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Welcome to Cemetech's Back-to-School guide to graphing calculators. This article is Part 1 of 3; in Part 2, I'll discuss putting games and educational programs on your calculator, while in Part 3, we'll look at how you can use your calculator to learn to program. It's been nearly a year since Cemetech's 2011 Back-to-School guide, in which I recommended the TI-84+ Silver Edition for high school students and a TI-84+SE, Casio Prizm, or TI-89 for college students, depending on their field and personal interests. What about this year? What calculator should you get, and what accessories will you need to help you get the most from your purchase? Don't worry, as Cemetech has you covered. I'll help you pick the best calculator for yourself, your child, or your students.

As you may know, Texas Instruments currently holds the lion's share of the graphing calculator market, and has the most widely-recognized lines of graphing calculators. Casio fills in as the second-place contender, with HP a distant third. I'll take you through four majority categories of calculators that you might be interested in getting: the TI-84 Plus Silver Edition, the TI-89, the Casio Prizm, and the TI-Nspire CX. All four of these calculators are accepted on standardized tests like the SAT and the ACT (with one exception). All four are powerful, (relatively) modern graphing calculators, and with a few small caveats, all would be appropriate for the average student. However, even among these top contenders, the playing field is hardly level.


:: The erstwhile TI-84 Plus Silver Edition, often written TI-84+SE, is the direct successor to the TI-83, TI-83+, TI-83+SE, and TI-84+ graphing calculators. It is the top of that particular line, with a 15MHz processor, 24KB of RAM, and 2MB of Flash ROM (1.5MB of which is available to you). The TI-83+ / TI-84+ series (or TI-83 Plus / TI-84 Plus series, if you prefer) is inarguably the most-used set of graphing calculators around. Most high school teachers recommend it, and even many college professors prefer it over alternatives. It has a large body of math textbooks, tutorials, and programming guides backing it, not to mention that teachers and many students are already very familiar with the calculator. When in doubt, especially if you or your child is a high school student (or even younger), the TI-84 Plus Silver Edition is the way to go. If its roughly $120 price tag is too dear for you, you can find the TI-83 Plus for as little as $80 or $90 with sales, and it omits very few of the TI-84 Plus Silver Edition's features. The main exception is the ability to run Texas Instruments' new MathPrint (MP) operating systems, which though useful for visualizing math have been roundly criticized for being rushed and buggy. The quintessential calculator for high school math and science, still applicable in many college courses.

:: For more advanced math, the TI-89 Titanium is a good choice. If you or your student is interested in math, science, or engineering, or is entering a math-heavy college major, this is probably the right calculator for him or her. While the TI-83 Plus / TI-84 Plus series can solve numerical expressions and do 2D graphing, the TI-89 can solve symbolic expressions and do 3D graphing. It can do symbolic differentiation and integration, both important features for many higher math and engineering courses where the ability to memorize differentials and integrals is no longer the focus. While its features are applicable to any level of math, its power and sophistication are likely to make high school teachers hesitant to accept it in classes and exams. Caveat: The ACT exam inexplicably does not allow the TI-89 series. The SAT allows it. The TI-89 Titanium runs between $120 and $140. Perfect for higher-level college math, science, and engineering courses.


:: The first semi-modern, color screen graphing calculator was the Casio Prizm, now about a year and a half old. The Prizm, also known as the Casio fxCG-10 (in North America) or fxCG-20 (in Europe), has a powerful processor, lots of RAM, and a widescreen 384 x 216-pixel LCD. It is good for high school and some college math. The Prizm has a feature similar to the TI-84 Plus's MathPrint to display equations closer to how a textbook might print them. It can solve equations, do trig and algebra, graph 2D and 3D equations, manipulate spreadsheets, and investigate geometric relationships. Casio is particularly proud of its Picture Plot function, which lets you plot a series of points over a photograph and fit a line to the points, revealing the math of the real world. The Prizm is particularly excellent for students looking to learn programming, offering BASIC, open C programming, and soon, a Lua interpreter. It runs about $120 to $130, and is a great choice for high school students, some college students, and especially programmers. A simple, modern color-screen graphing calculator for high school students and programmers.

