that it doesn’t do from the home screen, where those values are returned as decimals. You can hop back and forth between the two interfaces at any time, and there’s even a feature that let’s you quickly grab values from one to paste into the other. It’s kind of like having a TI-Nspire CX and a TI-Nspire CX CAS in the same calculator.
Like most other modern calculators, by default the HP Prime does use “pretty print,” meaning fractions look like fractions, exponents look like exponents, and so on. I’ve found this really helps students since they spend less time learning to use the calculator interface and more time learning math.
The HP Prime also makes good use of drop down and pop up menu interfaces. This is another thing that my students have come to expect after years of practice with computer interfaces. As I alluded to earlier, it does help to be able to navigate the menus by either the touch screen or by the keypad.
I’ve been playing with the Prime for a couple of weeks now, and I’ve found lots of nice little touches. In the spreadsheet app, you can automatically resize column width by double tapping the column border. You can also change the background color of cells. I really like how the Prime handles matrices larger than 2×2. A 2×2 matrix is loaded with blanks for each entry, but with a “plus or minus” entry at the end of each row or column. Just pressing the + or – sign in one of those entries will add a row or column. These types of small bonuses left me continually exploring the HP Prime’s user interface for more great little features.
What Left Me Wanting More
I was very impressed with what the Prime had to offer, but there were a few things I couldn’t find a way to do that I wanted to be able to. I don’t want to dwell to much on these features because none of them are “make or break” for me, and they could easily be added in future updates to the HP Prime operating system. Adding features in OS updates has become common practice among the graphing calculator manufacturers. Nonetheless, here are the features that don’t seem to be present in the Prime that I feel would enhance the experience:
- “Pinch to zoom” in graph mode–If you are used to Android or iOS, you’re going to expect to be able to pinch-zoom in or out in graphing mode, but the HP Prime can’t do that–yet. The Prime does have multitouch “pinch” capabilities that really shine in some of its other apps like the trig explorer, and HP officials told me that they are planning to add pinch to zoom in a later update to the Prime OS.
- Maybe I just need more practice with it, but the dynamic geometry touch interface wasn’t very intuitive to me. The app requires the user to continuously switch between tapping the screen and clicking the enter button, and I just found it kind of awkward. I wish I could have selected items by long pressing them as with Android or iOS rather than using the enter button. It really is amazing how much just a few years of smartphone use has shaped our expectations of a touch screen environment.
- 3D graphing–At this time, the Prime doesn’t feature 3D graphing, although it sounds like this feature is on the way as well.
- Picture graphing–The Prime doesn’t presently seem to have any way to load photographs and graph on them. Other recent color graphing calculator releases like the Casio Prizm and TI-Nspire CX do, and while this is more of a luxury than a must have, it’d still be a nice feature to see added.
The one other concern for students I have is that the HP Prime doesn’t currently College Board approval for use on the SAT or AP tests. An HP official told me that the Prime “is being evaluated at this time” by the College Board. Let’s hope the College Board gets this one right and approves the Prime. It will be a shame if they don’t.
Bottom Line HP Prime Review
The HP Prime is an excellent graphing calculator that breaks new ground. Two years ago, Casio showed us what color a full color display could mean for a graphing calculator with the Casio Prizm. Now, the HP Prime blazes new trails with a multi-touch screen, and while the implementation is missing a feature or two I wish was there in the initial release, it’s still revolutionary. The calculator is well designed for teaching and learning, and I’d love to enthusiastically recommend it for teacher and students. However, until we learn whether the College Board will abandon their outdated policy of automatically banning touch screen calculators from the SAT and AP exams, I’m reluctantly forced to take a wait and see approach with the Prime.
I hope the College Board will do the right thing and approve the HP Prime because there is no way I can be convinced that its touch screen offers any inherent advantage over other calculators like the TI-Nspire CAS or TI-89 Titanium. It’s the right thing to do because HP has created an great device for students, one that potentially raises the level of expectations for their competitors. If you want to pick up the HP Prime for yourself, I suggest you pick it up by following this link to eBay, where it is selling at a very competitive price.