Best Graphing Calculator

By Xah Lee. Date: . Last updated: .

(article originally written is 2011. calculator models updated to 2020.)

Am a fan of calculators. My fond memory is HP-28S that i bought in 1991 for some $250, and wrote my first program to solve the 8-queens problem without knowing anything about programing.

HP-28s 12020038
HP-28S Advanced Scientific Calculator

I also wrote a large program to play any musical chords and scales. See: HP-28S Advanced Scientific Calculator .

But that calculator is basically my last one as well. Mathematica and computer took over. Since the HP-28, the next generation the HP-48 came along, but i never got into it (and am out of college as well). However, now and then i look at the calculator scene as a arm-chair philosopher. Checking their current capabilities, their design, placement of buttons, symbols on the keys, user interface, and muse over the issues of tech advance, education, futurism.

casio fx 85wa calculator-s
Casio fx-85wa. image source The only calc i currently own, but basically never use.

What Would Euler, Gauss, Think?

Been always fascinated by calculators. You know how in scientific calculators there's these buttons {sin, cos, log}? Seeing them, around age 11, my thought was that they are very advanced things, that to know what they are would mean something like a rocket scientist.

While in college, i have this fantasy of bringing a basic scientific calculator and show it to Euler, Gauss, them 1700s guys. I would tell them, “Look at this! you see this sin log buttons?” and they would go “huh? what?!?”. Then i would proceed to explain the magic on my hand.

Latest and Greatest

Today i took a hour to gander at today's calculator scene. Here's some summary.

The HP calculators, once was the love of true tech geeks since 1970s, but in the past 10 years they have degraded so badly to universal bad reviews. The latest series is HP-49 series, but not worth your money. Lousy buttons, lousy features, slow, lousy look.

HP-50g calculator 2014-08-07
HP-50g calculator. Year 2004. Buy at amazon (photo by [Nathan Campos])


The TI calculators, made inroads starting in early 1990s, and just gets better and better. Today, if you in college, your best buy is a TI calculator. The current bleeding edge model is TI-Nspire series.

TI-Nspire CX II CAS Calculator 9NtYs
Texas Instruments TI-Nspire CX II CAS Color Graphing Calculator with Student Software (PC/Mac). year 2019. Buy at amazon
TI-nspire calc 5wHzp
Texas Instruments TI-Nspire Handheld with Touchpad Graphing Calculator. year 2004. Buy at amazon


What about Casio? They are the best. The latest model, is a touch-screen based Casio ClassPad 300. According to some reviewers at amazon who owns all the HP and TI ones, they say this is the best, beats TI-Nspire. I tend to believe it.

Casio fx-CG500 calculator 42nWp
Casio Touchscreen with Stylus Graphing Calculator, 4.8 inch touch screen. (fx-CG500) year 2017. Buy at amazon
Casio ClassPad 300
Casio ClassPad 300, year 2004. Buy at amazon image source

Wait, I Want My sin Button Back!

Where did the sin button go?

I want lots physical buttons with weird symbols on them. Physical buttons give me a sense of math, the esoterism, and offers fast direct access than screen menus. You know? kinda like old fashioned rocket scientist who prefer intricacies of mechanical devices than digital stuff that you can't see and touch (how ironic).

HP Prime Graphing Calculator

HP Prime graphing calculator 2013
HP Prime graphing calculator, year? (photo by [Jonathan Cameron])

Current version is, HP Prime graphing calculator II, model 2AP18AA#ABA, year 2019. Buy at amazon

Is Calculator Going the Ways of Dinosaur?

Calculators are going the ways of the dinosaur. These days, iPhone stuff are all just unified hand-held little computers. It can play video, music, take photo, as telephone, connects to the internet, GPS, and thousands of applications. Who needs a single-purpose gadget to carry around?

If you look at the classroom situation, calculators are good. Because, it's easier for students to learn and teachers to teach of a single-purpose device. And there are even lots of textbooks written for calculators.

But if you look at calculators as a tool in general, it's probably heading towards the grave. A roughly same sized and same priced smart phone, can run math applications that makes it more powerful than dedicated calculators, then it can do hundred other things. In the same way, computers replaced dedicated word processors in the 1980s.

If you let students use mobile phone in classroom instead of calculators, it becomes a problem because: ① How do you know students are not playing games or chatting to friends on it? ② How do you know they are not running cheat-sheets during exams? ③ How do you teach them to solve a equation with calculator when everyone is running a different application?

Calculators are good basically just in classrooms, or for engineers on the field. Though, i wonder how many more years they'll last.

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