:: Last of all, the TI-Nspire CX is the latest in TI's Nspire product line. The TI-Nspire and TI-Nspire CAS had 4-bit grayscale screens, while the TI-Nspire CX and the TI-Nspire CX CAS have color screens, like their predecessor the Casio Prizm. The CAS varieties have symbolic Computer Algebra Systems, like the TI-89, while the non-CAS versions are more like the TI-84+SE in terms of features and target audience. The TI-Nspire's operating system is based around the idea of Documents, in which you type calculations, enter equations, and draw graphs. It has templates for linear, parabolic, circular, elliptical, and hyperbolic equations in which you can enter coefficients and graph the result. The OS has a "Scratchpad" for quick calculations, and like the TI-84 Plus series, variables shared between the calculation and graph modes. It can perform all of the trig functions you need for math classes. You can name your own variables, and are thus not limited to the A-Z variables of the TI-84 Plus, and variables are "linked" with graphs so that when you change a variable, a graph that uses the variable will be updated as well. The Nspire tries to emulate computer interfaces in that, for example, ctrl-C copies text. The TI-Nspire originally had almost no programming features, though at least partly due to widespread outcry, they relented. The TI-Nspire CX has a primitive BASIC language and a slightly more advanced Lua implementation. On the downside, anecdotal evidence suggests that the latest operating system version is rife with bugs, and noticeably slower than previous versions. You cannot run native C programs, and Texas Instruments works to actively block any loopholes that allow native programs to run. The TI-Nspire is between $160 and $180, depending on whether you get the CAS or non-CAS model. A late entry to the graphing calculator race, a color screen calculator centered around the idea of "Documents". Good for some high school students.

The Final Verdict:
Picking a graphing calculator was for a long time a no-brainer; you simply chose the latest in the TI-83 Plus / TI-84 Plus series. With more choices appearing and more options available to consumers, a better but more confusing selection now confronts students, parents, and even teachers. The bottom line is that if you already have a TI-83 Plus or TI-84 Plus (or Silver Edition), there are very few reasons to trade up to a more expensive calculator. It's still sufficiently feature-filled for all but the highest math classes, for which you might want a TI-89 Titanium. If you are looking to get a new calculator, your or your child's teachers may recommend a TI-84 Plus or a TI-Nspire CX, in which case you should follow their advice. Remember, all four models mentioned herein are accepted on the SAT and ACT tests, so none win or lose on that count. For high school students getting a new calculator, the TI-84 Plus Silver Edition is the best choice, while the Casio Prizm and the TI-Nspire CX are secondary options. The Casio Prizm is a modern color screen calculator with the simplicity of the TI-84 Plus, while the TI-Nspire goes off in a new direction with its interface. As it has locked-down programming features, we in the programming community often criticize it, but it is a powerful math tool. Both the Nspire and the Prizm have color 2D and 3D graphs, algebra, trig, and geometry features.

If you're looking to take college higher math, science, or engineering classes, the TI-89 Titanium or the TI-Nspire CX CAS are the calculator for you. The Casio Prizm may also be useful, as the community is working on building symbolic CAS features, but such features are currently imcomplete. Finally, if you're a programmer, or you want to encourage your student to be a programmer, the Casio Prizm or the TI-84 Plus Silver Edition are the best options. Both allow BASIC and assembly programming, while the Prizm also allows open native C programs and Lua programs.

Good luck with the hectic rush that is Back to School, and I hope this guide helped make at least one decision easier. Be sure to join us in Part 2 of this guide, where I will be discussing getting programs and games for your graphing calculator and how to load said programs and games onto the TI-83 Plus/84 Plus or Casio Prizm.
Great article and very detailed. I already have most of these calcs, so I don't really need to know which one to buy, but it's definitely nice for back-to-school-type people. However, why is the TI-84 Plus Silver Edition "erstwhile"?
merthsoft wrote:
Great article and very detailed. I already have most of these calcs, so I don't really need to know which one to buy, but it's definitely nice for back-to-school-type people. However, why is the TI-84 Plus Silver Edition "erstwhile"?
Erstwhile in that it has been around for a (relatively) long time, longer than any of the other calculators on this list, and is a dependable choice. I see that the dictionary definition is slightly different than what I had in my head, so I will probably modify that word. Smile Thanks, Merth.
By the way, aren't the CAS models such as the TI-89 and TI-Nspire CAS banned from certain tests due to having a CAS or does that only apply to calcs with a Qwerty keyboard?
DJ_O wrote:
By the way, aren't the CAS models such as the TI-89 and TI-Nspire CAS banned from certain tests due to having a CAS or does that only apply to calcs with a Qwerty keyboard?
That only applies to models with a QWERTY keyboard. For tests like the SAT and the ACT, the math is sufficiently "simple" that having a CAS doesn't give you an advantage.
This actually came up a couple weeks ago, and I thought the same thing. It turns out the TI-89 is not allowed on the ACT. I think this is a recent change? At least it was allowed back in '05/'06.
Hi all,

First post.

