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Time to buy your kid their first graphing calculator? Here's everything you need to know

It’s been a while since most parents were in school. That means they may have forgotten about certain tools they used in class, such as graphing calculators. This can make purchasing your student’s first graphing calculator seem complicated, but it’s not.

There are really only a few key things you need to know before purchasing your kid their first graphing calculator. Here’s everything you need to know so you can buy with confidence.

The six different types of calculators

Four-function calculators

The most basic calculator only performs simple functions, such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Arguably, these are functions you should be able to do in your head. However, when the numbers are large, time is a factor, there is a long list of numbers or there are a lot of decimal places, a basic calculator can be invaluable.

Scientific calculator

Once the calculations move beyond basic functions, the calculator is called a scientific calculator. These models can handle complex equations and are required for more advanced mathematics classes, such as algebra and trigonometry.

Graphing calculator

In general, a graphing calculator is the most advanced type of handheld calculator. Not only can it perform all the basic calculations of a scientific calculator, but it can handle complex equations and has internal storage. However, the key feature that makes a graphing calculator different from other models is its graphing capabilities.

Printing calculator

The problem with most calculators is you have no record of your calculations. A printing calculator lets you print out all numbers and calculations so you have a physical record.

Financial calculator

If you work with money, a financial calculator is the best type of calculator for you. These calculators stand out because they are specifically made to solve financial problems. A financial calculator isn’t used for solving complex scientific equations with multiple variables, it is used to calculate mortgage payments, interest rates, cash flows and more. 

Online calculator

If you rarely require a calculator, you can solve many mathematical problems simply by typing the equation into your browser's search bar. Unfortunately, the more complex the equation is, the less likely you will get an immediate answer. You may be directed to a site that explains how to solve the equation rather than just giving you an answer.

When does a student need a graphing calculator?

As a student progresses deeper and deeper into advanced math classes in high school and college, a graphing calculator becomes a necessity. A graphing calculator may be useful as early as pre-algebra. By the time the student is studying algebra, geometry or trigonometry, a graphing calculator will come in handy. Before purchasing one, it is best to check with the teacher to make sure a graphing calculator is recommended and allowed in the class.

Graphing calculator features

There are four general areas you need to consider when purchasing a graphing calculator.

Does it meet course and test requirements?

If you are buying a calculator for your child’s class, it needs to meet the requirements of that class. If your child will be continuing studies in mathematics or science, it is best to get a model that meets the needs of their most advanced class. This way, you’ll only need to purchase one graphing calculator. Don’t forget to check if the calculator you are considering is appropriate for exams, as well. 

Is the screen display adequate?

Screens can be large or small. They can have monochrome or color displays. It is even possible to purchase calculators that have 3D graphics or feature real images. While high-end displays are very appealing, most times they are a matter of preference.

Do you need any advanced features?

An advanced feature is anything that is beyond the typical needs of a graphing calculator. It can be a variety of graph styles and colors, additional software, animated graphing, touch screen functionality, spreadsheet capabilities and more.

How is the battery performance?

Most models will feature a built-in rechargeable battery. For most users, this is more desirable (and less expensive) than purchasing batteries separately. Additionally, you will want to pay attention to how long the battery lasts. As rechargeable batteries get older, their performance diminishes.


Q. What is the difference between a scientific calculator and a graphing calculator?

A. While there are other differences, the primary feature that makes a graphing calculator different from a scientific calculator is its ability to render a graph on its display.

Q. Can a graphing calculator be used on standardized tests?

A. It is impossible to give a definitive answer to this question because different graphing calculators have different features. While many are permitted on the PSAT, SAT, AP and ACT exams, not all are. It is important to view the list of acceptable calculators so you’ll know for certain if your particular model is permitted.

Q. Why hasn’t the price of graphing calculators come down?

A. The cost of technology tends to dramatically decrease because new versions come out, making the demand for older models drop off. Graphing calculators are still in high demand because there is simply no other option for many educational purposes. Because of this, the price tends to remain the same from year to year. 

Best graphing calculators

Texas Instruments TI-84 Plus CE

This is the most popular graphing calculator. It has a color display, an impressive battery and 12 software applications for enhanced performance.

Where to buy: Sold by Staples

Texas Instruments CXII TI-Nspire CAS

If you want the most powerful handheld graphing calculator available, this is the one to get. If you intend to use this calculator for tests, make sure it is allowed, as this model is not approved for all standardized testing.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon (with student software) and Staples

Casio fx-CG500

This groundbreaking graphing calculator has a high-resolution touch screen that features a tap and drag operation. It is suitable for everything from geometry and statistics to vector analysis and engineering applications.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

Texas Instruments TI-84 PLUS CAS

This is TI’s top model minus the color-enhanced display. It requires four AAA batteries and is a versatile model that is suitable for math, science and business applications.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon and Staples

Casio Prizm FX-CG50

This Casio calculator produces 3D color graphs and has editing capabilities and a natural textbook display. The icon-driven menu system is intuitive and easy to use.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon and Staples

Casio FX-9750GIII

If you are looking for value and are satisfied with a low-resolution screen, this model packs the most value. It has a long-lasting battery, a solid case, a wide range of functionality and is affordable.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon and Staples

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Allen Foster writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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