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How to Buy a Calculator

By Kathleen Cantor, 30 Jul 2021

A good calculator can be the difference between a great math class and a stressful one, especially for high school and college-level coursework. We aren't talking about your standard calculator either. We mean the kinds that can figure algorithms quickly, do away with the tedious algebra and graphing work, and provide more accurate results.

But with so many calculator options out there, it can be difficult to find the best one. Worry not, though! You're not alone. Even professional architects and engineers still face challenges in figuring out what their best choices are.

Here's how to buy the best calculator for you.

Understand What You're Studying

Take a look at your curriculum and assess your needs. Do you need graphing and trigonometric capabilities? Are you in a field of study that requires everything from calculus to basic arithmetic, like accounting? Do you need one to take you through as many classes as possible—here's looking at you, math majors. Or is this a one-off purchase for that required math course in high school? Whatever the case, look into what you'll be studying and go from there.

What Kind Do I Need?

For every purpose, there is a calculator—but some are better than others for the kind of math you can expect to do in high school and college. Generally speaking, you'll want to stay away from simple function calculators. These calculators can perform quick arithmetic but can't handle advanced exponents, trig, and science applications. Instead, look for scientific and graphing calculators.

Multifunction Scientific Calculators

Scientific calculators can't handle calculus, but they are great for performing science-based math and more intermediate-level equations. You'll find it handy for these concepts:

  • Trigonometry
  • Logarithms
  • Probability
  • Exponents
  • Engineering, chemistry, and physics

Not only can a good scientific calculator help you to handle your schoolwork, but it can also last for over 30 years. Treat it well, and you won't need a replacement anytime soon.

Identifying the best multifunction scientific calculator is easy. Simply look for these two buttons: "2nd" and "3rd". These extra buttons give you access to additional complex mathematical functions. With a 3-function scientific calculator, you can perform precalculus and calculus functions. A 2-function calculator works just fine; you just may not have the ability to perform all calc-related equations. The Casio FX series is a trusted brand in this category.

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Graphing Calculators

Graphing calculators—the envy of every student, math inclined or not—are great for:

  • Precalculus
  • Calculus
  • ACT/ SAT

With all the features that come with graphing calculators, there is a definite learning curve. However, given how important they are, you can master these functions with the help of your instructor. You can also opt for a beginner-friendly graphing calculator.

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For example, the TI-83 Plus is a classic. This graphing calculator is user-friendly and generally recommended for high school students.

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The TI-84 Plus CE is better for college students.


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The TI-89 Titanium is the best option for advanced users but not recommended for high school students due to the wide array of options and complexity of functions.

Essential Calculator Features

1. Solar Versus Battery Powered Calculators

Most teachers advise their students to opt for solar-powered calculators instead of battery-powered ones because of the obvious reason—you don't want your calculator to die in the middle of a math test! Solar-powered calculators are also more durable, with some having a lifespan of over 30 years.

However, battery-powered calculators are still as effective and durable. You most likely won't be in high school or college for 30 years anyway. Pick an option that works for you. Look at the packaging for solar or battery-powered—they are usually always labeled.

2. Processor for Performance

The processor of your calculator will determine how fast it works. Processors for graphing calculators are measured in megahertz. An ordinary calculator with an average processor will work for a high school student. However, for college students who require immediate results, picking a calculator with a faster processor is a wise idea.

3. Screen Display

The screen display is a matter of personal choice. The results will be the same whether you pick a calculator with a monochrome screen or a colored screen. However, many students opt for colored screens and bigger display graphing calculators. For instance, the TI-Nspire has some great displays and resolutions.


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4. Pricing

Price is always a factor, isn't it? Finding a good graphing calculator for a price under $70 is tricky. And when you find one, you do get what you pay for.

Good calculators are an investment. However, prices change depending on the type of technology the calculator uses and how many functions it can perform. You can find a mid-range unit that will work just fine for a class or two. But, shell out the money for a top-rate one if you plan on using it a lot. It's a worthy investment.

The Key Takeaway

Whether you opt for a scientific calculator or a graphing calculator, consider its processor, battery life, screen display, and price. But what's most important is that your calculator does what you need it to do. Need a reliable calculus or SAT calculator? Go for a graphing calculator. Are you working with intermediate math and scientific concepts? Multifunctional scientific calculators are the way to go.


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  1. Use simple calculator-like input in the following format (surround your math in backticks, or qq on tablet or phone):
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