My daughter is entering 10th grade and asked me to purchase a graphing calculator (she does not recall any specific recommendation from the teacher)

I wholeheartedly agree with

Quote:
With more choices appearing and more options available to consumers, a better but more confusing selection now confronts students, parents, and even teachers.


I thought that this would be a simple task, just get the most powerful and sophisticated calculator which will make her schooling the best and most importantly the easiest.

But it seems that some of the more sophisticated calculators are not allowed (or features must be disabled) on some exams, which make the purchasing task a bit more challenging :-)

So after doing quite a bit of research but before stumbling on this article, I was going to get the Casio Prizm fx-CG10, about $80 from Amazon. (compared to $120 for either the TI-Nspire w/Touchpad or the TI-84)

She is planning to take IB (http://ibo.org) which means that any calculator with CAS (and the TI-89) is not allowed, and that even the non-CAS TI-Nspire have to be neutered by putting them into test mode

http://www.riomesahigh.us/departments/academics/wp-content/uploads/use-calculator.pdf

So it seems that the Casio Prizm which is allowed on all (SAT/AP/ACT/IB) exams, without disabling of features was going to be the best. Mostly for its hi res color and its apparent easy of use. (not as much for its programming ability, even though I am software engineer...), and also considering the cheaper price.

http://www.casioeducation.com/resource/prizm/doc/PRIZM_Comparison_Chart.pdf
http://www.casioeducation.com/resource/prizm/features/index.html

But now after reading this, I am not so sure, as your top recommendation is a TI-84, so maybe the Nspire with touchpad might be the best choice?

The TI-Nspire with touchpad comes with a free (after email registration) TI-84 keypad, and costs the same as a TI-84 ($120 on Amazon for either one)

http://education.ti.com/educationportal/sites/US/productDetail/us_nspire.html?subid=1&topid=347


Yet I still like the Casio...

I might end up getting the Casio for now, and a CAS enabled calculator when she enters 12 grade, as CAS is allowed on SAT and AP (on the other hand, just the fact that CAS is allowed, does not mean that a CAS calculator is actually going to be useful in the SAT/AP tests...)

Thank you so much for this article.

-avi
Avi, welcome to Cemetech! My top recommendation is the TI-84+ only because many teachers are familiar with it. The Casio Prizm is a very powerful calculator, far moreso than the TI-84+ series despite it's lower price. Keep in mind that if you get a TI-Nspire CX, you cannot use the TI-84+ keypad; only the older non-color TI-Nspire calculators (like the one you linked) can use the keypad. If your debate is between the Prizm and the grayscale Nspire, I would absolutely steer you towards the Prizm. Hope this helps, and feel free to ask us any follow-up questions.
It does help, thank you so much.

I sent an email message to the teacher asking her if she can support the Prizm in her class, or if she is only able to support students with the TI-84.

in case she will not support/allow the prizm, I have one last question, which one of these would you recommend:

the TI-84 Plus Silver Edition?

or the Nspire w/touchpad with the TI-84 keypad?


thanks again,

-avi
Well, I should preface my answer by saying that I'm somewhat biased against TI's stance with the Nspire, even though they have relented somewhat in recent months. This article explains my position on the Nspire more fully. I would tend to advise you to get the TI-84 Plus Silver Edition, as I don't find the Nspire's pedagogical features to be outstanding, but the fact remains that if you are able to get the touchpad with the TI-84+ keypad, you're essentially getting two calculators. Feature-wise, there's not too much the real TI-84+SE can do that the emulated one cannot (and the things it can't do are too technical to bear mentioning), so you can't lose much by getting the Nspire over the TI-84+, as much as it pains me to say so. Oh, and if you want to nudge your daughter in the career direction you followed, perhaps my book hitting stores in two weeks or so might be relevant? Wink
KermMartian wrote:
Oh, and if you want to nudge your daughter in the career direction you followed, perhaps my book hitting stores in two weeks or so might be relevant? ;)


Not a chance... so far she expressed no interest at all what so ever in programming. I tried to introduce her to several programming environments for kids (scratch, alice, squeak). she will probably never look at programming because it is my profession : -(

on the other hand, she has absolutely no free time, she is swamped with homework (she considers anything less than an A+ an absolute failure), and barely have time to practice the piano. so there might still be hope...


-avi
Sorry to hear it; we need more STEM/CS students in this country. Good luck with the remainder of your calculator search; feel free to let us know how it goes.
I like the guide, it's detailed and has arguments for and against, but unfortunately, I have no real choice in the matter.

