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Back to School 2018: The Best Graphing Calculator to Buy?
Published by Alex on July 9, 2018 at 9:29:15 PM CST | Discuss this article (6)



For the eighth year in a row, Cemetech is excited to bring you a Back to School guide, helping you figure out the best graphing calculator to get for school and how to use it. In both 2011 and 2012, we published trios of guides, showing you which calculator to buy, how to get programs and games onto your calculator, and how to learn to program your calculator. In 2013 through 2017, we held your hand through the process with Which Graphing Calculator Should I Buy?. This year, we once again present a guide helping you select from the baffling array of graphing calculators now available to high school and college students. We'll help you figure out which calculator is right for primary school, high school, or college students, whether you're buying for yourself, your child, or researching for your students.

The landscape of available graphing calculators in 2018 is largely the same as in the prior years, but we updated our democratic vote from 2015 with a new democratic vote for 2018, tempered with our two decades of graphing calculator experience. In that poll, we asked our members to vote on the best calculators in three categories: (1) High School Math and Science; (2) CAS (College); (3) Programming. As you'll see in the discussion below, the TI-84 Plus CE released in 2015 (which as since been updated in a palette of colors including gold, white, gray, mint, coral, and blue) was a very popular contender. The TI-Nspire CX CAS and HP Prime also earned high marks. All three of these calculators are accepted on standardized tests like the SAT, and of these three, only the TI-84 Plus CE is allowed on the ACT. We stopped recommending the TI-84 Plus C Silver Edition and TI-84 Plus Silver Edition in 2015, as both of which have been effectively made obsolete by the TI-84+CE (although each is a great calculator by itself). While the TI-Nspire CX is a fairly popular high school math and science calculator, we feel that the TI-84 Plus CE is a better, easier-to-use choice, and the general student, teacher, and programmer consensus appears to overwhelmingly agree.


:: Math and Science: The TI-84 Plus CE remains TI's latest entry to the 19-year-old TI-83 Plus/TI-84 Plus line, offering a bright color screen and a rechargeable battery. Introduced early in 2015, the interface is nearly identical to the TI-84 Plus C Silver Edition released two years earlier in 2013, but the processor is faster, the RAM is larger, and the case is slimmer and lighter. The interface is also very similar to the TI-84 Plus Silver Edition, but with a higher-resolution color screen that can fit more math and higher detailed graphs. The color screen makes it easier to graph and explore multiple functions, and it introduces a few new statistics features (as detailed in Chapter 12 of "Using the TI-84 Plus"). Its greatest strengths lie in how it reinforces already-proven TI-83 Plus/TI-84 Plus features, but its underlying CPU and memory do improve significantly on the older calculators, giving programmers more flexibility to create powerful programs and games. Cemetech and community leader ticalc.org's download statistics indicate that most students buying new calculators have welcomed the TI-84 Plus CE with open arms, and we recommend that you do too. The TI-84+CE has a 48MHz ez80 processor, 154KB of user-accessible RAM, 3.0MB of user-accessible Flash memory, a 10-hour rechargeable battery, and an MSRP of $129 (plus, it comes in 8 fun colors). To recap, the TI-84+CE is the quintessential calculator for high school (and some college) math and science, updated with better specs, a high-resolution color screen, a slim, light case in fun colors, and a rechargeable battery.

Learn to use your TI-84 Plus CE with Using the TI-84 Plus, from math and graphing to statistics and programming. Learn to program your calculator with Programming the TI-83 Plus/TI-84 Plus.



:: College (CAS): The TI-Nspire CX CAS has a color screen equal in size to that of the TI-84 Plus CE, a mouse-based interface, and support for Lua programs. 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 are 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 TI-Nspire CX is $150 or $130, for the CAS or non-CAS models respectively. If you have an iPad, consider the TI-Nspire Apps for iPad, an App version of this calculator. The TI-Nspire CX CAS is physically identical to the non-CAS model, but allows students to perform symbolic computations, great for calculus, physics, and other advanced courses. With the CAS, you can integrate, differentiate, and simplify symbolic expressions. The TI-Nspire CX CAS has a Document-based interface, like its non-CAS sibling, and is generally available for about $10 to $20 more. Both the TI-Nspire CX and the TI-Nspire CX CAS are allowed on the SAT, while the non-CAS model is permitted on the ACT, but some teachers will not allow a CAS calculator to be used on school exams. To summarize, the TI-Nspire CX CAS is a computer-like color-screen calculator with a symbolic CAS. Good for some high school students and for college students, especially STEM majors.

The HP Prime is also a very powerful CAS calculator, albeit with a few growing pains like a smaller support community. It offers a multitouch screen, a very powerful arbitrary graphing features, and CAS features similar to those on the TI-Nspire CX CAS. When it was first released, the Prime's OS was buggy, but has been substantially improved in the interim, and with a beautiful design, powerful hardware, and an extremely fast BASIC programming language, the HP Prime promises to continue to improve into a great tool for college students and professional engineers. Given the traction that the HP Prime has gained in our community, we were surprised that our members voted the TI-Nspire CX CAS as the superior calculator for engineering and college. In short, the HP Prime is a sleek, powerful, and improving touch-screen calculator with a symbolic CAS that makes it a great choice for college students, especially STEM majors, and for professionals.


:: Programming: For the fourth year in a row, we are recommending the TI-84 Plus CE for programming as well as for high school math and science. In the past, we have recommended the Casio Prizm as our top pick for programming: it offers a BASIC language and can be programmed in C. However, C, ez80 ASM, and TI-BASIC are all now possible on the TI-84 Plus CE, with its 48MHz ez80 processor and 154KB of RAM. While we can't create Apps on the TI-84 Plus CE, the available C SDK/toolchain in its many forms, including online in the SourceCoder 3 IDE, has grown rapidly. In 2015, the tools for TI-84 Plus CE were less complete than the tools for the Casio Prizm, but C programming for the TI-84 Plus CE continues to be very popular, and the TI-84 Plus CE C programming toolchain is now mature.

The Final Verdict:
If you need a new calculator, here's what you should consider:
  • If you (or your child) are a middle or high school student, your teachers may recommend a TI-84 Plus CE or a TI-Nspire CX, in which case you should follow their advice. For high school students getting a new calculator, the TI-84 Plus CE is our favorite choice.
  • If you're looking to take college classes in higher math, science, or engineering, the TI-Nspire CX CAS or the HP Prime are the calculator for you.
  • If you're a programmer, or you want to encourage your student to be a programmer, the TI-84 Plus CE is the best option. It allow BASIC, ez80 ASM, ICE, and C programming. The HP Prime also has a very fast BASIC language, and the Casio Prizm (fx-CG20 and fx-CG50) was the original C-programmable calculator.
Good luck with the hectic rush that is Back to School, and I hope this guide helped make at least one decision easier. If you need help picking a calculator, getting games and educational programs for your calculator and onto the device, or you want to learn to program, just stop by Cemetech and chat with us. We're always happy to help.

Notes about the ACT:
Remember, all models mentioned herein are accepted on the SAT, and most on the ACT, so there are no winners or losers on that count. Don't forget to double-check the SAT calculator policu or the ACT calculator policy to ensure your calculator is permitted! In particular, note that the TI-Nspire CX CAS is not allowed while the non-CAS version is acceptable.

Finally, if you prefer this information in visual form with some calming narration, here's our Back to School Graphing Calculator Guide as a video, with everything you need to know to select your first (or next) graphing calculator:



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