My school requires me(or my parents) to buy a nspire CAS(can be non-CX, though), so I'm going to have to get one. However, a question: Wouldn't it be viable to save money by buying a non-cas and using OSlauncher?
I suppose so, but is the OSlauncher still available? I worry that that might not be a tenable long-term course of action, depending on whether current OSes are still susceptible. Not to mention, is there anything illegal about that?
OSlauncher is probably considered illegal by TI because you don't need to buy the more expensive CAS version. Other than that, it's possible that teachers might not agree with this solution (teachers can be so weird :p)
aeTIos wrote:
OSlauncher is probably considered illegal by TI because you don't need to buy the more expensive CAS version. Other than that, it's possible that teachers might not agree with this solution (teachers can be so weird :p)
Teachers just have different priorities than students and programmers, and as you know, TI is heavily favoring the teacher point of view these days.

merthsoft wrote:
This actually came up a couple weeks ago, and I thought the same thing. It turns out the TI-89 is not allowed on the ACT. I think this is a recent change? At least it was allowed back in '05/'06.
Thanks for pointing out that I missed this the first time around, Merthsoft. Smile I think it's a recent change too, although I'm having difficulty finding any proof on the internet. I can think of no good reason it would be banned; I didn't think the CAS would help for any ACT or SAT questions (hence why it's allowed on the SAT).
The oldest revision of the Wikipedia article on the TI-89 that mentions standardized tests says that it was not allowed on the ACT or SAT. Apparently it was an error and was fixed soon enough.

So it seems to have been banned from the beginning.

And here's something interesting from the ACT calculator page:
Quote:
Using the TI-89 is the most common reason students are dismissed from the ACT for prohibited calculator use.
Fascinating stuff; I guess I have long been misinformed, then. Smile Living in the Northeast, where the SAT is the norm rather than the ACT, I've never really had a chance to test my (mistaken) belief on that subject. That stance seems quite shortsighted to me, I must say.
aeTIos wrote:
OSlauncher is probably considered illegal by TI because you don't need to buy the more expensive CAS version. Other than that, it's possible that teachers might not agree with this solution (teachers can be so weird :p)
From the little that I've seen about it, they've always mentioned a 95% failure rate at launching the CAS OS, although I did see another article where it mentioned putting particular files in particular locations "improved" the success rate although they failed to quantify that.

...and since AFAICT it needs ndless, and OS3.2 blocks ndless it's a GAMBLE about whether you're getting a calc shipping with 3.2 or you get lucky and it's 3.1 or less...

I was all set to try out a TI calc until I happened across ndless being SPECIFICALLY blocked by TI in their OS3.2 release.

I'm not a student, so I don't care about tests, standardized or not and all the other rot. I'm just interested in a TOOL for q&d cas & graphing when necessary, and so TI just pushed me to ordering a HP-50G(which I would've ordered anyways as it's the best calc lineup ever, and best cas so far -- little slower but that because it's done algorithmically rather than by simplistic table lookups which often fail on TIs or so I have heard(TI89 era/Derive IIRC -- I had heard the cx used a different and maybe more intelligent cas as in hoping for table lookup -> fail -> algorithm).

BTW price diff btwn cx cas and plain cx is $10. When you're already talking $150(cas) v. $140(plain) do you really need to save the $10. (I think that these calcs are all grossly overpriced anyways, HP-50G is c. $95 from amazon, and I got a chuckle seeing the paleolithic ti-84+ at something like $100(wonder where they're sourcing the z80s nowadays, or maybe they're emulating them on an ARM9 which would just kill me.)

[EDIT]
I'm pretty sure that the HP-49/+/50g are all banned on SAT/ACT as well... not sure about Europe, etc. but a post that I'd seen by a french user on an hp forum implies that they're usable on French tests at least...

I suspect that the 38GII(a neutered 49g+, less RAM/no SD) is probably also banned.
[/EDIT]
Cutterjohn, I love what you're saying in the middle of that post, as I continue to be intrigued by the market of professionals, engineers, and college students who want a powerful, full-function graphing calculator, might want to use it for other things like data logging and programming, and don't care about standardized tests they've already completed. I continue to believe that a rather nifty prototype of mine and I have a bright future once I finish my PhD.

You just about hit the nail on the head about the z80, but missed slightly. The latest TI-84+/84+SE calculators have the z80, TI's bus ASIC, and the calculator's RAM integrated into a single TI-made ASIC. It's emulation in hardware rather than software, but it is indeed a monolithic SoC-type package, joined only by an external Flash chip. It's been quite a few years since the TI-84 Plus series calculators had discrete processors or RAM, although a few of the oldest ones in my collection do indeed have all four discrete chips.
  
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